Erecting a prefabricated structure might sound easy—after all, it’s prefabricated. But it’s not easy when the unassembled 15-ton house parts must first be loaded on narrow pirogues (dugout canoes) and hauled along a series of rivers for four days in the remote rainforests of the Democratic Republic of Congo. That’s what staff of the Bonobo & Congo Biodiversity Initiative (BCBI) recently did. BCBI is the Zoological Society of Milwaukee’s (ZSM’s) premier conservation program. When they finally arrived at their destination—the Etate research and patrol station, located deep inside the Salonga National Park—the house had to be assembled. Although Etate has many structures, they’re built from biodegradable materials—wood, palm fronds and thatch—and therefore must be constantly refurbished or rebuilt. The prefabricated house will last for many years to come. It’s also raised off the ground, which is important in a rainforest where flooding is common. Dr. Gay Reinartz, the conservation coordinator for BCBI, provides a first-person account of how this difficult task was accomplished.
“Adaptive Management”—it’s a term used in conservation these days to describe the fluid nature of the work: reacting to changing environmental and social conditions, reordering priorities and preparing for unforeseen circumstances. For us, the term means: What can go wrong will go wrong. Get used to it. There is no clearer example than moving a house to Etate.
The barge carrying walls, rafters and floors from Kinshasa to Mbandaka was already 10 days late. Not one of the builders could tell us when the barge would arrive—it was putt-putting its way somewhere along the 700 kilometer (435 mile) stretch of the Congo River.
Only 10 days after arriving, Patrick Guislain, field projects coordinator for BCBI, and I left Etate in order to meet the shipment in Mbandaka. We left most of our team behind and took a small pirogue, reaching Mbandaka in a record 24 hours -- only to wait. In the meantime, we had developed a fairly detailed plan for how to deal with the house, but to set this plan in motion we had to find someone to help us build the house once we got it to Etate. Originally we had an agreement with a partner organization, RAPAC (Central African Protected Areas Network), whereby the ZSM would buy one of four prefabricated houses and RAPAC engineers would put it together for us on-site. However, RAPAC suspended all building activities in the park – just when our house was ready to ship. So, we were left on our own to figure out how to ship the house to Etate and how to build it afterwards. Who would even consider taking on such a debacle on short notice – to put together a house that was somewhere on a boat—without a floor plan—and then plop it in the middle of the jungle? Who even knew if all the screws and pieces had been included in the shipment? All we had was the name of a builder in Mbandaka, Mr. Jean Mbangi, an enterprising man with very little time to spare. He was our only chance.
Thinking it best to meet Jean in person (to break the news slowly so he had less opportunity to say NO!), we timidly made a surprise visit. We found him at home. We looked field-worn, dusty and hot after the walk to his house. He kindly offered us a seat and water. Looking slightly amused, he listened patiently to our story which I relayed in broken French. “Mr. Mbangi, we have this prefabricated house, you see, and it is currently on a barge to Mbandaka,” I explained. “As soon as it arrives, we need to get it 600 kilometers [373 miles] upriver to a patrol post in the Salonga National Park. Then we need to put it together. Other than a hammer and a Leatherman, we have no tools. I should add that we have less than three weeks to do this.” I choked out the finale: “Would you be interested in taking on the job?” To our utter amazement, he said yes. Jean is a man who has enterprises in rice plantations, furniture making, shipping, pig husbandry, water filtration and distribution, and construction. According to him, this project was worthy and would prove to be interesting.
For the next two days, we set about finding three large pirogues large enough to carry an estimated 15 tons of house parts. In the boiling heat of the day, Patrick and I visited the ports of Mbandaka – filthy, crowded backwater places visited and shat-in by countless commerçants selling their wares. We stepped out onto the floating pirogue “parking lot” by boarding a series of smaller pirogues and then paddling in one out into the meandering marshlands where the large pirogues were parked. We measured and inspected different pirogues that, at the right price, might be available for rent. One thing we have learned over the years is how to recognize a good pirogue. By the end of the day, we had found them, each around 50 to 55 feet long, 4 to 5 feet wide, and in relatively good shape. The next step was to join them together and build a large platform across the pirogues that could carry the walls and rafters. That evening Patrick and I drew up a plan to present to Jean for how to assemble a platform that we knew would work best for pirogues. Jean admitted that he had no experience working with pirogues.
No two pirogues are the same size or shape; even the same pirogue might have different sized walls. The trick was to lash together three pirogues, each separated by 30 centimeters to allow water to flow between them, and to spread the weight of the house evenly over the platform. This meant the pirogue walls eventually had to be at the same level so that the platform could lie flat and that no single wall carried a disproportionate amount of weight, or it would crack. For the same reason, the platform could not be nailed into the pirogues or we would risk breaking the pirogue if the weight shifted. The flotilla had to be sturdy but flexible. To get all the pirogue walls close to the same level, we distributed 15 barrels of fuel, enough to slightly sink the largest pirogue and equalize the board space (the height of the walls from the surface of the water). Over the next two days, our team made pallets that conformed to the outline of each pirogue wall, and these fit over the pirogues, functioning as separators and keeping each pirogue in line. Finally four large beams, bound with rope to each pirogue, spanned the entire girth of the assembly tying it together. The convoy was solid. Late that afternoon, as the final pallet went on, we spotted the barge coming upriver towards us – a massive fleet that stretched 150 yards or more. Perfect timing!
I hopped on a motorbike with Mira, our logistician since 2004, and we drove to the Mbandaka port to meet the barge and check on the house. I had to find the officer in charge who was supposedly somewhere on the barge. The barge was tied to the gigantic dock. It was a tangle of ropes, cables, and steel. There was just enough space between the barge and the dock for a man to fall in between. In order to board the barge, we had to climb down on ropes that hung from the edge and jump across that dreadful gap and drop down five feet or more. No way. Next, a couple of guys motioned for us to jump down on some mattresses (obviously someone’s poorly respected merchandise); so with their help I hurled myself over the edge and landed on 3 feet of foam rubber.
The river barges in Africa are famous curiosity sights: Draped with ragged tarps that shield masses of people from the scorching sun on deck, they carry every form of cargo -- from heat-stroked goats to wandering pigs, trailer trucks, John Deer tractors, and newborn babies. In this case, our house was surrounded by families crouched in its shadows, women cooking on charcoal fires and men arranging places to sleep for the night. Going up and down makeshift aisles, I found the head man; he was eating his supper and did not take too kindly to an interruption. I asked when we could receive our cargo. Not until Monday, Madame, day after tomorrow, and you must have this paper and that authorization, he said. We had neither. These were where, with RAPAC or with the builders? Then there would be port taxes to pay. (I should have seen that one coming.) As Mira and I left and headed back toward the pile of mattresses to make our ascent, I spotted the lopsided, haphazard stack of the metal-framed walls of our house. Despite their sturdiness, two were badly bent. My heart sank. Construction depended on each preformed piece fitting exactly. Already we had a problem.
On Monday, Jean Mbangi “arranged” for us to receive our shipping papers (in the traditional Congo-style negotiations) and claim our cargo. Once we had access, we immediately realized that one wall was missing – they had forgotten to build it. Fortunately, it was an inside wall. In Congo, it is practically impossible to hold companies accountable. It might take as long as another six months, a year, or never to receive the missing wall. We would have to improvise in the field. Missing and bent walls were only the beginning.
Our next hurdle was to unload the house piece by piece and cart it to Jean Mbangi’s port where we had parked our convoy. The dimensions and weight of the walls and the rafters required a flatbed truck – an extreme rarity in Mbandaka. As luck would have it, Jean found a guy with a massive flatbed trailer and an old tractor. We leapt at the chance to rent it for the day. Once the tractor and trailer were in place on the dock, the process of moving each wall began. Tropical wood is extremely dense and heavy. The planks of the prefabricated walls were at least 3 inches thick, and they were encased in a metal frame. It took 14 men to move and carry one wall at a time. They had to climb up on this impossible stack and coordinate every movement in order to lift a wall and move it only a few feet at a time, negotiating the edge of the barge, the edge of the dock, the dangerous gap between the two and finally the high flatbed trailer. A miscalculation could break a finger, hand, or worse. For the most part, they dragged each piece, and as they did, locks on the doors and windows flew off; metal gouged and scraped the fine paneling. Patrick discovered that the walls were not put together according to our specification and many detailed reminders: walls that should have had windows instead had doors! Doors and windows opened the wrong way. The unloading took all day. Jean drove us home in the dark.
Early the following morning, we reversed the process, and with the help of another team of 14 men, loaded the panels onto our pirogue barge. Piece by piece, the team made three stacks across the platform fitting pieces into place like a giant jigsaw puzzle, carefully judging the weight and the degree to which the pirogues descended into the water. Could we carry the whole cargo? How would this mass of tethered pirogues maneuver out in the open water running against a current? More than once, we doubted. At last the final rafter came on board. We had plenty of board space, at least a foot around. No major leaks. The walls held. A heartwarming cheer went up, and for the first time since leaving Etate, we allowed ourselves to believe that it might just work.
We sailed out of Mbandaka at 10:30 a.m. the next morning running at an average speed of 6.7 kilometers per hour (4.2 miles per hour). Slow, but steady. We were 10 people on board: Jean brought four members of his work crew, and our team, two pilots, Redo and Mbos, with Patrick, Mira and me, accounted for the rest. In front of the platform, there was a vacant space in the bow of the pirogues. Here we made sleeping quarters and covered that section with a tarp to shield us from the eventual storms that would periodically pound us along the way. For provisions, we brought a picnic of rice and beans, dried soup, sardines, and cases of corned beef, oranges, bananas, avocados, loaves of bread, freshly made peanut paste mixed with honey, and loads of chiquangue, a dish made from manioc paste. Jean Mbangi brought four giant carboys of purified water. We placed our chairs in the open air on top of the cargo in order to catch the wind. We had ourselves a regular luxury liner!
Along the route, people came out to see us – they wondered who we were, what we were doing. Something big must be happening. Day after day (four of them to be exact), we tugged along through rain and shine. The days were hot and sun pounded the deck. There was no escape since the tarp-covered rooms below deck were even hotter. The first night it was too dark to see the river, and Redo asked if we could pull over for a while. The pilots were a bit spooked since they had never navigated such a clumsy load. Heat lightning made it impossible for them to see. On the third night, Redo fell asleep at the oar, and we landed in some tree branches -- no damage done. Again we pulled over for a few hours. Otherwise, the only stop we made before reaching the park was once to heat water to refill our thermoses for coffee and evening soup. Around 9 p.m. on the fourth day, May 3, we landed in Etate. As we approached camp, the guards and research crew were waiting quietly, expectantly on the dark shore. Beams of their flashlights swept over us, somewhat like a blind man feeling the form of a face. Gradually they “saw” the enormous convoy and let out a spontaneous, collective gasp. A cheer went up, “Delta Force One! Delta Force One!” I gave Patrick a high-five. A 10-year wait had come to an end. Despite its bruises and gouged sides, busted locks and missing walls, Etate had a house. Adaptive Management.
BCBI is a partner with the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) on the Central Africa Forest Ecosystems Conservation (CAFEC) of the Central Africa Regional Program for the Environment (CARPE), Phase III, which is funded by USAID (the U.S. Agency for International Development).