Whaleboats in the Forest: Subaltern Technologies of Transportation on Congo’s Inland Waterways
Congo’s wooden baleinières (Fr. whaleboats) are locally developed and crafted socio-technical assemblages that account for up to 50% of all transportation of goods and people on the waterways of the Congo Basin. Despite the vital role of these subaltern technologies of transportation for the livelihoods of millions, the socio-technical complexities responsible for their success have never been studied. Rooted in older boat building traditions from Ijwi (lake Kivu) and Nioki (on the Mfimi River), and powered by fossil-fuelled Chinese two-stroke Diesel engines, baleinières combine local traditions of craftsmanship with transnational South-South technology translation “from below”.
The research aims 1. to trace the baleinières’ chaîne opératoire of materials and skills in time and space, from the cutting of trees and the recycling of materials (tar, corrugated aluminium sheets, etc.), to the repairing and maintenance of the Chang Fa Diesel propulsion system; 2. to investigate the material and spiritual lives and ontologies of fossil-fuelled internal combustion engines (ICEs) in the realm of African river transportation, which have been crucially overlooked by anthropologists so far.
The research combines the qualitative method of ethnographic field work (participant observation, interviews) with the theoretical insights of the social study of technology/STS, ethno-archaeology and recent thinking about the Anthropocene. It speaks directly to the Horizon 2020 Work Programme’s international cooperation initiative for Africa (“food, nutrition security and agriculture, renewable energies”) and the Programme’s interest in “circular economies”. Its results will be disseminated in scientific articles, radio features, and an exhibition to be hosted by museums and cultural centres in Kisangani, Kinshasa and different places in Europe, and by an accompanying publication of a monograph.