A Strong Woman and her Matropopo

our FZS-TL2 dugout on the Lomami
Our dugouts on the Lomami River are big (compare with fisherman’s dugout alongside), but not big enough to provide three months’ supplies at a time to the riverine base camps.

The efficient, economical answer to supply problems,  “MATROPOPO”,  showed up on John’s budget request for the northern park.  Whatever it was, it cost thousands of dollars.  How are we to explain Matropopo to the finance department in Frankfurt, Germany?

Part of John’s budget summary section

John was in the forest camp of Katopa about to start the descent of the Lomami River.  I asked him by satellite SMS: “What is Matropopo?  How do I explain it? Is it French? Is it Lingala?  Is it Swahili?”

He answered in the 160 characters – spaces included – allotted an InReach message:

 “About matropopo: Logistics breakthrough. Not Swahili, not Lingala. Onomatopoeia. It refers to sound of big diesel motor:  po-po-po. Ignition makes: Maattrrrooo.”

OK ,I get it. A sort of 3rd grade lingua-franca:   Matrrrrooo— Matrrrroooo – po-po-po-po-po. So, what do I tell Frankfurt?

In order to be able to translate for the financial department I did my own “Internal Audit” when I met John in Kisangani: “The real breakthrough,” John said, “is not the matropopo – but its owner.”

John and Lucy in stern_at port
John with Lucie in the stern of her Matropopo.  The “outhouse” is the orange and the diesel motor is at the rear of the central dugout.

He is very proud of his discovery of Madame Lucie Mosopa.  She oversees the loading of her Matropopo, a combination of three outsize dugouts lashed together, and accompanies it from the port of Kisangani on the Congo River to the Port of Opala on the Lomami River and from the port of Opala to our port at Bangaliwa, the most northern of the Lomami National Park base camps.  It takes her 6 days.

following Lucie on board
Lucie gives me a tour.  I take note that a backlit “outhouse” might not be real private.

She maximizes travel speed by omitting all unnecessary stops e.g. the Outhouse is off the stern.

basic river outhouse_out over the river
This is an inside view of the outhouse.  Basics: a hole to the river.

On the trip, she only pulls into shore to pass the nights.   It takes four days to get from Kisangani to Opala and two, upstream, from Opala to Bangaliwa.

When we asked her how much fuel was needed, she did not hesitate or consult a log book;  she knew.  “We used 7 barrels one way from Kis to Bangaliwa.” That is the equivalent of 1400 liters or $1,750.00 by current Kisangani prices.

What is her crew ?  Five:  one captain, one mechanic and three sailors.  I assumed they were somehow family as that is the way it is usually done in Congo. But no. These were the most reliable people that she could find in the ports.  And she is always with the same crew.

FZS-TL2 staff ready to board the matropopo
Three FZS-TL2 staff arrive to take place as passengers on the matropopo.

And how did she start in the matropopo business?

She started like all the hundreds of “mama commerçantes”:  using a commercial riverboat she bought goods in Kisangani, where they are cheap, to take them where she could sell them at enough of a markup to make a profit:  Isangi, Opala, Basoko, Lokutu. Then brought back agricultural goods to sell in Kisangani.   But she realized that she lost money waiting for the riverboat in which she rented space.  It would take, two, three, or more days for it to accumulate enough of a load to be profitable for the owner to pull anchor. 

looking over stores
The matropopo load includes beans, medical supplies, fuel, motor oil, cooking oil, sugar, salt, tomato paste, soap, onions, garlic…..

 She set about little by little to save enough to buy a diesel motor and her own large dugout.  Now she has three dugouts that she lashes together to make the Matropopo.

Koko oversaw purchase and loading, now departure
Koko, who oversaw purchases and then loading with Lucie, sees off the matropopo.  John bought lifejackets for our staff and Lucie’s crew (although not all wanted them).

Madame Lucie has a husband working in agricultural outreach and two children: 11 and 7 years old.

down Congo to mouth of Lomami
Heading downstream on the Congo to the mouth of the Lomami, then upstream to Opala. Madame Lucie is standing in the lifejacket.

My conclusion: it takes a strong woman to own and operate a matropopo.


  1. suuziRaymond
    Posted 2021-04-12 at 10:14 am | Permalink

    Great post.So good to have some positive news.

  2. Daniel Alempijevic
    Posted 2021-04-16 at 4:37 pm | Permalink

    I had a good laugh envisioning you coming across matropopo on the budget request. Thanks for sharing

  3. John P. Sullivan
    Posted 2021-07-15 at 7:00 pm | Permalink

    Entrepreneurship is alive and well on the Congo River. What a great story and instructive re what it costs to move goods and people there! Some kind of bush plane would be yet more expensive, I take it?

Post a Comment

Your email is never published nor shared. Required fields are marked *