MAITA, Congo (Reuters) – “Vote on Sunday! Vote on Sunday!” men shout at villagers from aboard a 50-foot wooden canoe as it glides along the vast Congo river, packed high with boxes of voting ballots and red plastic tables and chairs.
Smiling women and children wave and run along the bank as the pirogue arrives at the tiny island of Maita, bringing to villagers there the chance to vote on Sunday in Democratic Republic of Congo’s first free elections in more than 40 years.
The mighty Congo once carried missionaries and colonial traders, like Joseph Conrad’s fictional Mr Kurtz in “Heart of Darkness”, through the brooding jungles.
But now the people who live along its banks hope it will bring them democracy via the ballot box.
“I am happy the voting materials have arrived. That means there will really be elections here,” said Levieux Balibi, 23, as a human chain passed the cargo to Maita’s thatched voting station.
“The elections will bring us happiness. We want them to bring peace and change,” he said, sweating in the midday heat.
The international community has plowed more than $460 million into organizing the polls in a chaotic country the size of Western Europe, with the aim of drawing a line under a 1998-2003 war that killed more than 4 million people.
Some 17,000 U.N. peacekeepers are helping to organize and protect the polls
U.N. planes and helicopters have ferried an estimated 1,800 tons of voting papers to 27 regional centers for the presidential and parliamentary polls. The ballots will be carried by donkey or by porters to the most distant corners of the central African state.
But with perhaps just 600 km (370 miles) of road in the entire nation, the river Congo — whose tributaries snake across the country — is a crucial highway.
“This is the only voting center in a 40 km (25 mile) radius … People will travel all day by river to reach it,” said Jean-Pierre Mumbeka, head of one of two voting stations at Maita, which has a total of 4,200 registered voters.
Mumbeka said his team has not been paid, like many others.
Some unpaid electoral officials had seized the motors used to power their canoes, he said, risking a delay to the deployment to some of the 5,000 centers in the northwest province Equateur.
“By hook or by crook, things will go ahead on Sunday. We have no choice,” said Albert Mayoka, head of the Independent Electoral Commission in Equateur. “We are in the same boat as the United Nations: if the boat goes under they come with us.”
A journey along the slow-moving, tea-colored river is a reminder of Congo’s tragic history since independence from Belgium in 1960.
Colonial riverboats lie rusting amid the rushes, their funnels askance, while tall palm trees crown the ruins of red-brick factories.
The jungle has overrun a presidential palace which remained unfinished when a 1996-1997 war toppled dictator President Mobutu Sese Seko after 32 years of plundering Congo’s mineral riches.
Voting slips carry photographs of candidates beside their party emblems to help the majority of Congolese who cannot read.
On the docks at the river port of Mbandaka, beside the rusting hulks of boats and women selling manioc roots, a young man asks: “This is our first time. Tell us who to vote for?”