Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin - Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences - Institute of Asian and African Studies


Current Research Project

"Whaleboats in the Forest: History and Anthropology of Engines, Materials and Mobility on the Upper Congo River (Democratic Republic of Congo)"

(03/2019 – 08/2020)

Congo’s wooden baleinières (whaleboats) are locally developed, handcrafted socio-technical assemblages that are powered by water-cooled, Chinese diesel engines and account for up to 50% of all movement of goods and people on the DR Congo’s inland waterways. Despite their vital role for the livelihood of millions, the socio-technical entanglements of materials, bodies, skills and infrastructures responsible for their success remain entirely unstudied. The same holds true for all the adjoining post-colonial transformations that have shaken up the world of transportation on and around the Congo basin’s fluvial network (roads, Chinese motorbikes, mobile phones, mobile money, etc.). Baleinières can be seen as mass-crafted subaltern “low-tech” solutions whose existence and success fundamentally question, and indeed resist, the contemporary techno-scientific development paradigm. Rooted in older boat building traditions from Ijwi (lake Kivu) and Nioki (on the Mfimi River), and powered by fossil-fuelled Chinese Chang Fa diesel engines, baleinières combine local traditions of craftsman-ship and navigational skill with transnational South-South technology translation “from below”.


In order to document and understand these boats’ success, the proposed research endeavours

  1. to trace their operational sequence (chaîne opératoire) of materials, bodies, techniques and skills in time and space, including the choice and the ritual cutting of trees, the recycling and transformation of local building materials (wood, tar, corrugated aluminium sheets, palm oil, leaves, etc.) and the repairing and maintenance of the Chinese diesel propulsion system;
  2. The project seeks to explore the material and spiritual lives and ontologies of fossil-fuelled internal combustion engines (ICEs) in the realm of African river transportation, which have hitherto been overlooked by historical and anthropological research.


The research combines oral history, archival research and ethnographic field work (participant observation, interviews, photography, filming) in the DR Congo’s Tshopo province. Theoretically, it is inspired by the social study of technology/STS, ethno-archaeology and recent debates on the anthropocene.