Nearly 500 years ago, the Portuguese explorer Diogo Cam discovered the Congo River. He gave it the name Ponderoso, which means "the mighty." It is a fitting name for this great river. Its 2,900 miles drain a one and a half million square mile basin and, with tributaries, form a 7,800-mile network of navigable waterways that serve as central Africa's chief artery of communication and transportation.
Downstream, at Brazzaville, unfortunately, that artery is abruptly blocked. At Livingstone Falls, where it cuts its way through the Crystal Mountains, the great river suddenly plunges downward in a series of 32 unnavigable cataracts. In just over 200 miles it drops some 900 feet to sea level and narrows - from its 18-mile width at Stanley Pool - to as little as 1,650 feet. As a route to the sea, therefore, the Congo was useless to Africa.
In 1921, however, France, which then dominated the region, was eager to export Chad's cotton, Gabon's manganese and timber from Cameroon and the Central African Republic - then under different names part of French Equatorial Africa. To achieve this, French engineers launched construction of a railroad between Brazzaville and Pointe-Noire on the Atlantic coast: the Congo-Ocean Railroad.
Begun in 1924 and completed in 1934, the 320-mile, single-track Congo-Ocean Railroad, which traverses mountainous, jungle-covered terrain and required 92 bridges and 12 tunnels, was a remarkable undertaking. It cost millions of francs and some 15,000 lives. But it soon proved its worth: it became central Africa's main channel for exports and imports. By 1975, for example, the railroad was moving four million tons of freight in and out of the Congo basin, and, because there are no roads between Brazzaville, capital of the Republic of the Congo, and the Atlantic port of Pointe-Noire, it was the sole means of passenger access to, and exit from, the interior.
By the early 1970's, however, the Congo-Ocean Railroad was in trouble. Time and tonnage had taken their toll and the railroad - with freight totals expected to double by 1985 - simply could not cope with the demands. Today freight services are already running at capacity - thus throttling the expansion of exports essential to national economies.
Passenger service is no better. The daily overnight "express," straining to climb steep 25-degree inclines and creeping around sharp curves, takes 12 hours. And although the cars are modern, deteriorating railbeds offer a jolting ride. In some places, the jungle forms a solid green wall only inches from the windows of the swaying train, and the screeching of metal as the express takes tight bends is disconcerting.
Soon, however, thanks to a massive multinational aid project - heavily backed by Arab states - passengers will be able to enjoy a far more comfortable journey between Brazzaville and Pointe-Noire.
More important to the countries of the Congo basin, the Congo-Ocean Railroad will be able to handle an immense increase in exports. As with most of the projects to which Arab countries and their aid agencies commit rnoney, the rebuilding of the Congo-Ocean Railroad is a practical improvement of the country's infrastructure. In initiating the railroad project in 1970, Congolese planners from the Trans-Congolese Communications Agency had to make a key decision concerning the most difficult and dangerous part of the route: across Bamba Mountain, about 75 miles east of Pointe-Noire. Should they renew the existing track, or build a new one? After five years of study they decided to build a new track, on a more southerly route, and assigned the European engineering consortium ASHFO - comprising Astaldi of Italy, Holzmann of West Germany and Fougerolle of France - to build it. And, faced with a $150 million bill for the project, they approached the Arab aid agencies for financing.
Aid was immediately forthcoming: $20 million from the Saudi Fund for Development, $13.5 million from the Kuwait Fund and $10 million from the Arab Bank for Economic Development in Africa - altogether one third of the total cost - with additional funds provided by the World Bank and the European Economic Community. As a result, construction of a new railbed, through the dense rain forests of the Loume Valley and under Mount Bamba, began in September 1976.
Almost immediately, however, there was trouble. Seccessionist guerrillas from nearby Cabinda, an Angolan enclave south of Pointe-Noire, attacked the railroad, killing 12 Congolese laborers, kidnapping three French engineers and dynamiting earthworks and supplies. As a consequence the work stopped for six months, costs rose by $17 million and the Saudi and Kuwait Funds had to increase their aid by nearly $9 million to help meet the additional expenditure.
Still further problems arose in 1978 when the value of the American dollar dropped; as much of the project aid was granted in dollars, construction costs automatically rose as the U.S. currency fell. Again, therefore, Saudi Arabia and Kuwait were called upon to help.
There were problems at the construction site too. In addition to the stifling heat and tropical storms, the 1,400 engineers and workers ran into "bad rock" which reduced progress on the three-mile tunnel beneath Bamba Mountain from the normal 10 yards a day to one.
There was also soil instability to worry about and even landslides, which hampered earthwork construction. On several occasions too the crews stopped work when they sighted gorillas nearby.
Despite such hardships, however, construction - and Arab support - has continued. Since mid-1977, when work resumed, Congolese drivers, gray with dust, have been wheeling their rippers, scrapers, dozers and loaders feverishly back and forth across the valley, cutting a wide, level swath through the lush green forest of towering trees and dangling creepers - while, elsewhere, helmeted demolition teams blasted through a hillside and giant earth diggers gouged huge holes in a dry river bed. There, later, the construction teams will pour in hundreds of tons of concrete to secure the supports of a new bridge.
The results, by late 1978, were gratifying. All the jungle blocking the railroad's path had been cleared, half the 424 million cubic feet of earthwork and terracing was completed, four of the 12 bridges were finished, two of the three tunnels had been dug, and, in the bowels of Bamba Mountain, engineers were attacking the rock with double the normal number of men and extra equipment in a bid to put the tunneling back on time. If they're successful, the new section of track, officials say, will be completed on schedule in 1980.