Archive in memory of Jean Jacques Peters, Hydraulic Engineer and Honorary Professor
Back to Tributes

Tribute by Nestor Musambi Ambuy‐A‐Tam, spoken at the memorial service for Jean Jacques Peters, February 12, 2012

J.J., Jacky, Jean‐Jacques, Prof, Mandeifu – those were all the different names we knew Jean-Jacques Peters as. When we met in August 1978 Jacky had been assigned, amongst other things, to train and coach me in the “Méthode des dragages dirigés” as applied to the maritime section of the Congo River, then still called River Zaire. When he was bound to return to Belgium at the end of his mission, Mr. Mandeifu told me that after two weeks of working together he had noticed I held a lot of promise. He confided me he also began as a young engineer at around the same age, and urged me to persevere and stay up-to-date by carefully keeping track of any future hydrographic missions he would be leading.

As an aside – very early on Jacky earned his Congolese nickname Mandeifu which means “the bearded man”. During his research for hard points in the Congo River, Jacky localised one in the so-called “région divagante” of its maritime reach. Still during his lifetime this hard point was named Rocher Mandeifu (Mandeifu Rock) in his honor by the Congolese staff of Régie des Voies Maritimes.

Whenever we discussed data archiving, I always insisted on using statistics to analyse hydrological data. Because Jacky Peters had the reputation for being stubborn and difficult to convince, I was amazed when he agreed with me, acknowledging my point of view on the importance of the statistical approach. He invited me for a drink on the terrace of the Excelsior Hotel in Boma and made me the following promise. During my internship at the hydraulics research laboratory he would take the time to review my statistical applications with Monique Verlinden, his partner who then worked at the Department of Statistics.

During my internship with three colleagues at the hydraulics research laboratory in Antwerp and Châtelet in 1984, J.J. was like a father goose to us. He made sure that we were scientifically fully-grown before we were released. We started with the directed dredging method, “Méthode des dragages dirigés”, then moved on to the method of forecasts of natural development, “Méthode des prévisions des évolutions naturelles”. While presenting this new approach he had developed, Jacky advised that we should always consider the river as a patient and behave accordingly like medical doctors. Just like a doctor takes samples and measurements to diagnose a patient, so should we use a similar approach when diagnosing a river, i.e. measure the flow of liquids and the movement of solid matter, the direction of the flow and the intensity of surface current, the tidal heights and their amplitudes, the depths and so on. To tease him I would add “… and manage their data bank which will be useful for statistical analysis”, and with his typical humour he would agree one should most certainly always manage one’s data bank.

Recently in 2009–2010 Jacky led a mission on behalf of the European Commission (FED 10 project) for the Antwerp Port Consultancy. The mission studied the navigability of the river and lakes of the Democratic Republic of Congo. This was the perfect opportunity for the professor to share various experiences with his former multinational students and trainees by combining the pleasant and the useful. Together we traveled from Kinshasa to Kisangani via Mbandaka, Lisala and Bumba to study the River Congo, from Bukavu to Uvira and Kalemie for the Tanganika lake, and from Ilebo to Kinshasa for the Kasai river. Both the Congolese and the Belgian experts shared unforgettable moments during this scientific marathon. When J.J. was tasked to suggest which kind of technical cooperation should be put in place with a given third world country, he would propose a dozen for each case.

Near the end of 2010 Jacky told me about his illness. I looked at him in silence. This was the first time the leaves of the mighty baobab tree of the Scheldt, the Atlantic Loire and the maritime reach of the river Congo shook. The baobab was preparing to be treated by a cancer specialist. Jacky was very positive and optimistic, yet remained realistic. He reminded me of his age, telling me “death is part of life”. He wanted to live longer, to allow him to continue working on the improvement of the navigational conditions on the Congo River. I was shocked by the ease with which he announced the terrible news to me, but this also hinted at the level of confidence and friendship he had for me. I couldn’t say anything and barely managed to hold back my tears with the greatest effort.

From February to April 2011 DEME (Dredging, Environmental and Marine Engineering NV) was engaged in the deepening of a new channel called Tumbimbi and in various other flats to improve the navigational conditions in the maritime reach of the River Congo. Because Jacky’s health did not allow him to be on site in person, he performed as a consulting engineer for the client from a distance of 8,000 km. During this project Mandeifu, the hard-working man, attended all the technical site meetings via a videoconferencing system. Those were scheduled between chemotherapy sessions from his hospital bed at the AZ VUB in Brussels. He worked until the very end: our visits to the different places where he was hospitalised – first the AZ VUB in Brussels, then the UZ in Ghent) always turned into real working sessions. Bathymetric surveys and other research findings were thoroughly analysed and checked against hydrographic drawings spread all over the hospital bed. Sometimes Jacky kept working even while being treated intravenously, sending me e‐mails with useful technical notes and advice, and informing me about the state of his health.

When I was about to go to the Democratic Republic of Congo on January 20th, 2012 – two days before Jacky permanently left us – J.J. told me there is an urgent need to deepen the Tumbimbi channel. He advised me to implement the recommendations contained in his technical note on the strategy of dredging for the flood period of July 2011 to February 2012. Jacky’s analysis and advice proved to be instrumental for this project and allowed, amongst others, its objectives to be reached.

During his long and difficult struggle against the disease, I always implored him “Jacky, accroches‐toi!”, which means “Jacky, hang on!” He hung on as long as he could, but ultimately his fight against the disease was uneven, as his illness was as strong as his beloved Congo River carrying 80 (eighty) million m³ of sediment per year, against very limited local dredging capacities. Jacky fought like the baobab tree fights against the hurricane, but the storm was so strong that the baobab of fluvial hydraulics fell, defeated.

His memories and ideas will continue to inspire and guide all those who work on the mighty Congo River. May God grant a peaceful rest to his soul in the name of Jesus.

Nestor Musambi Ambuy‐A‐Tam
Resident Project Manager (D.R.C.), Dredging International Services (Cyprus) Ltd.