Today for something completely different I stepped out of my shell and went up Axe Maiko on the back of a motorcycle. I'm glad I did it but I will never do it again. Lying in the four cardinal directions are four major roads leading away from Lubutu. These are named "Axe" followed by what lies at the other end. I have extensively explored Axes Kindu (dirt, my running route and the way to the cascades), Kisangani (paved, the road to the second largest city in Congo), and Walikale (paved, the road to Mungele’s clinic). Axe Maiko is the road leading straight north and ends at a huge national park. It is really nothing more than a path, not a road. Its rolling hills lead through thick jungle with each shallow valley containing a small creek. Four or five tree trunks haphazardly thrown across these waterways serve as makeshift bridges. The route is extremely rough, impassable by even 4 wheel drive truck. Four times per month, two people from SSP (Soins de Santé Primaire, my department) ascend Axe Maiko on the back of motorcycles. MSF has professional motorcycle drivers who take medical staff and health educators to areas unreachable by the normal MSF Toyota Landcruiser. Today it was my turn to brave the journey.
But there was one other small complication. Friday is Eid el Kebir, a major Muslim holiday. On this day, Muslims ritually slaughter a goat in honor of Abraham’s obedient willingness to sacrifice his son Isaac, though a goat was substituted at the last minute. After slaughtering the animal, they cook it, eat a tiny bit, then distribute the remainder to those less fortunate. Thus, in places with sizable Muslim populations, goats are in short supply this time of year. Lubutu's Muslim population is not huge, but big enough to make live goats unavailable in town. Three of the expatriates living in Couvent are Muslim and wanted to share in the festivities. So they asked me if I would bring back a live goat from Axe Maiko on the back of my motorcycle. Sure, no problem. At 7 a.m. this morning, the two motorcycle driver, my SSP co-worker, and I left for the two closest Centres de Santé. We were doing nutritional screening and follow-up, measuring and weighing children while giving their parents advice about feeding them. The 32 kilometer (20 mile) trip (one way) lasted 3 hours. I was outfitted in big white rubber boots and knee, shin, elbow, and forearm guards. The boots were crucial as several times I was forced to get off the motorcycle and walk through deep mud, through streams, or across logs. The professional driver proceeded through the difficult sections alone, the wheels of the motorbike often sinking in the mud above their axles.
Finally, after one hundred eighty minutes of bone jarring, butt shattering, yet scenically beautiful ride, we arrived at Centre de Santé Mundo. After weighing and measuring the children, we sang songs about nutrition, distributed handouts to the parents about constructing balanced diets using local foods, and gave hints about food hygiene. Meanwhile the two drivers found and negotiated the purchase of a goat. They piled the radio, first aid kit, my backpack, and a mysterious nylon sack on the back of one motorcycle. On the other they constructed a bamboo frame that held one furtively bleating male goat. A goat's cry sounds like a woman screaming. Our goat in particular was not excited about being strapped onto a wooden frame on the back of a motorcycle and his cries were especially loud. To complicate matters further, a half hour into the return trip, the wind picked up, the sky darkened, and we heard thunder. Shortly thereafter, the skies opened with rain. We sought refuge in someone's home (people don’t hesitate to invite strangers into their homes here), opened the mysterious nylon bag, and pulled out four yellow rain suits. Perfect, I thought! Perfect except for a very agitated goat. Goats apparently hate to get wet, especially when tied down on the back of motorcycles. He began protesting wildly, crying continuously and kicking. And we were only two and a half hours from home. At the halfway point, we stopped at Centre de Santé Twabinga and did more nutritional follow-up. By this time I was lame with stiff painful legs, sore muscles, and an aching back and butt. At 5 p.m. we arrived at the hospital covered in mud and sweat. I led the goat to the Couvent on an improvised leash. Both of us were trembling, me from muscle fatigue and him from Post Motorcycle Stress Disorder. All in all, it was an experience that, in hindsight, I’m glad I did despite the challenges. I wouldn't mind doing it again, but next time........ I'll go goatless.