Whenever you leave the base for any kind of road trip, there is bound to be some excitement. The destination was the Town of Kilwa and the goal was to meet Dr. Wilma…the “Médecin Chef du Zone” for the health region where Dubie is located. As the guy responsible for medical activities in most of the health structures where we work, he is my most important counterpart and this visit was already a bit overdue.
Although Kilwa is only 130 km away, the roads really are nothing more then glorified footpaths. It is literally impossible to picture what it would have been like in the Belgian era where cars could travel these EXACT SAME ROADS at 80 km/hr. This trip took us a grueling 11 hours and did not disappoint in terms of excitement along the way!
It started at 6:00 am on a Tuesday morning. Travelling with me was a nurse heading back from a training session, the driver and a ‘convoyeur’. While it may seem a bit excessive, a convoyeur is a guy who comes along specifically to help in case there are problems along the way.
We had to jump-start the car (i.e. 4 guys pushing from behind to get the car rolling and then the driver pops the clutch) so that never bodes well…but the driver assured me we’d be fine once we had driven for a bit and the battery had had a chance to charge. A bit fishy, but its 6:00 am and we need to go so I let it slide.
Not even an hour from the base, we encountered our first obstacle. A pretty big tree had fallen across the road and we had to find another way around. Our driver paused for a bit and, as if out of a commercial advertising landcruisers, he slowly backed up, took a sharp right and climbed up on to the bank beside the road in an attempt to get around the log.
It was rough, he was all over the place and there simply wasn’t enough clearance. Sure enough, halfway through the maneuver he stalled and, as feared, the car wouldn’t even turn over. So…stuck one hour from base with a car that wouldn’t start!
We used our radio to call for a rescue car and one was dispatched from the base right away. We were really quite stuck and the handful of people who came from a nearby village to check us out couldn’t help. So we wait. In the meantime, the convoyeur lit a fire under the log to weaken it in the middle and to allow us to at least clear the path for our return trip.
An hour later, our rescue car arrives. The fire had burnt through a big part of the log and we were able to pull it apart and roll it out of the way. Once we had freed the car and got it started again, we swapped vehicles and, as we continued along in car number two, the first car limped back to the base and the waiting mechanic.
Not even another hour along the way, it started to rain and we came across a deep puddle. Our driver carefully switched to 4x4, placed it in first gear and started slowly through the muck. Unfortunately, he missed the “normal” path, sunk into a bit of a hole and suddenly the wheels were spinning.
Everyone gets out and both the driver and convoyeur jumped into action. Up to their knees in water, they were busy jacking up the back end and placing logs under the tires to fill the hole and to make a bit of a ramp. This was obviously not the first time that they’ve done this and we were back on the road in less then 30 minutes.
Village after Village
The normal, more direct route to Kilwa is currently not passable due to the rainy season. Forced to use an alternative route, the detour doubles the travel time. Following the shores of Lake Mwero and passing through countless small fishing villages along the way, it really is a beautiful drive. At times, the horizon opens up displaying a spectacular vista – lush green hills flanking each side of a red earth path snaking away in some version of a road. The lake is huge and, in places, you can’t even see across!
However, for the most part, this beautiful scenery is obscured by the 10 foot tall grasses growing along the side of the road. We bounce along at a painful 20-30 km/hr and slowly, slowly approach the destination. Lewanza, Lukenzolwa, Kongolo, Lusalala… and many others that even our drivers have a hard time remembering. My job on trips like is radio the base with our position every hour and to wave back at the people who greet us as we drive though. Each village is similar and, as we approach, the tall grasses give way to towering mango trees and adobe huts lining each side of the road.
As you near the center of town, there is usually some sort of market. While the selection depends on the size of the village, there is always something for sale. This could be as simple as a table selling bananas or a small stall with batteries, cigarettes, pots and flip-flops. In the larger centers, it could even be a real ‘store’ with a bit more variety and even a door that could be locked.
There are always people around. Women (young girls usually!?) pounding manioc, men making fishing nets and children screaming “Mzungu, Mzungu!!!” and rushing out to greet the car as we continue on. There also seems to be lots of animals around. Goats, chickens, guinea fowl, pigs. A definite sign of improved stability and a return to normalcy in Katanga, this is also the reason for the next unplanned stop.
We were slowly passing through one of the villages when a goat decided that instead of running away from the car, he would try to run under it! Not a great idea and we got him with our rear tire. Yup…ran over a goat…
Our driver stopped, checked his review mirror, sighed and got out of the car. The villagers were already starting to gather and clearly this wasn’t going to well for him. The driver, not MSF, is totally responsible in cases like this. According to the local law, the driver is only at fault if you run something over with the front tire. In this case, it was the rear tire so he should not have had to pay anything.
A discussion continued, money exchanged hands, we continued on and the villagers feasted on goat that night. In the end, he did run over a goat and felt responsible for compensating the owner, regardless of who was at fault! This is NOT the sort of thing you get in your MSF training courses!
Another hour longer, we get to a spectacular bridge that had clearly been built by the Belgians before independence of the DRC. While the metal structure was in seemingly good shape, the years had not been as kind to the wooden slats that are needed to ensure safe passage. Some had been stolen and others had just rotted away and had been replaced by small logs. One word – Sketchy.
Most of the time, the driver just pushes forward, trying to avoid the largest holes and get to the other side without falling through. Although I’m not usually too concerned about this sort of thing, even my gut clenched a bit. The bridge in the picture below was especially bad. In this case, the driver actually had to rearrange the sticks and use his sand plates to cover a pretty big hole towards the far end.
The way back
…and THAT was all on the way there!
The meeting with the Doctor was quite productive and definitely made the trip worthwhile. I had almost 20 issues to discuss and we were able to come to agreements on most of them, with both of us leaving with action items. .
The way back was no less interesting. We had to drop off letters at a few of the health centers and ended up transferring a small boy with severe malaria / anemia to one of the small regional hospitals. That was a stressful ride and whenever he stopped crying I held my breath until he started again…as at least this way I knew he was still alive.
Since my meeting went a bit long, we left a bit late and had to spend the second night with the Sisters in a small town halfway back to Dubie. Although nothing is free, they fed us, provided rooms for myself the driver and our convoyeur and even found us some breakfast the next morning.
As per the heading for this entry…NEVER a dull moment!