If there’s one thing you should know about the typical journey in Congo, it is that there is no such thing as a typical journey in Congo. The country is so vast, the roads so bad, the infrastructure so unreliable, that you use whatever means necessary and available to get where you need to go.
In my short time in this country I have travelled on foot, by dugout canoe, and by motorbike, all for professional purposes. I hear there’s even a stretch of river in North Kivu across which a local fellow will transport you on his back for a couple hundred Congolese Francs.
In short, when you set out for someplace in Congo, you must do so with a good sense of humour and absolutely no expectations. And indeed, I have none as we leave for Bikenge, Maniema Province—a dusty, neglected little town in one of Congo’s dustiest, most-neglected regions.
This morning we’re up at 06h30, loading up the Land Cruiser at 06h50, and on the road by 07h00. Minutes later we’re at the riverbank in Kindu, the buzzing provincial capital of Maniema. As we wait for our transportation across the river, we’re in good company: even at this hour, there are women sudsing up their babies and motorcycle taxi drivers polishing the chrome on theirs.
As we wait for the 07h00 ferry—which, at 07h30, does not appear to be going anywhere anytime soon—I do a mental inventory of what I know about Bikenge. I’ve been told that, due to its remote location, its infrastructure is extremely poor: the roads are like Swiss cheese, the health centres barely function, and the local waste disposal system works only as quickly as the town’s feral dogs can eat.
But sitting right on top of deposits of gold and other minerals, Bikenge is quite literally a diamond in the rough. In the last ten or so years, large numbers of migrants—primarily miners hoping to get rich by digging, and others hoping to get rich off them—have appeared in the town. Overpopulation, plus the pollution and the paucity of decent health care, makes for some very poor health indicators.
When it’s time to go, we hop on the barge. The water is calm in spite of the deafening rumble of the boat and the motorised pirogues [small boats] zipping from one bank to the other in the distance.
Once on the opposite shore, we pile back into the car and start our journey. For the next couple of hours, the roads are fine—by Land Cruiser standards, anyway. We passengers take a fair bit of jostling but it’s nothing to blog about.
The convoy stops. There’s a bridge up ahead, and it’s awfully narrow. Henri, a logistician with implausible amounts of energy, bounds out of the car and guides the vehicles across. The cars manage it with surprising grace, like a couple of two-tonne, four-wheeled tightrope artists. Before you can say “foreshadowing” we’re across and back on the road again.
We happen upon an MSF pickup truck that was on its way back to Bikenge after a routine trip to the town of Mingana, about 60 kilometres to the south of our destination. The vehicle has sunken about a foot into the road—or more precisely, the colossal brown mess masquerading as a road – that stretches out before us.
The driver of the pickup, John, and two MSF daily workers are shoveling madly, trying to dig the ill-fated vehicle out of the mire. They are each covered in a layer of thick brown mud, which is baking in the mid-day sun. Michel, one of the workers, is barefoot—he has lost his flip-flops, which have been swallowed up by the thick brown goop.
Thankfully—time is getting short—there’s limited discussion as the bungees come out, the drivers hook the truck to our 4x4s, and the Little Pickup That Couldn’t gets towed out of the muck.
Fast-forward another couple of hours and we’re stopped yet again: the bridge up ahead is broken. The drivers survey the damage, concluding that, as the bridge is little more than a pile of mulch, the four-by-fours aren’t going to be able to pass. Henri doesn’t seem quite so full of beans now.
What are we going to do? We don’t have time to properly fix this thing and the sun is going down soon. But neither can we be running around on the unfamiliar roads of Maniema Province after dark. It’s not safe.
But John has an idea.
“I’ve just been to see the carpenter in Mingana—we can use the two-by-fours I just picked up to patch up the bridge.”
John, you’re brilliant.
A couple of hammers and a bag of nails materialise from the back of the pickup truck. (As does a chainsaw, which is more of a mystery to me). In a flurry of woodchips, the drivers, logisticians, and a handful of locals fix the bridge—at least temporarily. Shortly after, we’re again Bikenge-bound.
As we arrive at our destination the sun is hanging lazily in the sky, casting long shadows. It’s about to drop swiftly, as it does in this part of Congo.
As we roll into the base, project coordinator Michele comes out of the office to greet us.
“How was the trip?” He asks knowingly.
“Fine,” I reply. “Exactly what I’d expected.”