We had pedalled up to the border of Congo after several frustrating weeks spent in Zambia obtaining our visas. The reputation of Congo makes for grim reading: civil war, religious war, tribal war, unprecedented rape figures, cannibalism, mineral exploitation, incalculable corruption, and every change of government since independence from Belgian rule (1960) brought about by a coup and/or asassination. Understandably we were a little nervous and fully expecting difficulties at the border accompanied by demands for covertly palmed dollars.
To our surprise we were in and out of the immigration building in 15 minutes having met nothing but welcoming, smiling officials wishing us “bon courage” for the bicycle journey ahead. 300m down the road, Archie was hauled into a police station for taking a photo. Due to years of strict governance and fears of espionage, Congolese authorities are very sensitive about cameras. However, the police seemed more interested in asking questions and welcoming us to their country.
We cycled out of the dusty border town, away from its 8km queue of trucks, and followed the 60 miles of good tarmac to the capital of Katanga province, Lubumbashi. During that sweaty day in the saddle, we soon relaxed and our apprehensions melted yet further with each beaming bicyclist that waved and shouted enthusiastic greetings. As when entering other ill-famed countries, I very soon came to the rather obvious realisation that, regardless of politics and conflict, this is a normal country populated by normal people doing their best to live normal lives.
We cycled west on a paved road. The traffic was largely trucks coming from and going to the region’s many mines. Katanga province is unspeakably rich in gold, diamonds, copper, cobalt, uranium and rare earth metals. It is for this reason that the huge province has been seeking independence for half a century. The money from its mines feeds the ministerial pockets of the ridiculously distant capital, Kinshasa.
Roadside dwellers all greeted us enthusiastically and local cyclists, most carting sacks of charcoal, would ride alongside and natter with us pleasantly. We camped in the bush and often heard drums from nearby villages pounding out unchanging rhythms through the entire night. The land was largely flat and intermittently savannah and bush. The days were warm and the nights cool. The dry season is agreeable in these southern highlands.
Late one afternoon we saw a densely packed crowd of about 200 people spanning the road and marching towards us. I don’t like crowds in Africa, or in general. They are always potentially a mob. However, this one parted and let us through. They were solemnly carrying a coffin.
In the town of Fungurumu, we watched from a balcony as a fight broke out by the nearby water pump. A couple of shouts were enough to instantly gather crowd of several hundred which encircled the two protagonists and cheered gleefully when one started threatening the other with a bulky length of wood.
After Kolwezi the tarmac ended and we rode into an orgy of orange dust, swished skywards everytime a laden truck ploughed past. The mining traffic thinned and we slogged down a quiet, narrow road through spacious, green forest. In the mission village of Kanzenze we found an impressive old colonial catholic church. Half the window panes were missing and the brickwork was very worn but the inside was a cool, peaceful haven of wooden pews and plastic flowers. A short row of graves alongside the church accommodated several Belgian missionaries, a couple born as early as the 1860s.
The track continued through a slowly denser forest until it was threading a picturesque straight tunnel through trees. An early morning ride along this peaceful, unpeopled and shaded arboreal avenue was a particular highlight of mine. The road disintegrated and the final 25km to the town of Mutshatsha consisted of soft sand punctuated by loose rubble. It took us three hours.
Mutshatsha was once an important town on the train line and a grand avenue of poplars lined our entrance to the forlorn ruin that remains. Time-stained colonial bungalows sagged behind the trees and the deserted railway station had a neighbouring train maintenance warehouse with cobweb-cloaked machinery made in America and England in the 1920s. A couple of resentfully-rusting steam engines sat on isolated stretches of track with grass grown up to their knees and goats grazing at their toes.
We were informed that the first train in five months clattered slowly past the previous day, bound tentatively for Angola. This line had regular service and precise timetables in the 1950s, but so did all of Congo.
The town’s market was the most dismal I’d ever seen. Twenty or so women, each hunched over a tiny bundle of produce laid out on a dirty scrap of material. Most had only cassava leaves (bitter, contain trace cyanide and of little nutritional value) and a cassava root or two. There was a prized pile of three marble-sized tomatoes and about ten similarly sized onions but they were absurdly priced and pointlessly small so we opted for the seven or eight potatoes instead.
Being white strangers, it was assumed we were missionaries (no other foreigners visit this place) and we were led to the crumbling catholic mission. The abbé welcomed us in and we were each given a bare room in the spartan concrete building. That evening, Over foufou (the nation’s staple: a steaming white blob of ground cassava root slowly cooked with water) and boiled cassava leaves, the abbé apologised for the terrible road condition and explained that he had recently been charged with overseeing the area’s re-introduction of the cantonage system. This was the Belgian colonial method of upkeep for the country’s then-enviable and extensive network of paved roads. The maintenance of each separate kilometre of road was assigned to one individual who was kept on a retainer. The colonists had over 111,000 workers constituting their cantonage force.
Fighting our way through more soft sand the following day, and forced to push our bicycles, we wondered if the resuscitation of the system could ever work. The workers are to receive $60 monthly – a small fortune to a Congolese villager – but it seems unlikely that the money will be forthcoming and I imagine the roads will continue to languish.
We passed the remains of a 1930s Panhard armoured vehicle scuttled on the roadside and wondered if it was used during the Second World War or if it was a relic from that war used in one of the numerous civil wars that have convulsed across Congo since then.
One or two vehicles passed a day and the only other road users were the occasional men who push loads of up to 100kg on decrepit, unrideable bicycles. These goods feed the small economies of the villages. The majority of cargo in Congo is moved in this fashion: by hardy men who travel 40km a day, sometimes for several hundred kilometers, and make very little money as a result.
The villages were simple and filled with waist-high children that would quickly flock around us if we stopped. The average family in Congo has six children and in the rural areas that number is closer to eight. These countless young urchins were dressed in very ragged and repeatedly patched clothing that would take considerable care to don or remove without destroying them completely. Many of the boys’ buttocks showed through the web of rags that was once shorts.
People seemed largely positive and happy, and almost always friendly. However, the tell tale distended belly of malnutrition is widespread. This is not surprising in a country with almost no agriculture despite being equatorial and abundantly fertile. Cassava is grown instead of the more nourishing maize as it comes to harvest quicker and people don’t like to make longer term gambles on time from planting to harvest as they’re never sure when the next wave of instability will flood across their region and sweep them into the forests in flight. In 2012, UNICEF recorded the country’s malnutrition rate in children under 5 as 24.2%.
The next town, Kasaji, was a district capital. The bumpy track into town was littered with the abused husks of once-functional administrative buildings. In the prickly zenith of the day’s heat, the town appeared bleached and oppressive. Nothing moved but the heads of people lounging on crumbling verandas which turned to watch us pass. Archie and I were led by a pushy individual from the DGM (Direction Générale de Migration) to his little-used office. He demanded we give him passport photographs for their records. We politely refused. He demanded several dollars so he could make photocopies of our passports. We politely refused. He demanded that Archie give him the remainder of the peanuts he was snacking on. We less politely refused and got up to leave, irritated by the two hours that this rigmarole had unbelievably taken. It’s understandable. These people are paid nothing and have nothing. But they do nothing too.
One lunchtime we were sprawled under a tree in the bush, messily devouring a juicy pineapple, when a man walked past carrying an ember. He rattled off several sentences in Swahili and we nodded and smiled and generally showed our approval as we had come to do when in utter incomprehension. He happily wondered on into the bush and then padded back past a few minutes later. It wasn’t long before we heard the approaching crackle and roar of a bush fire. We hurriedly packed up and returned to the exhausting road. ‘Slash-and-burn’ is a widespread practice for subsistence farmers (once common in Europe) and we saw countless swathes of blackened land with mournful matchsticks in the place of former trees. Earlier this year, Congo’s government requested $1 billion to preserve its extensive and ecologically vital (globally speaking) forests. If the international community produces this money, I doubt the cheerfully jabbering individual we met will see any of it or be at all inclined to alter his practices.
On the last evening of our bike ride in the south, we crested a hill and stopped to watch the reddening sun sink towards the orange-hazed spread of trees before us. The dry season is dusty and the dust creates arresting sunset panoramas. We watched the bicycle couriers we had been chatting to descend the hill and, when it seemed nobody was looking, ducked into the trees and pushed our bikes until we found a suitable clearing. With tents up, it was time to search for firewood. We wandered off in different directions and returned, arms laden, to find men waiting for us. Someone had obviously seen us leave the road and these five men had clearly come in search of us. The self-proclaimed chief wore a torn ice hockey shirt. He had bloodstained eyes, unbearable body odour, an emaciated frame and more than a hint of alcohol on his breath.
He said in fast, flawed French that his village was a couple of kilometres down the road and that this was his land. He demanded our documents. We showed passports and watched him struggle with the almost-impossibly pompous proclamation that adorns the first page of UK passports (“Her Britannic Majesty’s Secretary of State requests and requires in the name of Her Majesty all those whom it may concern to allow the bearer to pass freely without let or hindrance…”). He had obviously never seen a passport before and soon became frustrated. We produced our trump card: a permission document to travel freely by bicycle in Congo. This document was signed by various ministers and the directors of the DGM and ANR (significantly less on-the-ball CIA equivalent).
However, the avarice that had filled this man’s rheumy eyes upon meeting us had not faded and he decided $30 was reasonable tribute to pay him in return for our sleeping on the dirt in the unused forest near his village. We said we didn’t have it. He countered that we must come to the village to pay our respects and sleep there. We didn’t need to confer to know that this was not an option. We may well wake up in the morning a lot more than $30 down.
A heavy gibbous moon had risen and we were yet to eat. These men were in no rush and sat down to await our decision. We decided to pack up, ride on, pass the village and simply to get away from these predators. The ride down the hill was frightening. The moon illuminated the track from behind us so no shadow showed to indicate bumps, loose rocks or sandy patches. Most people in the village were outside their huts, sitting around small fires. The village spread about 3km along the road and was bigger than most in the area. We kept quiet and glided stealthily through, not particularly wanting to draw any attention to ourselves. Night can be menacing. People act differently in the dark.
All went well until, in the centre of the village, someone shouted something at us in an accusatory tone. We just rode steadily on but our silence was received with suspicion and the alarm was raised. Shouts instantly spread through the dark village. Soon their was uproar. Maddened dogs barked in competition with the maddened humans. People charged onto the road and tried to stop us or knock us from our bikes. Some swung sticks and one young man landed a medium-strength punch on my face.
We were unable to communicate with each other much over the noise but we both seemed to know that we’d passed a point of no return. If we were caught now we may not have time to explain that we are simply tourists (rather than spies, rebels, mineral thieves etc) before something regrettable happened. I’ve previously witnessed the insanity of anonymity and overexcitement that can seize an African (or, indeed, any) mob in the dark and had no desire to re-visit that experience.
Archie was riding 15 yards ahead of me and I tried to keep up a constant and outwardly-calm monologue to reassure him that I was still there and that we should keep going as fast as possible. If he’d suddenly discovered that I’d been caught then he’d be faced with the difficult decision of whether to turn back or to continue. Our instinctual actions in such a situation are things we never wish to be forced to discover.
Thankfully, confusion and darkness were on our side and we made it to the end of the village. We gained some ground and the pounding of footfall gradually receded from a couple of meters behind me to a stone’s throw. Single speed bikes were in pursuit but we were riding faster, spurred by the adrenalin of terror. My ears strained over the deafening thump of my heart to listen for the ominous, spluttering growl of a motorbike being kickstarted.
The whole incident must have lasted no more than ten minutes before we felt we’d gained enough ground to plunge unseen down a foot path into the forest. We tore down this for a few hundred yards before finding a space hidden by bush and a toppled tree. We erected tents for the second time that night with shaky hands. We could still hear the hue and cry in the village. It sounded uncomfortably close. Would their be search parties? How long would they bother to hunt?
We ate some bread in silence and then retired to our beds. Exhaustion overcame me but Archie slept with one eye open.
The sanity-bearing sunrise was eagerly welcomed the following morning. We had only 50km until the town of Sandoa where we would rest before buying a dugout canoe and descending a river for some time. We warmed our hands over a fire and tried to rationalise what had happened, desperately scratching around for some consolation. We found little – Congo had finally cowed us.
Much more by Charlie Walker on his very excellent blog, or donate to his chosen charities here.
Copyright © 2014 Charlie Walker