The Road to Kibeke Uru

The Road to Kibeke Uru

 

After six months of convincing Punia that we were not miners, we could finally start to rehabilitate some of the dilapidated health centres.  In some cases, we decided, there was nothing to improve upon, and we would have to start afresh.   We had fought for funding for construction projects, having been told that Punia was a lost cause – a logistical nightmare with inaccessible villages, mistrustful locals and endemic thievery.  From our 28 health centres, all of which would have benefited from works, we settled on Kibeke Uru, a small staging post on the way south to Kindu, and where we now staked our reputations and promises.

Kibeke Uru was a mere three hours away from Punia.  The first hour could be covered in our aging landcruisers, forest mosses already staking their claim to the bonnet, and springs girder-straight under the weight of cement.   When the cars were finally defeated by a fallen steel bridge, our team would mount the line of steel horses for their daily charge southwards.  Maintaining the route access became a major commitment – over the many river crossings, a broken log or plank could lead to major delays in the provision of construction material.  A rapid response team quickly developed for such eventualities, of saw, generator, welder, and a community motivator to provide the entirely non-mechanical machinery for transporting the logs from where they were felled and lifting them into place.  After the first six months of operation, our greatest success was in persuading the Sparky the welder to dispense with his flip flops and don shoes, trousers and sunglasses.

Upon arrival in Kibeke Uru, where we were about to construct the village’s first brick structure, our first port of call was a palm leaf-shelter in a small opening next to the track, where the village chief held court, cowboy hat in his lap and children running between the feet of his committee.  One committee member who was frequently absent, with the rare privilege of a motorbike, sometimes fuelled sufficiently to travel to Punia, Kindu or further afield, was a toothless old pastor.  Samuel had a broad grin, a firm leathery handshake, and a childlike enthusiasm, an unparalleled force in motivating his committee, by energy, charm and example, to dive headlong into the hard days of work required in chopping wood, digging sand or transporting water for the new health centre.  As a young pastor, Samuel had travelled to Sudan, one of very few Punia residents to have travelled abroad, and had a smattering of English that he had not uttered for forty years.

After several months, a mountain of 20,000 bricks had been fired in the centre of town, a smouldering monument to the efforts of Samuel and his community.  Hundreds of hardwood planks and beams lay drying, hewn bamboo ready for the scaffolding, and 80 cubic metres of sand from a dry river had been painstakingly sifted and lifted into a golden mound in front of the new foundations.  Those who had taken part would be sharing their stories of these months for years to come, and I hoped it would mean that the health centre would be well used and well looked after for years to come.

With the community working so hard, I felt a lot of pressure to fulfil our side of the bargain.  I had secured 200 bags of cement in a deal sealed with a bone-crushing handshake from supplier Benz, soundless and speedy Mercedes of Punia’s businessmen, too professional to join us on the football pitch.   The cement was to arrive from Kisangani in the north – after reaching as far as possible on broken long-nose trucks, labourers bouncing on top of the cargo between the high wooden sides, covered from head to toe in the alkaline white dust.  When the murram road came to a halt, and a winding motorbike track disappeared into a thicket, the trucks could go no further – the cement was bagged in polythene, and strapped to bicycles for the final few days to Punia.  A long line of 70 laden bicycles, pushed by muscly tolekistes, stretched out through the ruts and bamboo thickets, accompanied by the hum of insects, the monkeys having been long ago hunted out in this part of the forest.  At the river, a wide tributary of the Congo to the west, the tolekistes skied barefoot down the deep brown embankment, piled their timeless Indian frames away from the lapping water, and skidded under a leaning tree to receive maize flour and greasy goat sauce from a verbose mama and her meek daughters.

On the opposite bank of the river lay the rusting hulk on an old Belgian ferry, hull pointing skyward, the victim of an unwise mooring and a long-forgotten flood.  Apart from the thick metal sheets of her superstructure, anything of value and portability had been spirited away, and the humid sun had long since stripped any sign of paintwork from this central African Queen.  On each riverbank, lower down the shoreline, were several ranks of long wooden pirogues, dugout canoes hand-chisled from the straightest tree trunks, and locked in place by the long pointed oars of their bare-chested captains, wedged into the mud to prevent the ranks of pirogues cutting loose and escaping downstream.

Whichever way you are travelling out from Punia, a journey overland will eventually necessitate a river crossing by pirogue.  First, motorbikes, or in this case bicycles and motorbikes are wheeled on, in a careful art of balance to avoid overturning the thin hull, with the rider seated on his haunches and taking care to stabilize his machine: one of our own drivers had nearly drowned when his motorbike overturned in a rain-filled river further into the bush.  Very few Congolese can swim – in Kindu, overloaded boats seemed to overturn every year, with inevitable fatalities, passengers old and young trapped by the collective need for a cheap crossing. With this in mind, in order to keep the gunwales above water on our own river crossings, we would have to hire the pirogue at the luxury of a greater expense, and then fight off the crowds wanting to benefit from a free ride.

Cargo loaded, and passengers seated amongst the polyester sacks, bunches of bananas, bicycles and boxes, the captain, ankle deep in mud, would cast off and leap onto the stern in one smooth movement.  He stood astern, with a young oarsman on the prow, both alternating deft strokes with the long paddles, to the left, to the right, two to the left, three to the right, keeping the boat on some unknown line. Each stroke was short and sharp, with a noiseless flick and twist at the end so that only a few drops of water disturbed the brown water.  The pirogue glided forward, the captain hugging the shoreline to avoid fighting the stronger current mid-stream, and the commotion of the landing bay quickly disappeared into a silence and the easy rhythm of the long paddles.   After a long run next to mangrove roots, the captain turns into the river, curving a long arc upstream – rhythm unchanged, both men begin to work a lot harder.  By the middle of the river, the boat travels backwards against their efforts, such is the force of the current flowing downhill to Kinshasa.  Only as their muscles relax in the lazier currents at the edge of the river do the passengers begin to chatter, curious about the homes and onward destinations of their fellow journeymen.

Back in Kibeke Uru, where the snaking peloton of skin and steel had finally deposited their dusty cargo, work began in earnest, led by engineer Patrick from Kisangani, who had barely used anything more technical than his battered mobile phone, but who, like many from the province, carried no baggage of false ceilings of learning, and was soon managing multiple projects and large supply chains on the computer.

A month and many more motorbike rides later, I took a step back with our team of contractors and village workers, paint covering their vests and trousers with tears from ankle to underpants, and admired the new health centre: a humble 15m long, seven rooms, small veranda, airy tin roof, resplendent in a fresh coat of green and white paint, and smelling of the new hardwood furniture that stood in the rooms.

Later in the week, Punia District descended on Kibeke Uru’s narrow jungle opening for the commissioning ceremony.  A palm shelter had been quickly erected, a collection of chairs scrambled from across the village, and a few goats slaughtered. The district health officials arrived late, still, despite funding and guidance, unable to organize themselves to repair and fuel their motorbikes. Samuel’s flock arrived late, used to church services that lasted the whole day.  The fearfully named Administrator, highest political authority in the land, owner of one of Punia’s two cars, was the last to arrive, with a tardiness befitting his elevated position.  On the whole, he had been supportive of our activities and had helped to resolve local political disputes that hindered progress, but he had tasked his two government intelligence men with keeping tabs on our movements.  To add to the combat fatigues of the local military men and their entourages, he arrived with three Kalasknikov-carrying policemen, who wasted no time in asking for my sunglasses.

I need not have worried about the speeches – far from the rambling lists of misplaced thanks and dubious metaphors that I had expected, these local leaders were skilled orators.  We were all well aware that the construction was even the easy part of the job – keeping a health centre stocked and staffed and trusted is a much more difficult prospect in rural Congo.  But here, we had an opportunity to thank the community the magnitude of what they had achieved, and to instill in them an enthusiasm for the work that their nurses would carry out and the education that they would provide.  The shrill calls and applause of the seated villagers told of an enthusiastic community.  When it came to my own turn, responding to Monsieur Administrateur, I had a careful internal debate, and eventually decided not to comment on the historical duty posed by the green Robin Hood hat perched atop his head.

Finally, hand greased and stomach full with goat and ugali, and the clapping gospel melodies of Samuel’s Congolese mamas in their riotous Sunday dresses bidding us farewell, I returned to the motorbikes for the long return journey home.  Either of Sunglasses 1, 2 or 3 had stolen the ignition keys.

Premier League

Premier League

 

The stands filled to the brim, football mad African crowds singing and dancing, the glorious victory run back through an admiring team.  That is how I imagined my international debut.

Our footballing campaign in Punia was inspired by the World Cup.  In the usual morning conversations about the previous night’s matches, which I had occasionally watched in the bar across the road (a TV on a plastic table under the palm trees), I was desperate to hide my ignorance.  So, before the motards realized I only knew three international footballers, I would turn the conversation to their own footballing exploits, and soon discovered that, at least according to their own judgement, there was a pool of untapped talent.  I plotted with Yusufu, head mechanic and undisputed captain of our humble band, who fixed a debut match against a team of local businessmen.

On match day, I arrived at the allotted time at Punia’s main stadium, hoping for a few minutes to gaze into the stands, soak up the atmosphere and elevate my mind to a glorious match-winning mentality.   The stands I had dreamed of were there – a concrete structure the size of a small house, with the remnants of peeling paint from yesteryear, and faded black letters spelling out the name, M’piala.   From the stands, the pitch ran out into town – looking straight across to the winding track that formed the main highway, left to the crumbling offices of the electric company, and right to the back side of a palm fence behind a cluster of mud huts.  The pitch was a mix of bare earth and tufted grass, with a large stagnant puddle covering much of the left approach to the southern goal.   I shared the turf with a few grazing goats, and began to stretch off.  An hour went by, maybe more – I retired to the stands to study the pitch and chew grass.

Eventually, a cacophony of horns and chanting erupted over the hill, and two pickups bounced into the stadium.  Yusufu and his boys leapt onto the pitch, followed sedately by our opponents, climbing gingerly from the truck bed, as if not wanting to burden their aging joints with the full weight of their rotund forms.  And clearly, the match had needed no publicity, for word had got around town, and the spectators started to trickle in from all corners of the stadium – football teams, barefooted schoolchildren, passing motorcyclists, shopkeepers from the town centre – the stands would be full after all.

The match itself passed in a whirl of heat and excitement – although far quicker with the tongue than the ball, the businessmen turned out to be a passable opposition, but no match for the accelerations of barefooted whippet Djavu up the wing.  Defensive lines and midfield strategy never featured – Yusufu, rock of the central defense in a weightlifter’s vest, would twirl and twist the full length of the pitch before scuffing his powerful shot into the long grass.  However, none got the crowd roaring as much as Rashaz.   Old diabetic Muslim Rashaz, who had been relegated from the long motorbike rides to the short journeys which could be achieved with the landcruiser, and whose steering wheel he struggled to squeeze behind.  When the ball headed for Rashaz, when he made a pass or began a lumbering few paces, the crowd went wild – and, a few steps later, doubled over with a wide grin on his panting face, Rashaz would raise his hand in bewildered appreciation, and the crowd would fall about laughing.

After our victorious debut, we carried on working out way through Punia’s footballing ranks – we played the local bicycle mechanics, who turned up with black oil on their hands, and then our local health authority partners, sliding on a waterlogged pitch under the warm rain.  With each passing game, the transfer market became dirtier, as each team began to pull in ringers, local footballing superstars who might have worked as a ‘journalier’ driver once upon a time.  The pre-match preparations evolved to include team introductions, and a surreptitious clarification of the cover story was required, in order to face the inevitable complaints from the opposition.  One player who was assured a spot in every team however, was gladiatorial Rashaz, who had won the hearts of the M’piala Colosseum.

This, I felt, is the beauty of 22 men pointlessly chasing a bladder around the grass: On a pitch, we were equals – there were no nations, no white and black, no Muslim and Christian, no workplace hierarchies.  Yusufu had learned his game chasing a ball between the mud huts in central Congo, I had been schooled 10,000 miles away on the pristine pitches of a boarding school in village England.  The games did more for our local safety and the success of our projects than any official meetings or security strategies.  My own salvation arrived with a left footer, soaring through the empty posts past the bemused cement merchant.  I had finally returned to the glorious level of my teenage years, as star runner for the school 6th XI, a position I had won by virtue of being the only non-smoker on the team.  More importantly, in a community suspicious and paranoid of outsiders, I had a strong sense that this was when we had really begun to break down Punia’s defensive barriers.

Phoney Tales

Phoney Tales

 

Logisticians, like children, should only be seen when something goes wrong.  The old adage is that logisticians should make everything run smoothly behind the scenes – if logistics is noticed, then it is because something has gone wrong, something isn’t in place that should have been.  In Punia, our team of logisticians were responsible for keeping the vehicles and generators running, for stocking the warehouse and arranging the monthly medical deliveries, for managing construction projects, for anything that needed buying, for security, and for keeping the base in touch with the outside world through satellite internet and HF radio.  To keep up any level of functioning internet, I had to embrace the role of pornography policeman, marble polish for our pillars of the churchgoing community.

In the early morning, I shut my domestic concerns with our stray animals behind the bamboo fence, and wave a cheery greeting to guard Philippe, who hurriedly puts down his schoolbooks to man the gate.  The half mile walk took me past the empty brick warehouse, Punia’s largest building, where the last fleeing army sheltered, and where children sometimes congregate after school.   I share a wink and a joke with the local policemen leaning on their round-less guns and refuse the peanuts for sale at the gates, where I am usually greeted by our head of security.   Moussa is a barrel of a man, with a shaved head, flat cap and meticulously styled beard.   He has a childlike laugh that carries all the way to our house, and his chosen ringtone is a baby crying.  On first hearing of a security incident, he will run to my office like an oversized penguin and squawk through a gabbled version of events, sneaking worried glances up at me between sentences in search of reassurance.

It was a good day if I made it past Moussa’s small shack at the gate without being dragged off to the mechanics’ hut or the warehouse.  On one occasion, I arrived to find much of the base flattened by an overnight storm.  Bamboo fences toppled, torrents eroding away the foundations, warehouse floor flooded, motorbikes and benches collapsed under a pile of wood and palm leaves that had protected them.  Another morning, having succeeded in a long campaign to start my days with more than sugary water, I sat down to find a dead rat in the middle of my desk, next to an overturned coffee pot – I hoped this drug-fuelled mystery would help improve my credibility as a some sort of logistical shaman for Punia’s health sector.

Finally, we would sit down to face the day.  Usually the morning would be filled with meetings – working out medical programmes and strategy, managing delivery priorities, checking progress from the field, and most crucially, talking to local suppliers, political and community leaders, and health authorities.  Meetings would invariably start an hour or two late.  Usually, essential representatives would either not turn up or bring two or three additional delegates.  Then begins the most important ritual – each delegate reaches in the folds of his colourful matching trouser-shirt suit combo, and extracts his mobile phone, placing it carefully on the table in front of him.  For a man of slightly higher status, he reaches in another pocket, and takes out a second phone, placing it on top of the first.   For the men who arrived by motorbike, a third phone.  For men of true political clout in Punia, the ominously named ‘Administrator’ or our boy-racer Hospital chief, a fourth handset is added to the Pyramid of telephonic pharaohs.  The meeting begins, with a prolonged ritual of thanks and introduction, and just as the critical point of business is arrived upon, the crucial member will pick up their mobile phone and shout loudly into it for several minutes.

Sometimes in the meeting, when a particularly nuanced issue needed to be communicated, one of the older men, wisened into their 40s or 50s (there a few in Punia much older), would pick up his pile of telephones, tug his shirt downwards on his rounded belly, and rise from his plastic chair.   The room would fall silent, and he would launch into a warm and well-received anecdote from years when he possessed a smaller number of telephones.   Finally, the story coming to a close, it would be summarized with a wise proverb: “the monkey with no tail cannot swing in the branches” or “coconuts will bounce high under a blue sky”.

The assembled delegates would all nod or chuckle knowingly, presumably soaked in such meaning from a young age, and I would join them, not quite understanding, but appreciating the wisdom of one of Punia’s own.  After a few such meetings, I began to lean across to my neighbor to try and find out more.  On every occasion, he would shrug ‘je sais pas exactement, Papa’.  Made up off the cuff, albeit a slightly more colourful one than those in most boardrooms.

Monkey Business

Monkey Business

 

Punia can be very schizophrenic – moments of incredible beauty moving in a heartbeat to shock and desperation.  But even with this, Punia has a daily life, a mundaneness, an existence, that we rarely hear about Congo, Heart of Darkness, where the Four Horsemen live and breathe and stamp onto the pages we read.

Testing the new bicycles out around town provided a good snapshot of the daily emotional ups and downs – one minute, a drunk trying to get money from the visitors, backed up by a hostile group of suspicious residents – round the next corner, a friendly chat with a passer-by in front of the local school, to the strains of the energetic Sunday morning gospel songs floating across the road.  Apart from a few institutional buildings and a central boulevards of single room brick and mortar shops, Punia’s entire population lives in simple mud huts, with dry brown palm leaf rooves.   There is usually no running water, so water is collected in yellow-jerry cans or large pots from the local water source.  Although some properties have access to limited electricity from a nearby hydroelectric source, cooking is done on a fire, and the family’s main possessions are a collection of well-used plastic washing bowls and metal cooking pots.

Agriculture has not really reached the heart of Congo in a major way – surprisingly, many families grow very little, and many of the staple foods are bought in from outside, with the outlying villagers travelling for days to procure simple supplies in the central market, and supplementing their purchases with whatever can be hunted and picked from the forest.   One day, riding through the forest, our motorbike came to a screeching halt as two children came running out the jungle, bearing a dead monkey strung on a stick between them.  Motard Olele, our nighttime singer, had spied dinner.  He entered into heated negotiations, and eventually reached into his pocket.  His hand emerged with two shotgun cartridges, and before the questions formed on my lips, he handed them over to the boys, untied the carcass from the stick, and proceeded to lash it to the handlebars.  The boys ran off into the jungle, bickering over the shotgun cartridges, and Olele wore a scowl.

“Ca va Olele, qu’est que c’est passé”, I ventured in my lolloping bush French.

“Ils ont gagné. Maintenant ils peuvent tuer deux singes” – “They screwed me.  Now they can kill two monkeys”. This was clearly a set of contract negotiations for which my logistical training had not prepared me.  “I suppose there were two of them”, I shrugged.  Unconsoled, Olele drowned his sorrows in a loud turn on the throttle, and we leapt onward to the next medical supervision, dead monkey bouncing nonchalantly from the handlebars.

Le Tour de Congo

Le Tour de Congo

 

Some weeks previously, a shipment of heavy, unlabelled cardboard boxes arrived at the airstrip, Christmas come early for the logistician, penknife at the ready, boy scout scarf hiding the smile.  Newspaper wrapping strewn all around the mechanics’ palm-leaf shelter, we gleefully ascertained that it was a shipment of 11 bicycles, to assist the clinic nurses in transporting the monthly medical deliveries and seeing to their patients, the newest in the steady flow of worn frames pounding the roads to and from Punia, carrying anything from palm oil, bananas, and maize to beer, planks, beds or generators.

The bikes had arrived completely unbuilt, down to the loose spokes and ball bearings, and, after weeks of procrastination, it fell to myself and Djavu, the wiry motorbike driver who was just recovering from a big fall from one of the log bridges.   Djavu, as with all the other drivers, known as motards, typically rode with a passenger, a nurse on their way to clinic supervisions, and as much luggage as could be strapped on with old inner tubes.  Most days of the month, the drivers would be in the field, usually with one trip of a week or two at a time – our furthest clinic took nearly four days to reach by motorbike and foot.   Major rivers must be crossed by pushing the motorbike onto dugout canoes, and the frequent minor crossings over slippery and rotten logs, that often took considerable efforts in mobilizing village labour to replace.  The deep mud tracks, being the only routes connecting this villages, are rutted and worn – after the rains, you can sit in ruts up to the waist, with the wheels spinning out, fighting to keep momentum in the knowledge that pushing the bikes will be even more fruitless.  Some of the hills are bouldered staircases up the side of rocky outcrops, whilst some of the flat stretches are sandy traps for the  inexperienced rider.  Djavu and his colleagues, entirely self-taught by the sound of the engine and the feel of the weight beneath them, are the most skilled off-road riders I have seen.  They concentrate intensely on the path in front of them for long days, fuelled by maize flour and the occasional banana.

The motards also tended to be the jokers in the pack.  I spent many long evenings in the field with nothing to do under the stars but listen to their stories.  Young Olele would sing songs, all from memory; whilst portly Rashaz would take the opportunity to help himself to more ugali.  Kabaga and Yusufu were the dubious double act, with their gangster vests, hip hop caps, and muscly physique, and passed the evening trying to one-up each other on the greatest ever motorbike ride, the biggest fall, the best mechanical fix, the best beer, and always greeting the claims of the other with an incredulous put-down.  Skinny Djavu, the fastest man on a pacy football pitch, one of the only Congolese I knew who would always try to ride a bicycle to the top of a hill, and the best driver with the most real stories, just grinned into the fire with his humble smile.

Djavu had earned money in his younger days in Kisangani much as I had as a student in Cambridge – resurrecting forgotten bicycles.  However, squatting in a sprawl of bicycle parts on our wasting colonial veranda, with the sky reddening behind the palm trees, I quickly discovered that he had been forced to be much more resourceful than me – what I had needed a specialist tool for, he taught me how to do with the careful placement of an old screwdriver or a deft flick of the wrist.  With no jig or frame, he showed me how to thread spokes and build wheels – truing wheels requires a lot of concentration and practice, but mainly, I began to understand, the wisdom of a patient man like Djavu.

Punia International Airport

Punia International Airport

 

Just like Kindu, Punia’s airstrip is a lifeline, albeit one accessible only to those who can pay the fares – for everyone else, goods are pushed one week through the jungle from Kisangani, on the back of heavily laden bicycles pushed by muscly young ‘tolekistes’.

Over a barely passable mud ridge, Punia International Airport is a red strip hewn out of the jungle.  A few flights each week alight here, shared between our own supplies of medicines, fuel and vehicle parts; and between the merchants loading cassiterite (tin ore) for the return journey.  Cassiterite is the main economy in Punia – mined on the surface in large temporary camps in the forests.  The camps are entirely informal, villages of bamboo and rags, populated by unemployed travellers, whose payment is per kilogram from the merchants in town, amounting to an average of less than $4 per day.    From the frequency of flights going out of the two airstrips in the district, I estimate that 3,000 tons of cassiterite leave Punia annually, containing approximately 70% tin at a market price of $15-20,000 per ton, or an estimated $140,000 per day.

I sense the locals are entirely unaware of the global tin market, but there is an unfocussed sense of disgruntlement – mining is very unpopular, and Punia’s residents are highly xenophobic – assuming that all foreigners, Congolese or expatriate, health workers or engineers alike, have arrived to mine and profiteer.  Sometimes people throw stones at the bicycles arriving at the airstrip laden with cassiterite, and the two most recent incidents of public unrest in Punia were outside the small rooms of the mining companies, protesting abut territorial and operational rights for a site 25km out of town.

At the airport, the merchants want to use the return journeys of our medical flights to load cassiterite – on the first such occasion, they shouted, crowded and intimidated in trying to force the goods onto the plane.  Practically, it made sense to use the empty planes – but I knew how hard it was to persuade locals into the health centres, and, in this context, any association with mining would spell failure for our projects.

Once the rules of the game were established, we spent many hours in the VIP lounge with the miners and local dignitaries, wiling away the unknown time waiting for a cargo – sometimes radio and telephone communications were so limited that we wouldn’t know when a plane was arriving, or even at which airstrip.  Once, for two consecutive days, we moved several tons of medicines and construction material to the airstrip, destined for Kasese, an even more remote outpost than Punia, only to discover that the flight had been bumped, replaced by violent thunderstorms and torrential downpours.   It was some recompense to our tired eyes that the airport was an architectural monument – the VIP lounge had been designed in the same shared space as the departure lounge, arrivals hall, and passport control.  This main concourse, under half the shade offered by the jungle canopy, consisted of two broken bamboo benches and a small table.

Customs turned out to be the infant reception committee who chase the plane down the runway as it takes off again.   Immigration is more real, a small hut in town, containing a broken pencil guarded proudly by a character who gives expert lectures on his own self-importance, although, since we were his only immigrants, we eventually persuaded himself, and his pencil, to join the VIP lounge festivities each week.

The airstrip began to grow on me – at night, as with Kindu, it was a quiet place to run into the sunset without half the village chasing, while by day it spoke Punia’s commercial and political story in its long waits, fraught encounters and lucky escapes – I had once watched as an overloaded Russian Antonov grazed the trees at the end of the runway.  And even Punia’s gateway to the outside world, the vortex in the jungle, seemed to want to close – once, we left the airstrip for one month without any shipments, and the vegetation was already a metre high.

I enjoyed flying even more – especially in the early morning, when the long light breaks over the horizon, and the forest beneath is taking its daily breath, exhaling gentle wisps of steam that sit below the sky.   And comedy Fred, our Congolese-American bush pilot, was a local hero – he knew how to land on the road at the next base, he had been involved in several rescue operations for planes (a lamentably common occurrence, more than once down to adventurous young pilots hitting cables along the river), and he was usually surrounded by a fan club of admiring local mamas at each stop.  Unlike some pilots in Congo, unwanted overspill from the Russian forces or mercenaries from South Africa, he also had a religious devotion to engine maintenance and loading regulations – Fred only ever got angry if he felt a box was inaccurately weighed or misplaced in his cargo hold.

Once, having cleared the trees at the end of the runway, I found myself alone on the twin-engine plane with Fred and his co-pilot.  Fred beckoned me forward, and offered me the controls.  It was like steering a ship – a delayed reaction, and even finer movements.  After I felt confident keeping the plane on the level and bearing, I started to look at the instrumentation, and asked about an ominous rage of green on the radar screen.  Fred made me turn towards it, and left me to control the plane as it dropped and bucked through the cloud.  Relieved to regain the skyline at the other side, I was suddenly very interested in emergency procedures.  I asked Fred what happens if he lost an engine.  Promptly, Fred turned off one of the engines, and, with his hands calmly folded in his lap beneath the dual controls, expected me level the plane.  I resolved not to ask any further questions – but, drained in body and mind as I handed over to Fred above the peaceful waters of Lake Kivu, I pondered that we might all learn a lot quicker for the bravery of such teaching methods.

Broccoli Battles

Broccoli Battles

 

My new existence is in Punia, several hundred miles into the centre of Congo and Conrad’s famed ‘heart of darkness’.  To Goma, an hour’s flight, with no gaps in the broccoli fields below.  Three roads lead out of Punia, all only passable by motorbike after meeting the first of many rivers to cross by dugout canoe.  To the East, Goma, Uganda and Rwanda lie four days’ ride away. Two days to the South, Kindu is the last outpost of the railway to Lumumbashi and Zambia, a single-track line on which the UN recently lost a train, with no communications to ascertain where it had broken down in the forest.   To the North, it is another two days down the winding red tracks to the wide boulevards of Kisangani, last staging point on the river before the rapids arrest any further passage.  If history had written another story, Punia could have been a trading town on a great North-South corridor from Kisangani to Zambia and onwards, but instead it is an awkward scar, an island in a jungle the size of Western Europe.

I met a French Engineer working on the roads in the centre – a murram road has been creeping south from Kisangani – but maintenance is unlikely  – the distances are vast, the villagers sparse, and the jungle hungry.  Within 18 months, he advised, a brand new road would be back to a motorbike track – Congo has a very short memory for such development.   I sensed that these crucial lifelines, the empty mud staircases that wind between the river valleys, with their infinite miles of close jungle walls, would become a very familiar friend over the coming months.

I quickly discovered that we are the major employer in Punia, at the moment employing 30 from a mud-hut town of 20,000 people.  On principle, we aim to work closely in partnership with the local health ministry.  I quickly learned that the local leader here obstructs whatever he can.  He owns one of two cars in town – the other is owned by the hospital boss, who regularly crashes it.  With the local health authorities, We were here to help run 28 health centres – providing monthly supplies of medicines and medical equipment; training for the nurses and doctors; and construction and rehabilitation projects. By any global standards, healthcare is a cornerstone of progress – and, in Punia, the level is as low as it gets – although the locals don’t lose sleep over it.  I don’t even need statistics to notice it – my staff fall ill far more commonly than I am used to, and the death of family members becomes a frequent occurrence. The hospital has empty wards, filthy latrines, and a lot of doctors doing nothing.  The field clinics are typically mud huts, with a few bamboo beds, seeing 10-15 patients per day for populations of several thousand, admitting some overnight, fussing little over death and running the roulette of whether medicines are available or not.  A nurse had recently been caught performing unnecessary surgeries to earn money – at our intervention, the villagers protested, having no idea that the surgeries were unnecessary. Resting from these early rounds, I sat on the veranda as the sun set over the bamboo fence.  The strains of Michael Jackson’s ‘It don’t matter if you’re black or white’ floated across the garden, and I wondered how badly the words fitted in Congo.  Then, marching in protest, we are invaded by an army of safari ants.   This is no small issue – the ants are so thick that they change the garden to a deep brown carpet, and one step in this sea will cover the unknowing victim with a swarm of biting soldiers.  Our trim and well-tailored visiting doctor from Brazzaville put on her own silent disco, arms and legs flailing, face contorted in uncomprehending yelps, and I finally understood the phrase ‘ants in the pants’.  They can be warded off with paraffin, and, just as the strains of ‘Earth Song’ bizarrely swam out over the veranda, it was all hands to the pump, rushing madly around painting a protective fence of paraffin and petrol to prevent the marauding army from conquering the house.  Covered in sticky sweat and fuel, with the dammed river turning off towards the jungle, I collapsed in bed, pleased to add the safari ants, to my roll of Punia battle honours, thus far extending to a face-sized moth and an avocado of a hornet.