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.