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.