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.