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.