A Journey Through Eastern Congo

Lane Hartill, CRS’ regional information officer for West Africa, describes his journey along eastern Congo’s muddy roads to see a CRS-funded hospital that is treating women who have been raped, an atrocity of the ongoing war.

The next time you’re in Kamituga, look up Jimmy and Juma. They may be the best father and son motorcycle team in eastern Congo. Jimmy, 22, has been fishtailing up the mud slopes here since he could reach the foot pegs. Juma has been doing it for decades, hauling visitors over roads that haven’t felt a blanket of gravel or a grader since Belgium left the Congo in 1960.

Congo_Fixing Flat

Jimmy fixes a flat tire. Photo by Lane Hartill/CRS

It’s a stretch to even call them roads. They are more of a cross between a goat path and a hog wallow. But the road I’m on —between Bukavu and Kitutu — is a major highway in the country, something akin to US Highway 101 up the West Coast or Interstate 95 between New York and Washington.

Jimmy and I were heading to Nyamibungu, a hiccup in the road where a hospital for mothers and children is located. CRS is working with doctors there to train them in gynecology. The hospital is just a shout from the forest where rebels are holed up. In some villages, says Congolese, they come into town and buy and sell with women on market days. They are also the same men who are raping them.

The head doctor at the hospital, Dr. Freddy Mubuto, who is traveling with me, says women often come to him after going to traditional village doctors who treat them with toxic leaves, only causing more damage to their reproductive systems. They often come to him when things are beyond repair. Dr. Freddy is their last option.

It’s easy to forget these atrocities as you drive through Congo. As Jimmy feathered the clutch and the mountains floated by, I had to remind myself I wasn’t in Interlaken or Hallstadt or some other Alpine region. It’s in these idyllic mountains where some of the 5.4 million Congolese have died since war started in 1998. According to the International Rescue Committee, 45,000 people are dying every month in Congo. And many from diseases that are easily preventable, such as malaria and diarrhea.

The hills here are covered with a shawl of soft grass that sweeps down from summit to valley floor. It’s more Kauai than Kinshasa. And as the mist rose, that blue breath of the jungle, and evaporated into the sky, I could make out gardens on distance hillsides where farmers had cut plots into the rust-colored earth. They grew corn and cassava here. I wondered if they did that on purpose, if they farmed up there because they knew the rebels wouldn’t hike up and steal it.

In this part of Congo, the hard and patient profession of farming is being abandoned in favor of a quick buck. Congolese here are now turning the soil for gold. That means less food is grown, child malnutrition is on the rise and local economies are now faltering.

Jimmy gunned it and we soon slid away from the carpeted valleys and into a jungle. Reality hit me when we passed a procession of villagers carrying a man on their shoulders in a stretcher. A cloth flapped over his head, protecting him from the sun. This is a common sight: With no roads, villagers are forced to carry those who can’t be treated to the nearby towns of Kamituga or Bukavu, sometimes walking for days. Some don’t survive the trip.

Congo_Truck stuck in mud

Men work to free a truck stuck in the mud. Photo by Lane Hartill/CRS

If the roads were better, the sick would have a better chance. Cargo trucks larded with everything from cement to charcoal grind the road into a chocolate fondue that makes them almost impassable. Drivers hire local men to ride along and dig them out when they get stuck.

We rounded one corner to find passengers watching men shave gravelly dirt off a hill and throw it under the tires for traction. The mood was festive; everyone was rooting for the truck to make it out (after 15 minutes, it did). A guy in a stained women’s gardening bonnet looked at me and yelled: “This is Congo!”

As the light faded, Jimmy drove over the rocky spines of mud, his legs shot out for balance as we juddered and jounced over stones the size of footballs. My helmet banged into the back of his head. Wet leaves slapped him in the face. When Jimmy could no longer keep the bike upright, he would turn and nod. That was the sign for me to get off and start walking.

We powered through villages and people stared: an American blowing through was like seeing Elvis in Wal-Mart. When we stopped and I swung my helmet off, people were awestruck. I felt like Evel Knievel.

And as the recognition seeped in that there was a foreigner in their midst, children hooted muzungu, the Swahili word for white, and the crowd thickened. In one village, it had been so long since a white Westerner had passed through, children thought I was Chinese, (a Chinese firm is repairing the road). Muddy barefoot kids ran after me yelling made-up Mandarin, which sounded like a braying donkey.

We didn’t pass a single vehicle for miles, just women bent over carrying loads. With no roads, Congolese carry the economy of villages on their backs.

Congo_porters

With the poor condition of eastern Congo’s roads, people are forced to carry heavy loads for long distances. Photo by Lane Hartill/CRS

A fragile, Bambi-eyed woman glazed with sweat balanced crates of Primus – Congolese beer – on her back. A quick calculation found she was carrying 125 pounds in beer. She was hauling this close to 20 miles. Another woman I met who was wearing a fuzzy wig and a blue Lakers jersey was hauling a sack of rice. I tried to pick it up. It weighed well over 100 pounds. I gave her a bottle of my water, and we parted ways. We soon caught up to her and passed her on the bikes. But as we went by, she lost her footing and fell into the mud.

As I thought about this, a wave of guilt washed over me. I was riding. They were walking. The glow in the distance and the buzz of the generators ended my internal debate. After about 13 hours and 135 miles, we’d reached the hospital.

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3 Responses to “A Journey Through Eastern Congo”

  1. Trent Gavin Says:

    Lane- Quite an insightful article. It is refreshing – albeit heart wrenching – to see an unbiased and honest account. The true nature of a developing country’s struggles is a fantastic reminder of things we shamefully take for granted. Keep up the great work!

    PS- Kudos for including Hwy 101. I happen to live in a bit of a ‘hog wallow’ on that picturesque highway!!

  2. Matoni Dominic Says:

    I give thanks to the person who has reported these pictures of realities in the DR Congo. The country has been ignore by the world, rather abandoned the “HUMAN BEINGS” there. Those are roads I went through. For 70% of the congolese, owning a bicycle is a luxury. In cities, 3 meals a day is luxury, education level has dropped, 90% of the congolese have never known what a tarmac road looks like… but there are quanties of natural resources for which they are victimised as the powerful ones scrumble over those minerals to conrol. Give a chance to Congo and its people.

  3. Otshudiema Otokoye John Says:

    Congratulations to Lane for this instructive article, which allows feel profound realities of the DRC in general, but of the province of South Kivu (East of the DR Congo). It’s a motivational factor for us CRS-Project AXxes Project Medical coordinators and supervisors. These are realities that we live every day in the field supervision, provide technical support and assist vulnerable populations in difficult access areas, is a real challenge for us, but also a ministry.

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