Daniel Howden: Progress endangers unique set of wheels
Congo Notebook: The chikudu is an ingenious invention, a kind of wooden bicycle meets scooter that can be found nowhere else
Tuesday 22 September 2009
Goma is not a city that sits still. Less than a year after it was poised to fall to the army of renegade General Laurent Nkunda, the capital of Eastern Congo is conspicuously back in business.
Garish advertising hoardings now compete for space with billboards proclaiming the good works of international aid groups. A flood of cheap Chinese motorcycle taxis bounce along roads that only seven years ago were rivers of lava after the eruption of the Nyiragongo volcano.
Sadly, the new prosperity, however shallow, does threaten one of Goma's truly unique inventions – the "chikudu". A kind of wooden bicycle meets scooter that can be found nowhere else and is testament to the entrepreneurial spirit of Congo.
The chikudu is an ingenious invention, with high handlebars above a large front wheel trailing a plank on which the driver and cargo sit, and a smaller back wheel. The bikes, invariably ridden by young boys immune to fear, can bear loads up to one ton, flying down North Kivu's endless hills at breakneck speed with the rider's plastic sandalled foot on the back wheel as the only brake.
The logic of these machines – made of scrapwood, ballbearings and sometimes a strip of distressed rubber – is that most of what Goma needs to survive is grown high in the hills above it. The market town of Kibumba, about five miles out of the city is a magnet for the produce that sprouts from the fertile volcanic soil. This is then bagged up and loaded in unbelievable quantities onto the locally made chikudus which let gravity do the rest.
Better roads and a growing economy are to be welcomed if they ever appear in Eastern Congo, but if they signal the death knell for the chikudu then there will be a tiny note of regret.
Beware the jungle buffalo
No one will tell you that searching for gorillas in the Virunga mountains is without risks. You can expect an arduous trek of maybe eight hours or more, often in forest so dense it has to be hacked open with a machete in order to move forward. There's a risk of running into armed poachers, renegade soldiers, and of course an angry silverback.
But who knew about the buffalos? It's almost impossible to imagine these huge creatures navigating the dense vegetation, let alone the sheer slopes. But there they are. Just like gorillas they favour the bamboo shoots that are in season and like to sleep the day away in the shade and comfort of the bamboo groves. As for how they move in the claustrophobic jungle, the answer is fast. You can tell when they move as the ground shakes and the trees give way to their weight, allowing them to run in straight lines. Make sure you get out of the way quickly by whatever means necessary should you disturb one .
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