The Chukudu Is a Small Ride That's a Big Wheel in Congo

A chukudu in Kibati camp for displaced persons near Goma, in the Congo
A chukudu in Kibati camp for displaced persons near Goma, in the Congo (Anna Husarska/ftwp - Anna Husarska for The Washington Post)
By Anna Husarska
Sunday, March 29, 2009

GOMA, Congo

"Chu-ku-du, chu-ku-du, chu-ku-du" goes the wooden scooter as it bumps along the lava-covered streets of this central African city. It's a strange-looking contraption, like a handmade toy for grown-ups: two rubber-covered wheels connected by a board, with a steering handle atop an upside-down fork.

Even the oldest people can't remember when and how the onomatopoeically named chukudu first appeared in this part of North Kivu, an area of eastern Congo between the north shore of Lake Kivu and the heart of the Virunga National Park. But it is to Goma what the bicycle is to Amsterdam and the horse-drawn carriage to New York's Central Park.

Despite its odd appearance, a chukudu goes amazingly fast and can carry heavy loads; an owner can earn up to $10 a day -- a huge amount for the Congolese -- transporting a variety of goods. And more than that, it can help liberate the women of this region from some of the backbreaking work they face every day. Imagine if the chukudu and international aid organizations worked together to help move Congolese women along the road toward embracing their rights.

The regular traffic on the eastern Congo's pothole-strewn thoroughfares is generally a trickle of women and girls in colorful dresses walking along the side of the road, each one carrying some unbelievable cargo on her head -- charcoal, maize, perhaps the family's laundry -- as well as a child tied to her back, or water in a 20-liter container hanging from a strap around her forehead. Men pass by riding bicycles or donkeys or on foot, but they rarely carry anything more than their own personal items and perhaps a transistor radio or a notebook. The division of labor is clear.

But if a household owns a chukudu, a "maman" (Congolese for woman or lady) can ask "papa" to transport a load. She will still be multitasking 24/7, and he will still be mostly idle. But at least one heavy weight will be lifted, literally, from her shoulders. Moreover, if men share the burden of transporting loads for a family's use, that means that women and girls won't have to make as many cargo trips. And that means that they'll be safer, because crime -- especially rape -- is rampant on Congolese roads. In addition, a man with a chukudu is a potential money-earner. And to top it all off, the chukudu is environmentally friendly: Wooden scooters don't pollute.

The same can't be said for the kings of the road here: the slow convoys of white armored cars, trucks and bulldozers of the United Nations peacekeeping mission that spew clouds of exhaust and routinely clog traffic wherever they go.

Yet circumstances in North Kivu are anything but routine: The region's main claim to tragic fame is an ongoing many-sided civil war, partly the sequel to the 1994 genocide in neighboring Rwanda. Until recently, the war involved rebel Tutsi groups, rebel Hutu groups, regular Congolese army and a few other motley armed bands. The Tutsi rebels disbanded in January, and many of them joined the regular Congolese army they had previously been fighting. Around the same time, the Rwandan army entered Congolese territory at the invitation of Congolese President Joseph Kabila. Together these armies, which had fought two wars against each other in the 1990s, began an offensive against the Hutu rebels, many of whom are said to be former "genocidaires."

In late February, the departure of some of the Rwandans was celebrated by a joint military parade in Goma, where civilians have an uneasy relationship with foreign militaries that have contributed to the conflict and chaos here. But there has been no clear information about how many troops have left and how many remain, and how long they will stay.

Meanwhile, the United Nations deployment of peacekeepers here is the largest it has ever stationed anywhere in the world. Of the more than 17,000 personnel of the operation known by its French acronym MONUC, about 6,000 are in the province of North Kivu. MONUC's mandate was renewed and reinforced last December; importantly, its first and foremost task is "to protect the civilian population." And this is a monumental job: The current conflict has forced an estimated 1 million people or more to flee their homes in North Kivu and seek shelter in displaced persons' camps, with other families, or in neighboring Uganda.

MONUC is the first to admit that it can't protect so many civilians at risk. Last October, when 150 people were massacred in the town of Kiwanja, MONUC -- stationed little more than a mile away -- knew nothing about the incident. MONUC soldiers have interpreters only during working hours and only on weekdays, not necessarily the timetable when atrocities occur. Moreover, not all MONUC deployments are identical, nor do they operate under the same regulations: When armed men attacked a convoy of the International Rescue Committee last October, a contingent of MONUC soldiers of one nationality simply abandoned our team. The convoy was later rescued by a peacekeeping unit from India.

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