A Small Ride That's a Big Wheel in Congo

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.

The humanitarian intervention in North Kivu is also huge: Ten U.N. agencies and more than 60 international non-governmental organizations operate here, providing shelter, food, safe water and latrines and such basic amenities as blankets, soap and pots and pans. They seek to improve access to schools and health care for displaced civilians, offering catch-up programs for children who missed school because of the war, and medical and psychosocial care for girls and women who have been raped.

When the armed groups move their troops, forcing the populace into flight, and when humanitarian groups try to help the displaced by bringing them vital support, it makes for a lot of comings and goings on the roads around here.

Which brings us back to the chukudus. Those funny-looking but sturdy machines can carry hundreds of pounds of goods balanced on the central running board. This may mean several bags of cement or cases of bottled drinks, dozens of heads of cabbage strung together like bowling balls, or numerous sacks full of charcoal. The chukudu must be pushed uphill, but Goma, the destination of most of the merchandise, is at the bottom of a hill. Heading down, the chukudu acts like a skateboard, and the chukudista just has to maintain his balance, using a piece of tire pressed against the back wheel as a brake. When the scooter is empty, he rests his knee on a pad made from the sole of a flip-flop and pushes with the other leg.

Four years ago, in an effort to boost East Congolese pride and promote this very sui-generis vehicle, MONUC and the office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights organized a 5-km chukudu race to celebrate International Human Rights Day. Two hundred competitors, divided into juniors and seniors, took part. The winners each received a brand-new bicycle; the runners-up won prizes tailored to local needs: goats or metal sheet-roofing.

There was a minor revolt in the chukudista ranks in 2007, when the then-mayor of Goma wanted to ban the vehicles from the center of town. But that mayor is gone, and the chukudus are still here. And according to the Web site of the Padri Bianchi, an order of Italian monks who work in Goma, a Congolese nun by the name of Deodata is teaching the chukudistas basic arithmetic and how to read. "Now they are learning to raise their heads, and soon they will be demanding their rights," the Web site, Missionari d'Africa, quotes the nun as saying, somewhat defiantly.

Of course, a wooden scooter can do only so much to stop criminal behavior, change social habits, promote human rights, advance literacy and liberate the women of Congo. But every wooden wheel does its little bit.


Anna Husarska is senior policy adviser with the International Rescue Committee.

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