Letter from Congo

In eastern Congo, handmade chukudu scooters rule the road

By Stephanie McCrummen
Washington Post Foreign Service
Thursday, February 11, 2010

African cities often have forms of transport that reflect some facet of their character. In Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, tiny, blue, Soviet-made Ladas buzz along the wide avenues, mementos of the country's Cold War alliance. In the Kenyan capital, Nairobi, a corrupt syndicate runs a fleet of banged-up minibuses with names such as Dreams, Bombastic, Mayhem and I Feel Nothing, which weave a spirited, at times nihilistic, narrative through the traffic.

In the towns and villages of war-ravaged eastern Congo, the lumpy, lava-covered roads belong to the humble chukudu: hand-hewn wooden scooters that men ride and push across the hills, hauling towering loads of charcoal, cabbage, potatoes and other stuff of daily life.

Though the chukudus look pre-industrial, local residents say they date from the 1970s, when Congo's economy and government began to collapse under the rule of then-dictator Mobutu Sese Seko and people had to improvise services from schools to heavy transport.

Available in three models -- small, medium and large -- the chukudu is a marvel of practical engineering and endurance. It has become the donkey of eastern Congo -- a beast of burden that hauls vegetables in the good times and fleeing people in the bad. Purely utilitarian, chukudus are rarely painted or personalized. The most common flourishes are mudflaps for their wooden wheels. And unlike the minibuses of Nairobi, chukudus rarely inspire nicknames.

"I just call it 'Chukudu,' " said Bunjuru Brazira, 40, when asked on a recent morning if his scooter had a name.

It was early, and Brazira was pushing his chukudu, heaped high with onions, along a stretch of road. He had stopped a moment to rest, had taken off his straw cowboy hat and was watching rush-hour traffic winding down the dewy green hills toward this provincial capital.

Amid villagers and schoolkids on foot and the occasional white U.N. peacekeeping truck, chukudus rolled along the gravel road, loaded with bulging sacks of vegetables, fuel, and teetering stacks of wood, metal sheeting and stones. The drivers, mostly young men wearing mud-stained T-shirts and determined expressions, clenched the worn-smooth handlebars of the scooters like the horns of bulls.

The scene was a small, perhaps temporary, sign of improvement in this corner of eastern Congo, where people have suffered through 15 years of a conflict that continues to simmer.

A little over a year ago, a river of luggage-laden chukudus, running villagers, retreating soldiers and army tanks poured off this hill as rebels advanced toward Goma. Since then, those rebels have been integrated into Congo's army. And though brutal military operations are still going on against another rebel group in parts of the east, the situation around Goma, at least, has calmed a bit.

Chukudu traffic has returned, and Brazira, who makes the scooters and refers to himself as a chukudu engineer, has taken some orders lately.

"I'm like the dean of chukudus," he said proudly, and then explained some secrets of his construction technique.

First, he said, there's the wood: He prefers to use the eucalyptus trees that are ubiquitous here and at times lend a minty quality to the air. "When you want to make chukudus strong, you put the wood in the fire, and when you're joining the wood using nails, it fits very well," he said.

He scavenges bearings and springs from old motorcycles, cars and trucks, and charges $50 to $100 for the finished product, depending on the size.

Occasionally, Brazira dreams up chukudu innovations -- extra springs, for instance, or a hammock-like seat. Mostly, though, he aims for the quality most appreciated around here: sturdiness. His best models, he says, can carry half a ton.

"I was just born with this ability," he said of his skill. "I guess it was like a talent in me."

Brazira got back on his chukudu and joined the others tottering and rolling down the hill, some toting black bricks smashed out of the lava that once spewed from a nearby volcano. The bricks were for a house, said Mbale Ndayambaje, who had extra horsepower in the form of two other men running alongside him. They helped steer and signal going downhill and push going uphill, sweat pouring from their faces.

Ndayambaje, 27, said he could expect a decent 5,000 Congolese francs, or about $5, for this trip, which is $5 more than he would have if it weren't for his chukudu.

"If you have a chukudu," he said, "you can't starve."

© 2010 The Washington Post Company