Day 1 on the Dirt – A Crash Course on the Congo

Blog 63 by Tan: Day 1 on the Dirt – A Crash Course on the Congo

Day 1 of proper (i.e. off road) riding

340km

Kolwezi to some place

 

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The day’s ride. 340kms. Killed it.

 

After all the hype, and the hypertension about hitting the dirt, the first day’s ride wasn’t too bad at all. But these tracks always start out easy, don’t they? Much of the day was on good gravel with any obstacles on the road easily avoided by motorbike. It was mostly savannah-like environment with the odd wooded area in amongst plenty of bright ochre dirt, tall grass and termite mounds.

 

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On the outskirts of Kolwezi. These would be the last power lines we saw for some time.

 

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The red dirt reminded us of places back home.

 

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Mick taking a breather.

 

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A lot of the first day off the tar had us ridding through wide open savannah.

 

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Past some colossal termite mounds.

 

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More red dirt and open plains.

 

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Snack break.

 

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A nice shop in a small village where we bought some bread for lunch. We jumped at the chance to buy food when we could to save our food stocks.

 

We woke to low cloud and a wet, high humidity mugginess in the air which never really let off all day. Thankfully, while the storm clouds looked intimidating they never made good on their threat of a thorough drenching. For the first hour or so of riding we found ourselves riding through relatively neat and relatively affluent villages. I am really stressing the “relative” there. In the days subsequent to this we saw so much extreme poverty and complete lack of opportunity, that with fresh perspective and hindsight we quickly realised that these small villages north of Kolwezi benefited financially from their proximity to the cities and the still relatively good quality of the road. Charcoaling the areas of wooded savannah seemed to be the self-employment industry of choice, but probably more realistically, the only real option.

We had witnessed the environmental scourge of charcoaling all over Africa. It is widely destructive and polluting. Yet it is undeniably a lifeline to people with no other way to provide for their families. People in the cities need cheap fuel to cook on, and the people in the country need jobs. The governments provide neither of these, so what is the average African to do?

 

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This was one of my favourite sections of track for the day. The views were lovely and we saw people fishing, bathing and washing kids and cloths.

 

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Got some nice fast km on stretches like this.

 

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Mick looking like a bit of a spaceman.

 

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The vegetation became more dense throughout the day.

 

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The roads were in good enough nic for this bus. We wouldn’t see much on the road beyond bicycles after this.

 

The big shame of it is the hardwood used to make charcoal is likely to run out before governance improves enough to provide reliable and affordable power supply to the areas where most people live i.e. urban slums, so they can cleanly cook; and the economy improves enough to provide an alternative source of income for rural people. But for now, the charcoal trade affords the rural people near the southern mining cities like Kolwezi a better existence than those in the interior of the country. Here the huts were built with large and better quality bricks, allowing for bigger houses that required less maintenance with the onslaught of Congo’s wet seasons. The children looked healthier and better dressed than what we would encounter further into our travels. Some school uniforms revealed some kids were getting educated to a primary school level at least. But by no means were we fooled into thinking all was well there. Just not as bad as it could be… and was elsewhere.

 

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Scenes from the road.

 

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Porters hard at work.

 

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On both sides of every town bigger than just a tiny village, would be a checkpoint where we would often get stopped by police wanting to see our papers and hoping for a gift/bribe. The video below shows a common exchange. Occasionally they would enter the details of us, and/or our bikes, into some ancient looking ledger. But most often not. What you see in this video was pretty representative of the majority of interactions we had with gendarmes, police, immigration, or anyone pretending to be one of the three.

On the whole the exchanges tended to be polite and amiable. Invariably a gift, cigarettes or money would be requested. It was generally easy for us just to smile and say “nah mate, sorry, je suis tourist”. As we got further into the interior however, most requests for money from officials started to look far more like begging than attempted extortion. We were surprised our reactions to requests for bribes from such officials became ones of sympathy and pity rather than the infuriation and resentment we feel when targeted elsewhere. Many of these guys, especially the ones in the real middle of nowhere look rather on the ropes themselves. They quite plausibly haven’t been paid in months. And while their status does allow them to hassle money out of locals, they are hardly doing all that well themselves. If they were regularly paid a living wage, theoretically there wouldn’t be the need to shake others down. Our sympathy was no doubt a result of them being so utterly desperate and us being able to get away with not paying them unlike everyone else.

 

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Storms in the distance had us expecting to get soaked but be managed to spend the day mostly dry.

 

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The storms were noisy and nasty but we managed to dodge them.

 

Most cases when these guys asked for cigarettes, we gave them provided they weren’t trying to intimidate us or weren’t overly demanding. Most were polite and gentle with their requests. I think it could have been a different story had we been in a car. In the case in the video, I gave a little sachet of chewing tobacco to the polite young policeman I’d been talking to. I’d been carrying it for quite a while as a potential ‘cadeau’ and was keen to offload it. It took some time before he understood what I had given him. The last time I demonstrated the use of chewing tobacco to someone I was green for hours so wasn’t up for doing it again. So a couple of the cops were happy while the others were not.   We were to have countless interactions like this where our presence would elicit excitement and hope duly followed by disappointment and sometimes incredulousness. We felt the human embodiments of an empty pizza box left in the fridge; promise and disillusionment in the one package.

But dealing with these requests is a moral minefield… do you give because they are exceedingly poor and desperate, yet reinforce the use of extortion? For blocking off a public road and demanding money is surely that… Or do you withhold because corruption is economic cancer and someone needs to standup to it and set the example that is not ok (especially as foreigners are seen as easy and wealthy targets and we are very conscious of not reinforcing this belief), and potentially have his kids go to bed hungry that night? For the truth is, these guys aren’t necessarily bad guys. They are just poor beyond anything we had previously seen in Africa, are merely following the example set to them by government elites and are using the only tools available to them to secure some sort of income.

 

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Mick checking out our progress.

 

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Lovely bit of road indeed.

 

Which leads into further rhetorical questions and hypothetical thought experiments… if the police in these tiny rural towns don’t extort money from passer-bys; what would they do to survive? For they are not paid by the government, at least not frequently and certainly not enough to live well on. They would have to rely on substance farming and scavenging like everyone else, and then there is no police force at all. Or is the current situation better? Where the people essentially pay an informal tax and then at least there is some semblance of authority?

We certainly don’t know, there are no correct answers here… you just have play it as you see it. Generally, we rewarded kindness and gave small gifts like cigarettes or snacks to those who were welcoming, friendly and requested gifts politely; and held firm and gave nothing to those who were not. We wouldn’t reward genuine extortion, for these were the guys we felt needed to learn that not all foreigners were not naïve, weak or easy targets.

 

VIDEO How an average police checkpoint encounter goes down in DRC.

 

After a long day of undemanding off-road we had decided to look for a place to sleep much earlier than we ordinarily would. Most of Southern and East Africa is perfectly geared to people disinclined to plan and schedule. People like us. Fuel is generally readily available, food, though simple and repetitive is easy to come by and no matter how small a village there is generally a cheap hotel to be found. As such, our typical days last until just before sunset. But DRC is worlds apart from Southern and East Africa and we’d need to do a lot of things differently. The most important of which was finding a suitable place to camp for the night long enough before sundown, or as in the case on this day, before it rained. We could see large storms rolling in from the north-west and we wanted the tent up before we got wet.

It was to be a delicate balance of finding a campsite with enough time to set up before the storm hit, yet not so early that the chances of being found were increased.

 

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Our first campsite in DRC. Few mosquitos were about so we were happy.

 

Being our first night on the real trail and feeling we were still finding our feet we were keen to find a quiet place we could camp on our own and in peace. And to be perfectly honest, with knowledge of some bad experiences other travelers that had crossed Congo had encountered I couldn’t help but feel a bit of trepidation. I tried to keep those stories out of my thoughts.

 

It took a little while to find what we thought would be a suitable campsite. We’d been riding in what seemed to be a sparsely populated area so started to scope for prospective campsites. However, whenever we thought we’d found a place there would be a pedestrian on the road or we’d see a collection of huts just a few hundred meters further on. We really needed to find a spot out of sight from the road and sufficient enough distance from habitations so we could avoid having to ask permission to stay, have our location known and our security compromised. Getting village permission to camp would come later, for now we were hoping to go incognito for a bit.

 

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Setting up camp.

 

Eventually we found what looked like a perfect spot after travelling some time without seeing anyone walking down the road or any huts. We rode about 30m down a drainage gulley, being careful to ride on the grass to minimise the tracks we left, and then another 50 or 80m into the scrub where we set up camp behind a big termite mound. A really big one, it was probably 4 or 5m wide at the base and 3m tall. There was no chance of being seen from the road.

 

Soon after we had the tent set up and watched the storm roll over to our south, we were lucky and caught nothing but a few random drops of rain. Feeling chuffed that we had pushed on for 340kms that day and had already ridden the roads that the storm had just drenched without getting wet ourselves, we got ready to cook some dinner. Just then an old man with a young guy popped up around the termite mound and were in our campsite. They had been hunting birds in the forest with a slingshot, and had seen our tyre tracks and followed them in. We had just learned a valuable lesson that riding on the grass was never going to be enough to hide our presence from guys who are in the forest every single day.

They were polite yet seemed a little confused as to why we would want to camp in the forest and indicated that there was a village further up. I asked if he thought it was fine to stay here and he said it would be ok. At this stage my French was utterly woeful but not so poor as to miss the fact the old guy spoke some of the loveliest French I had heard. His enunciation was perfect and he was obviously mission educated. Though at his advanced age that would have meant he’d progressed no further than fifth grade, as fifth grade was deemed by the Belgian colonizers to be the maximum required level of education for a Congolese. I’m sure there were countless bright young minds who would have felt differently but they were to have no say in the matter. As it was at the time of Congo’s independence from Belgium in 1960, the country had but 16 university graduates.

It was a shame we couldn’t communicate more and a resolved to get stuck back into learning French. In this part of the country on the whole Swahili was far more commonly spoken yet we found plenty of people speaking French all over Congo. I couldn’t help but wish we’d picked up more Swahili in our travels. Or even better, had our mate Caleb from Arusha with us to serve as translator.

The old fella asked for a gift and we gave him a pack of cigarettes. We are non-smokers but had bought several packets of ciggies to make friends if needed. I wouldn’t ordinarily advocate handing out cancer sticks but here in DRC it is a great way to make a gesture of goodwill with anyone from the likes of obstinate cops to hard working velo boys pushing heavy loads all day.

 

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Mick found a gnarley centipede.

 

This old fella seemed like a nice guy and appreciated the gift of the smokes, which I guess makes sense considering that 60% of people in the DRC (some 48+ million) live on less than $1 a day. Which is not quite enough to buy a pack of the cheapest cigarettes. These guys were clearly in the unfortunate majority. Bump that income threshold up to $1.25 per day (the World Bank’s benchmark for extreme poverty) and you capture some 88% of the DRC population. To give perspective to that, consider that in India only 33 per cent of the population lives on so little.

So… yeah… poor ol’DRC, where 88% of almost 80 million people live on $1.25 or less per day while US$24 trillion worth of minerals lie in the ground beneath their feet… and that’s just the untapped minerals that are known about. DRC is hard to get one’s head around.

The two men indicated they were off home so we said our goodbyes and hoped they’d keep our presence on the down low. After about 20 minutes the young guy returned to watch what we were up to. I made him a cup of tea to drink with us but only had a bowl to serve it in. I packed the 3 used teabags in a wrapper and asked if he wanted them for later. He did. Before moving on he asked shyly for some money. We get asked for money plenty on this trip but it is fairly rare that we give it. We’ll share food and give gifts when staying with people, give away any surplus items we find ourselves with and pay for odd jobs like watching or washing the bikes… but for the most part we don’t hand out money. But I couldn’t help but feel for this young, strong looking teenager that back home would have the world at his feet… yet here in the middle of nowhere DRC, there were simply no opportunities for him. The poor boy will be in all likelihood struggling for the rest of his life.

And that was something that really stood out about DRC for us; the lack of options, the absence of opportunity. It came as a surprise to us that all our travels in Africa had not yet prepared us for the poverty and privations experienced by the average Congolese. Elsewhere in Africa poverty abounds and obscene levels of inequality exist yet one can at least sense the economy’s heartbeat. DRC’s, at least outside of the main cities, on the other hand, appears in full rigor mortis.

I ended up giving the kid a loose 500 francs from my tank bag. I felt awful for the kid and awful at myself for swanning across Congo in $400 boots and a $600 helmet. The guilt multiplied when I learned 500 Congolese francs is about US 55 cents.

My sympathy when roused amounted to hours of guilt, a fitful night’s sleep and a measly 55 cents in his pocket. I felt disappointed and inadequate. I got upset for feeling upset and couldn’t figure out if I was empathising or wallowing in narcissistic white lady guilt. Probably both. The ‘opportunity vacuum’ that is Congo was hard to ignore and hard to deal with from the very beginning. It was only our first day outside the richer southern mining areas, yet we were already acutely aware of it, and starting to feel pressed in by it. We couldn’t help but feel a greater lack of hope for improvement in circumstances than anywhere else we’ve encountered on our travels. Such feelings were to make the crossing all the more exhausting.

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