Democratic Republic of the Congo
“We´ll go via Ilebo!” ordered Francis, probably fed up with our ceaseless yapping about what route we should take.
The central road, which cut across Tshikapa and joined all the major cities of the country, was teeming with trucks that, due to the road´s bad condition, regularly got stuck, causing a headache to the rest of the drivers. We assumed that police checks would be more frequent along this route, so taking a northern detour, before heading back to Lubumbashi, seemed like a good idea.
“Ilebo!” we shouted, clinking our beers cheerfully.
I looked at Francis, the French guy. He was as old as my father and as strong as a thirty-year-old. He didn´t talk much about himself and seemed completely stress-free. I turned to Steven. He was my age, dreaming of travelling the world, weary of the German discipline and yet so imbued with it. And me, the bearded waiter from Greece, was naively enthusiastic though wary of anything taken for granted. I couldn’t tell whether it was the cold alcohol or the enthusiasm, but I felt my heart pounding every time I thought of what we were about to do. I had no illusions about us being extraordinary explorers, or that we had any special abilities whatsoever. It would be ridiculous of me to think that, when the locals´ daily lives consisted of undertaking what many foreigners considered achievements worth bragging about.
Kikwit, about 500 kilometres east of Kinshasa, was the last time we´d lay wheels on asphalt.
“This is sand!” I realised in anger, while sinking.
At first, riding on a path through the forest, a path which the map called a highway, was fun. But as we moved on, things were going from bad to worse. I couldn´t understand how vegetation so dense could grow on sand as fine as powder. I had only moved a few kilometres, but my arms and back hurt. At some point, the path widened. From then on, we had to remain in two parallel furrows, left behind by passing-by trucks. That was the road. Francis was groaning, erect on his motorbike, struggling not to fall off. I no longer felt like messing with him to borrow his heavy GS. I was gasping so hard, I could hardly speak. Steven on his enviable XT, had the same trouble keeping his balance on the frail ground.
“Oh, for FUCK´S SAKE!” (translation) I screamed. I knew that, although they didn´t speak Greek, my fellow travellers understood exactly how I felt. As I lay on the ground, with my scooter ‘Kitsos’ tilted to the opposite side, the deep wheel-ploughed ditch seemed like a bottomless gorge. The panniers bumped the sides and, at the first swerve, I´d lose control and fall flat on the fluffy sand. The down-pouring sweat stuck it to my skin and made my eyes smart.
When we finally made it to the mission where we´d spend the night, it was dark. The thick vegetation and the earthen alleys – some of them only wide enough to fit a bicycle – made Idiofa look like a tiny village. Only the motors of our motorcycles disturbed its peacefulness, startling the heck out of a few chickens that were carelessly pecking around.
“Looks like he’s wasted” I told Francis, pointing at Steven stumbling around, bottle in hand.
I was sitting on the floor. In front of me, a bunch of pasta was spilt on the concrete floor, both boiled and raw. Huge crimson stains went along with it and I was trying to stir the remainder in the pot, avoiding further casualties. My forehead burned. Now and then, I would sweep the sweat off the tip of my nose; when I was too slow, it would just drip into the boiling pot.
“And you´re sober, right?” Francis replied.
I sure wasn´t! After an entire day, we´d barely moved 100 kms farther, under the most incredible conditions we had experienced so far. The three of us were struggling to help and cheer each other up, with our feet slipping on the fine sand and our heads at the mercy of the scorching sun.
The following dawn, Steven was good to go, I was a bit sluggish, and Francis sound asleep, his feet hanging out of the tent. A strong coffee and a bucket of water was all it took to sober him up. Another day of plunges and falls, exhaustion and cursing and the amazing feeling that, despite all hardship, we were at one of the friendliest places ever. People would stretch their hand out to wave hello, to help us up from the ground, to offer something. Looking at the Congolese, I couldn´t believe that it was a helping hand they stretched out but it always was. This was a country which, up until the early 20th century, was private property of a single person: King Leopold II of Belgium. I couldn´t believe my eyes when I saw the pictures of the “savages” with mutilated hands – victims of the king´s personal army. The hands that willingly stretched out now belonged to the descendants of those who, 100 years ago, posed sadly for the camera, with their forearms hanging like branches and their generous palms chopped off.
We were about 150 kms far from Ilebo, but with every day that passed, our speed reduced.
“Right, now some rain to top it all off!” I gave the dark clouds above us a piece of my mind.
Over the last few days, our mood had been constantly subject to successive swings, which we were unable to manage. One moment, when exhaustion beat us down, we´d sink into deep depression, almost despair. And the next – when we reached some village and were received with smiles – we felt high as a kite. Our sore bodies and ceaseless mood swings were so tiresome, that at night we´d collapse in our tents and drift into a sound sleep, as if we’d been pharmaceutically sedated.
When I saw the slope ahead of me, I knew it would be hard. I started in first gear, controlling the throttle and with my hand on the clutch. My feet pushed along digging in the sand that was dry again and, with extreme concentration and caution, I started to ascend.
“You BURNED them, you idiot!” I uttered with contained tension when I smelled the distinct scent of the half-burned clutch-plates.
Immediately, my disappointment at myself flared up into a crescendo of rage. I tossed the helmet, cursed about the tangled cable from the camera microphone, stomped the ground angrily and crouched down beside the Vespa, trying to pull myself together.
Shortly after, my fellow travellers showed up. We decided that they´d move on, to scout around the area and then come back for me. The discs were not entirely burned but the clutch had reached its limit. I then realized that it was the last straw.
“Poor Kitsos, please hang in there!” I started talking to the exhausted inanimate metal pieces. With lots of sand stuck on my bald scalp, grazing it every time I wiped the sweat off my head, I started unloading the scooter. I carried my luggage all the way to the top of the slope, pushed the bike along to the same spot and stretched out under the shade of a tree.
Three hours would have passed, when, in a state of drowsy alertness, I heard the sound of a motorcycle and then saw Francis. A few kilometres ahead, they had bumped into a hospitable village, where they´d offered us their church to spend the night in.
There were only 120 kms left to Ilebo, but the road seemed endless! The surrounding area was full of rivers of all sizes and the tropical vegetation was lush. Be it little streams, or the great Kasai river, the last water barrier before our destination, we constantly had to work out our way across. I´d given up counting my falls and those of the others. I´d fall, and while trying to get myself and the bike up, I´d lose my balance and fall flat on my back again. I laughed, cursed and moved on.
“Il-est-beau! – It´s pretty”, I felt so proud of myself for this French wordplay.
Francis looked at me and laughed. We were sitting in the shade, leaning on the wall of a store painted in the colours of Brasimba – the historical Congolese brewery, founded in the 1920s. I turned to the waiter and asked for two more beers. He smiled and vanished into the end of the street. I looked at Francis, bewildered.
“He has only two beers in stock!” he said. “How could he keep them cool with no power?” As we waited for our beers, another customer came in. With slow, almost ritual movements, he pulled a chair into the shade. He took a transistor out of the pocket of his jacket and started zapping through radio stations. Soon, among the static, Congolese rumba burst into the place, touching the thoughts and movements of everyone. The chubby ladies in their colourful skirts holding their parasols, walked as if dancing. The well-built men that passed by on their overloaded bicycles seemed to be moving effortlessly. The children in their school uniforms tapped their fingers to the rhythm and suddenly the chores awaiting them back home seemed less dull. A truck full of workers was honking and the passengers onboard started whistling and waving.
“I want to live here!” As soon as these words had come out of my mouth, I knew I meant them more than I actually thought.
“You´ve had too much to drink”, Francis replied.
Barely 10kms past Ilebo, the road went rough again. Francis looked exhausted. He had more trouble getting back up after each fall.
“Come on gramps, you can do it!” I tried to cheer him up, admiring his stamina. Even Steven had more falls now and I was counting the times I managed to stand, even for just a minute. On the following day, Francis´ GS had had it. With its clutch burned out, there was no way he could continue; he had to load it on a truck and either go back to Kinshasa, or ahead to Lubumbashi. His wit and good spirits were gone.
Frustrated, he sat on the side of the road, soaked in sweat and with a backache.
“Guys, I´ll stay here and wait for a truck to pick me up” he said determinedly.
“Will you be ok on your own?” I asked.
“I´ll be fine, you go ahead” he said.
As I honked goodbye, Kitsos´ honk sounded loud and uplifting, but the nightmarish road, full of sand and relentless slopes, went on and all hope of it getting better had been vanquished. About 100 sweaty kms after Domiongo, the last threadbare clutch discs were burned. Kitsos went silent and I could do nothing about it.
“I´ll be fine, you go ahead” I echoed Francis´ words just the day before, and Steven left honking.
It was past ten when I heard the menacing moan of a truck through the woods. I jumped up and signalled with my flashlight. It stopped. After some bargaining to come up with a fare to Kananga that would be fair for everyone, the driver and five of the passengers, apparently his assistants, grabbed my luggage and the scooter and loaded them on the cargo area. We´d seen many rolled-over vehicles lying around dishevelled on the sides of the road and the image haunted me, but there was no other choice.
“When are we getting there?” I asked the driver, who steered the wheel with ample movements, to avoid getting stuck in the sand.
“Any moment now” he assured me but when we reached the truck station outside of Kananga, 72 hours had passed.
The minute I set foot on sub-Saharan Africa, I tried to adapt to the way locals perceive life by observing their daily routine. I wanted to strip myself, as much as possible, of all those pre-constructed images of the other, so attached to the specific setting that we grow up in. I wanted to accept everything new that came my way without judgment. There was no point in carrying myself around unchanged, unable to see the life unfolding before me. So I started getting a better grasp of the Africans´ relationship with time. The truck driver gave me vague answers, because he didn´t know when we´d get there and he didn´t really care. ‘We´ll get there when we do’ I thought, and finally calmed down.
The bike, all tied-up with straps and ropes, was hanging outside the truck. From Kananga to Mbuji-Mayi and from there to Kolwezi, I thought I kept seeing the same half-demolished bridges and the same decrepit roads – like a leitmotif – and felt like I´d lost all sense of space and time. The woods, the streams, the food; the way that, like a well-winded machine, the assistants worked together to pull the heavy, small-wheeled Iveco out of the mud. On and on. Each time we´d sink, the robust assistants would jump off, take the shovels to level the sand, place the tree trunks – always available on the back of the truck – in front of every wheel and, as soon as the truck was unstuck, grab them and throw them back into the carriage. Then at once, and while the vehicle was in motion, they´d jump back up.
On the last night, we stopped at some village, one of the many that we´d stumble across, with a few thatch huts and a clearing where the villagers would gather up in the afternoons. I turned down the insipid fufu (the local name for the sticky, white mass made of cassava flour). I didn´t want rice either; I chewed down some fruit and went to bed. At the break of dawn, with the morning mist still covering the forest and the first birds reluctantly starting their early twitter, the driver knocked on the window.
“Want coffee?” God I missed coffee.
We sat outside a hut, on a bench right beside the earthen wall. Next to us, a woman, quiet, was stirring her pots and the smell of burned wood tickled my nostrils. She had lit a fire and was heating water. The strong coffee straight out of the cloth filter, sizzling and full of dregs, soothed my throat and soul. I sat there, with the cup in my hands, watching the sun emerge among the high treetops. At last my mind was in tune with life at the heart of the Congo. I no longer cared about what I´d find ahead.
Ever since the three of us – Francis, Steven and me – set out from Kinshasa, to the moment I got off that truck alone at Lubumbashi, a month had gone by, filled with the most intense experiences. Those experiences taught me that I was more resilient than I thought. There, on trucks and tumbledown bridges, I learned that things I believed to be the same everywhere were not so. It took effort for me to get to fit new notions in my mind. But I also learned something else: we may each have our own special way of understanding life, but the way in which we perceive happiness is the same.
After all this, I found myself in an apartment with a fridge, and a bed, about to turn the water heater on.
“It´s a pity you burned the clutch” someone told me. “One extra set of discs and you´d have reached your goal”. I laughed. I knew that the goal was reached – if there´d ever been one.
Abridged extracts from the book Rice & Dirt – Across Africa on a Vespa, by Alexandra Fefopoulou and Stergios Gogos.