Congo's chairmen of the boards

GOMA, Congo — It's an ungainly beast of a machine: a wooden bicycle with handlebars like great bull's horns, two runtish wooden wheels, a chunky frame like a squashed triangle and no pedals. There's no seat either, just a kneepad fixed to the frame, made from a spongy Chinese flip-flop.

The Congolese chikudu looks like it rolled right off the pages of a child's drawing book and onto the rutted roads of eastern Democratic Republic of Congo.

Uzima Bahati, 18, was a child himself when he became a chikudu operator. He left school when he was about 12, and has spent the last six years pushing astonishing loads on the surprisingly sturdy contraption, his whole body bent to the task.

"It really helped me in life because it's like a free job," he says. "When I get enough money each day, I can go home and buy food."

He's so proud of his chikudu that he spent $5 — more than twice the average daily wage here — for brown and white paint and brushes, to make it look smart.

In careful but wobbly script, he painted his cellphone number on the vehicle along with maxims such as "A job's a job" and "Stop talking so much." The latter, he says, shows he doesn't care what anyone thinks of him, even if they're laughing.

Other chikudu riders (or rather pushers, since it's rare that the owners actually get to ride the lumbering machines) taunt Bahati for his painted version, which by Congolese standards is almost gaudy. Most of them are battered and stained grayish.

"My friends laugh at me, saying: 'You have money to spend on nothing. You could use the money you spent on paint to buy something useful,'" says Bahati, a layer of thick grime coating his body. "When they laugh, I don't feel bad."

His eyes dart about with curious amusement, a semi-smile fixed on his lips.

When he's working, which is every day, he wears a shirt worn to a web of holes. But before meeting his sweetheart or hosting visitors, he dons a crisp white jacket and pristine trousers.

To people here, the chikudu symbolizes the tough, never-say-die determination of the Congolese, for whom every meal, every gallon of water for washing and drinking, every plank and metal sheet used to build a house must be hauled from someplace else.

Chikudus are like quiet oxen that require no food, just the occasional squirt from an oilcan. People's dependence on them — and on their children to push home the backbreaking loads — is testament to the poverty of the people in this part of Congo, most of whom survive on less than $2 a day.

They're a perfect fit for Goma, a booming city of 1 million on the picturesque shores of Lake Kivu, where the tracks off the main roads are undulating rivers of volcanic rock, the detritus of a 2002 eruption that spewed lava through the city. The rock shreds the rubber tires of conventional bicycles, which are no match for the sturdy chikudu.

"Ordinary bicycles are useless. They don't carry much and they get punctures all the time," says Bahati's cousin Cengi Byamungu, a chikudu maker who put together the machine Bahati is so proud of.

Around here, comparing a chikudu to a conventional bicycle would be like equating a 10-ton truck with a VW Beetle. The wooden vehicles, people like to boast, can carry half a ton of potatoes.

Half a ton?

They look sturdy enough, but this sounds like a Congolese tall tale. Perhaps they mean 100 pounds, not 1,000?

"It is truth!" one man shouts in broken English, grinning from a crowd pressing close during a Goma street interview with another chikudu owner. Other voices interject, popping with enthusiasm, eager to overcome all doubts about their magnificent machines. Potatoes come in sacks of 100 kilograms (220 pounds) and the chikudu can carry five at a time, they insist.

Even the chunky Chinese motorcycles common in Africa cannot rival the chikudu for cargo and are used mostly in Goma as taxis.

In rural areas outside the city, men, boys and sometimes girls push chikudus along roads in the late evening, laden with enormous bundles of sugar cane. The loads are so heavy that five or six people are needed to get the cargo home to their villages.

"If it takes any more than that, it can break," says Bahati, whose father works smashing rocks for construction and whose mother is a farmer.

When Bahati decided to become a chikudu operator, he went to his cousin Byamungu, whom he calls the city's finest chikudu maker.

"I'm famous for it. They call me 'the Founder,' because I make nice chikudus," says Byamungu, 24, who tried making his first one at 12. The axle broke.

"I was angry with myself. My dad was telling me to stick at it, and be serious," Byamungu says. By 15, he was making chikudus that are known for being almost unbreakable.

"The secret is to know how to assemble it," he says. "The secret is skill." Pressed, he smiles and offers little more, either shy or unwilling to give away his design secrets.

Some people have tried to mount an engine on the vehicles, but that was overcomplicating a device whose genius is its simplicity. It didn't work.

But other improvements have been made: Thick truck-tire rubber around the wheels makes them run better, and suspension springs absorb the many pothole shocks.

The toughest journey Bahati ever made was to a village about six miles west of Goma, carrying seven timber poles used for building. Pushing the load along the pocked road, grinding up hills and controlling the load on the way down, he almost doubted he would make it.

"It took the whole day," he said. The original load was an impossible 14 poles. He tried to fit them onboard, but it was too much. In the end he had to give up half his profit for the job and divide the cargo with a friend.

It's not just Bahati's survival that's caught up in the trundling of the wooden wheels. It is his entire life and happiness. He boasts shyly that he has a fiancee, and plans to make his first installment of the bride payment (traditional throughout much of Africa) in March, a dream that would have been impossible without his chikudu. He's already saved $100, he says.

On one of the worst days of his life, he lost his first chikudu. He'd worked late ferrying heavy cargo for a Goma businessman. It was too late at night to wheel his chikudu home, on the other side of the city, so he left it outside the businessman's house. The next day it was gone.

"I think it was used for firewood," he said. "That's what really upset me. They thought the fire might warm them, but for me, it really hurt me. I spent a whole week without work."

He went home that night, burning with shame, expecting, and earning, the wrath of his father.

"Papa was angry when I lost it because he asked me, 'How are you looking after it, if you lost it?' I didn't say anything because I knew I was somehow guilty."

Chikudus come in different sizes, some made especially for children. The boys are dwarfed by their loads, like ants with twigs.

But occasionally, when there's no load and a welcome downward slope, riders stand on the back of their vehicles and glide joyfully downhill, as serene as sailing ships in a good wind.

Bahati says he's not sure he could do any other job.

"I'll do it all my life. It's a good plan. Even if I save enough money for a motorcycle, I'll buy it and just hire a driver," he says. "But I'll still stick to my chikudu job. That's where I'll get my wealth from."

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