Congo Road Trip

Monday, June 03, 2013

This is a post written by Dr. Rice who will be working and living in Vanga very soon. We have had the privilege of getting to know them. As you will read they decided to drive instead of fly from Vanga to Kinshasa. A village that has a large hospital MAF regularly flys to, this is their experience about driving in Congo. 


In America, the Midwest, at times, does not get much respect and is referred to as “Fly Over” territory.   Kathy had a great idea that since we had some recovery/preparation time between medical missions teams that we should make the day long drive from Vanga to Kinshasa instead of the 1.5 hour Mission Aviation Fellowship flight.    

Katherine Niles, a veteran International Ministries missionary and former resident in Vanga, discussed two options.  The first was the usual way the Congolese make the trip:   the first day take a transport SUV 75 km south to the nearest city, Kikwit.  Next, look for an express van or bus going to Kinshasa.  They would leave the following day for Kinshasa, making this option a two or more day trip. 

The second option, which is the one we took, was to “let it be known” that we were getting a group together to go directly from Vanga to Kinshasa and ask Mr. DeGaulle (same name as the Paris Airport) if he would make the trip.  Mr. DeGaulle is a successful proprietor of Vanga who frequently makes the trip between these two cities with a Land Cruiser full(!) of people and goods.  We were told that sometimes the goods piled high on top of the SUV include a goat strapped to the top (the ride probably was not as comfortable for the goat as the ride for Mitt Romney’s dog).  The goat, NOT a pet, would be sold at the market in Kinshasa.

This map shows the route we took from Vanga (on the map at“B”)  directly south until we hit the paved road 75 km south of Vanga, then we turned west and headed for Kinshasa (A).

Driver:  We met the cool-headed Congolese driver, Mr DeGaulle, wearing a wide-brimmed soft hat as he was supervising the workers loading the top of his Toyota Land Cruiser.
At a couple of police checkpoints, our driver calmly and carefully explained that this was a missions group (not mentioned:  the passengers were all paying customers) and were carrying items for the mission team (not mentioned:   the sacks of Cassava and other items being shipped to Kinshasa, commercial items).  The police at the checkpoints were checking to be sure the driver had paid the $50 commercial toll to use the road from Kikwit to Kinshasa.  Once they looked over the drivers receipts, they were satisfied and let us go.  I saw a little “small change” pass between the driver and the officer so he could “buy himself a bottle of water on such a hot day.”
Congo Road side graffiti

The 75 km portion of the trip from Vanga to the main road was like 4-wheel driving (literally) on sand dunes.  Erosion is a terrible problem during the rainy season, leaving deeply etched gullies in the terrain.  The road at times traveled through steep vertical cliffs of sand left by the rains.  As the road begin a sharp descent, we knew we were approaching another river, only to creep slowly up the other side.  The villages seemed to vary only in number of huts, with common features of roadside stands, a church, and sometimes a school of brick construction. 

Up hill road
Once we came to the paved road, the going was smoother and faster until you came to a village where was a very steep, stop-inducing speed bump on arrival and departure.  Since villages are frequent, the going was significantly prolonged by all the speed bumps.  Here the general topography came into view…rolling significant grassy hills (think Smokey Mountains or maybe the rolling hills of Eastern Montana).  One after another after another after another…..You get a much closer view and longer view by road then the 1.5 hour MAF direct flight from Vanga to Kinshasa. 

General observations:

There are no wild animals in the grasslands of Congo. They have all been eaten.  The only roadkill to be found are broken down lorries (overloaded trucks)--probably 100 noted.  There are no beasts of burden on the road, just people, especially women, carrying astounding loads on their heads. 

14 hours + 14 people in a Toyota Land Cruiser, with huge load on top is not comfortable.  We started out with Kathy sitting in the back on a bench seat with minimal cushion squeezed between the 4 other passengers on her side, the less crowded side.  On the opposite bench were 5 adults and one child, and two very healthy Congolese took up half the length of the bench while the other 4 were squeezed in the remaining space.  The poor driver’s helper was smashed against the back door in a small sliver of space.  The driver’s assistant came in very handy with changing the tire.  (More about that later.) 

As for leg room, there was NONE.  The woman sitting across from Kathy, a nurse at the hospital, had her overstuffed bag on the floor between her feet taking up every inch of space across from Kathy’s seat.  The only place for Kathy’s feet was directly under the woman’s or twisted around with no room to move around.  (Significance later.)  I sat in the front seat next to a 24 year old Congolese women traveling to Kinshasa with her grandmother sitting in the back.   She talked on the phone when we had cell phone service or texted her friends.  

Music: Once we got started the driver plugged in his SD card into the car stereo system and started playing Congolese music. This was enjoyable for the first 2 hours but got older and louder as the miles passed.  The driver and the passenger sitting in front with me got a good laugh when I finally pulled out my ear plugs and quietly put them in my ears for a little more comfort. The lady sitting in the front frequently sang softly along with what were probably her favorite songs.  Toward the end of the day I guess they were tired of the Congolese music and stared to playing American music, i.e. Taylor Swift.  At this time the driver’s helper in the back just plugged his ears with his fingers.

Contradiction:  Much of the way along the paved route we noted workers digging a 3 foot deep trench.  This was to lay Fiber-optic internet cable from Kinshasa.  The contradiction is that all the yards they were digging up were mud and stick homes with thatched roof, no electricity or computers. 

Food:  As we traveled through the first part of our trip, the people on the bus were offered snack items to buy from side of the road vendors.  Things like unshelled peanuts freshly pulled out of the ground, still attached to 6 inches of the stock.  Although there were a few other items bought, but most people nibbled on these freshly harvested peanuts.  Around noon we stopped in a village, and the team was ushered into a covered outdoor restaurant that was owned by someone that used to live in Vanga.  Not knowing the usual protocol for these types of trips, we had brought our sack lunch of bread, salami and cheese.  We shared our American food with one of the passengers, and then they ordered a regular Congo meal with Luku (Fufu).  We also bought very refreshing cold sodas to drink. 

The Tire Blow out:  Around 8 hours into our trip, as we headed around a corner down a hill, the right rear tire suddenly had a blow out and collapsed under all the abuse.  This immediately put the already top heavy car into a dangerous swerving, tipping motion.  Thankfully, our expert driver quickly regained control and we pulled to a stop.   This only delayed our travel by 30 minutes and gave time for people to “look at the flowers” as bathroom stops are called in Congo.

Flat tire repair

The last part of the trip Kathy sat in front since the small abrasion on the top of her right foot had over the day become a seriously painful infection.   Sitting in front, she got some relief and I joined the crowd in the back.  By the end of the day my derriere was bruised with only a little relief from the blow-up travel pillow Kathy wisely carried with her.   That evening Kathy started on antibiotics and over the next couple of days her foot is slowly improving and my derriere is getting better as well. 

What this trip helped me realize is how vast and beautiful the country of Congo is.  I will not, however, need to make this trip again soon to remind me of this vastness and beauty that we can see from the air.  This trip also helped me realize how valuable Mission Aviation Fellowship is to ministry here in Congo.  I believe having the training of medical personnel in a more rural setting helps them understand the constraints, as well as the possibilities, of providing care in low resource settings.  Yet bringing teams of American physicians to Vanga to train Congolese would be much more limited if the team had to make this arduous day-long trip at the beginning and end of each visit.