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COLUMN ONE

Congo's chairmen of the boards

Owners of the wooden bicycle known as a chikudu couldn't be much prouder of the primitive vehicles, which carry massive loads and put food on the table.

January 21, 2013|By Robyn Dixon, Los Angeles Times
  • A man in Goma, Democratic Republic of Congo, transports a diesel generator on his chikudu, a primitive wooden bicycle capable of carrying heavy loads.
A man in Goma, Democratic Republic of Congo, transports a diesel generator… (Jerome Delay, Associated…)

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.

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