Tuesday, September 11, 2007


We have been fascinated by the various means of transportation in Africa, and thought you would be interested in a blog on what we have seen so far. It's all very basic, but it works, and people seem to be very content with their system.

The most basic means of transportation is "the head". You see the most amazing loads being carried on people's heads. Here a graceful African "maman" strides down the road with three baskets stacked on her head. Because there are three, she's using a hand to steady them. With only one container, she wouldn't need a hand. And often there will be a cloth tied around her back and shoulders, with a little baby bouncing along behind her. Yet, they will give you the biggest smile and wave if you wave at them. And most of them wear only flip-flops or very elementary feet covering as they walk for miles. On our last trip up to Cameroon, we had four stuff bags loaded with 50 pounds each of materials for the church. No problem -- the porter carries one in his hand, and one on his head. As a veteran of three back surgeries, I could only wince.

The next step up from walking and people power is the lowly bicycle, but not as we use them.
Bicycles are sometimes used for riding, but mostly as a two-wheeled means of transporting large loads by foot. Here, probably 15 miles away from any meaningful inhabitation, a man pushes his bike, loaded with sacks of maize (corn) probably totaling 300 - 400 pounds.

Once you get past the bicycle, there is one other two-wheeled conveyance. It's a cart called a "pousse-pousse", meaning "push-push" in English. We see them all over Kinshasa, delivering all types of stuff, and will do a special on the "pousse-pousse" in one of our next posts. So let's explore four-wheeled transportation.

I couldn't begin to estimate how many people were on this small truck, with its cargo as well. But I suspect that somehow they are all glad that they are riding instead of walking. When we first saw something like this, it boggled our mind. Now it's an everyday occurrence and we don't even pay attention. Think something like this would draw interest driving down the main street in your home town??

A rural scene, with a small station wagon like vehicle with about 8 people and lots of cargo inside, and another 5 - 6 people perched precariously outside, hanging onto whatever they can. Plus note all the people walking down the side of the road ahead of the car.

A great scene typical of close to large urban cities -- a road with almost no pavement, and a big truck coming from the provinces, loaded with bags of cargo and lots of people on top. During our trip to Luputa, we saw a truck like this, lying on its side, about 50 feet off the roadbed and 15 feet down a hill. We cringed, and wondered how many people were riding on top of it when it careened off the road.

Big giant diesel trucks are the lifeline of rural Africa, carrying cargo and people between towns. In this one, there must be 25 people up on top of the bags of "manioc" -- the root crop that is the staple of the African diet. The leaves are boiled and eaten somewhat like spinach. The root is pounded into a whitish/brown powder and then cooked and shaped into balls about 5 - 6 inches in diameter. The balls are then cut into slices and served with various sauces and little pieces of meat. Our first introduction to "fufu" -- the cooked manioc flour, came with a topping of tomato sauce with dried fish and goat.

More about the minivan "combies" in Kinshasa in a minute. This one is in Mbuji-Mayi. No space goes unused, including open doorways. Our good friends have a picture of a combie with a passenger standing on the back bumper hitch, hanging onto the rain drip rail as the combie speeds down the road. You pray that there are no accidents.

In a city of more than 8 million people with a very rudimentary bus system, and not too many private vehicles, how do you move people? The answer is the "combie". Every VW bus on the planet that is more than 15 years old, is here in Kinshasa. They take out the seats, and put in a structure of wooden benches so they can crowd in 5 or 6 rows of 4 to 5 people each. In this bus, there were 4 on the front row, and 5 rows (you can't see the last one) of 4 - 5 people each, making close to 30 people. The combies are in deplorable shape -- belching oily smoke and usually lurching to one side. The bodywork has all kinds of dents, and the other day, our friends saw one with the tailights painted on. No wonder you couldn't tell it was stopping!! Each has a sign indicating its destination, and riders use an elaborate set of hand signals to flag a combie over (if there is room). Whenever one that is relatively empty loads up, the scramble of people for seats is something to behold.

This is another "commuter special" headed from a suburb into Kinshasa. For the people who can't afford either a "combie" or a bus, which is usually loaded with three times what we would see in America, there is always the big empty dump truck. At about 15 people deep, and 5 or 6 rows across, this gets 75 to 90 people downtown. One wonders what they will do when the rainy season starts!!

Anyways, hope that gives you an idea about transportation in the Congo. We'd show you pictures of the railroad, except it only runs about one train a week between Kinshasa and the coastal port. When we cross the Congo River to Brazzaville to visit members and missionaries there, we take a "canoe rapide", which is a 30 year old 24 foot waterskiing boat. These usually are loaded with about 15 people, as well as assorted luggage, etc. Taking pictures is prohibited. On our last trip there, the boat stalled out about 150 feet from the other shore. The river was starting to take us at a pretty good speed towards the rapids about 3 miles downstream. But the operator called another boat on his cellphone and we were safely towed to shore. Our visitors from South Africa on this trip were a little wide-eyed, and more than a little leary about the return trip. But all went safely.

Taking pictures at the airport is forbidden for national security reasons, but suffice it to say that there are no jetways, you walk out to your planes, and there is only one "luggage carousel" in each of the national and international buildings. Whenever a large Air France or SN Brussels plane comes in (we use SN Brussels between Kinshasa and Cameroon) with 250 people and about 3 - 4 bags per person, we can wait almost two hours to get our luggage. Lesson learned -- from now on, it's "carryon only" when we're coming into Kinshasa. We haul huge athletic bags full of materials and manuals out to the districts and branches, and then stuff the bags inside of our little carryon cases on the flight back. So we're learning to transport stuff like our wonderful friends. Someone told us that we are at least "50% Congolaise" now.
The local airline prides itself on a fleet of 7 DC9-32 planes. (Production on these halted sometime in the 1970's.) But I trust them a lot more than the fleet of ancient Ilyushyn turboprops from Russia that are used on many flights. On our last flight back from Lubumbashi, I noted that one of the tires on the main landing gear was showing a "lot of cord" instead of a "lot of rubber". So we cross our fingers, arms, legs and eyes. It's so cute -- when the plane lands, all the passengers break out into loud handclapping, whistles and cheers. Wonder if they know something we don't?? Timetables are at best an approximation -- if the plane operates on the day it is listed, it's considered ontime. So we get lots of delays sitting in terminals -- non-airconditioned waiting rooms with white plastic lawn chairs, waiting and reading and remembering when we silently cursed an airline because the plane was going to be an hour late. Oh, how spoiled we were.
So this gives you a basic idea about how Africans get around. Hope you learned something, and you are grateful for everything you have.
Love to all -- Don and Marsha

But, all the smart aleck comments aside for a minute, we love this work and this land, and count it a great blessing to be here for these two years. We feel God's hand trying to urge this country to put the wars and corruption behind it, and move into an era of peace and less-poverty.


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i love to read about the everyday things you are encountering on your mission! thank you for posting so much lately!

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