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Hope on two wheels

 

In a remote, war-torn region of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, convoys of trucks and motorcycles are no match for the steep, muddy and maze-like mountain paths. So seeds and household goods are distributed to displaced families by the most efficient means available. By bicycle.

Simon is bathed in sweat. He stops for a drink of water and sees other cyclists overtake him. One of them calls out: “Tufagne ngufu!” — “Keep going!” in Swahili. Simon watches them with a smile and sets off after them, not as quickly as he would like because of the bumpy ground and the load he is carrying. He is nonetheless determined not to be the last to reach the rallying point that evening.

Contrary to appearances, Simon and his friends are not taking part in a cycle race. They are members of a squad of 1,000 cyclists that is criss-crossing the district of Tshopo as part of an assistance operation being carried out by the ICRC and the Red Cross of the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) in support of the people sheltering in the area around the town of Opienge.

Rough terrain
Province Orientale (in the north of the DRC) is known for its lush natural environment and the beauty of the countryside. “Of course it’s beautiful, but just look at this track,” says Simon. “If you want to avoid injury and arrive in one piece, you have to keep your eyes on the ground and not admire the scenery like a tourist.”

The inadequate and dilapidated condition of the roads means that transporting essential everyday items, food or medicines may take days or even weeks. Only those professional cyclists — known as tolekists (from the Lingala word toleka, which means ‘to pass’) — are able to find their way through the maze of impracticable roads.

This daily challenge comes on top of the chronic instability in the region. Over the years, the nearby forest has become home to a number of frightened families, who have been forced out of their homes by the violence and the conflict between the national armed forces and several armed groups.

More than 50,000 people in this region are said to be affected by this rarely mentioned conflict. Some of them have had to leave their villages and those who have remained are no better off. Looted and destroyed villages, lost harvests, an outlook as bleak and uncertain as that dirt track — that is the lot of many men and women in Tshopo.

While nearly 70 per cent of them have returned and are starting to farm their land again, they are still sharing their resources with more than 15,000 displaced people from far-off villages who have not yet found the courage to make the journey back home.

Logistical headache
Simon is pedalling his bicycle for those people. Although the road to Opienge and to Balobe, two of the areas worst hit by the conflict, is vitally important, it is unusable. As for the landing strip, a fair amount of repair work is needed. That was the logistical challenge identified by teams from the ICRC and the DRC Red Cross when they looked at how to transport aid to the displaced, resident and returning populations in Opienge and the surrounding area.

“From Kisangani to Bafwasende, no problem,” Elias Wieland, who heads the ICRC office in Kisangani, explains. “But how are we to get nearly 72 tonnes of seed and 4,000 toolkits from Bafwasende to Opienge?”

The people living in the region solved that problem long ago — thanks to the tolekists. Their lightweight, low-maintenance bicycles are well suited to the local terrain and have quickly become the kingpin of the assistance operation.

“I’ve had to organize convoys of trucks, arrange for porters to transport vaccines on their back, manage aircraft movement, organize the loading of a barge and find motorcyclists to cope with difficult terrain,” says logistics coordinator Jean-Marie Falzone. “But a squad of 1,000 cyclists, that’s a first.”

Seeds of hope
Three days after setting out, Simon arrives — exhausted but happy. “It was tough, but we are used to the terrain. For me, it isn’t just a physical challenge like the Tour de France. It’s my job, but this time, it’s also an opportunity to do something useful,” he says as he unloads the 45-kilogram sack of seeds from his bicycle.

Although the soil is fertile, successive conflicts have prevented the inhabitants from farming their land. Fébronie, a 30-year-old mother, says, “Life has become hard. Before, we farmed our land and Opienge fed the entire Bafwasende area. But how are we supposed to farm with all this tension? Before the conflict, a cup of rice cost 100 Congolese francs; today, it costs 300.”

In July and August 2010, 4,000 displaced and returning households in Opienge and the surrounding area were given 20 kg of rice seed and 18 kg of household tools. Now, if all goes well, Fébronie will be able to start harvesting rice in five months’ time. Just in time for Christmas.

Simon smiles. “I thought I was carrying seed. Now I know why the load was so heavy: it was full of the hopes of all those mothers. At Christmas, that seed will bring joy. In a lot of places, Father Christmas travels on a sleigh; here, he has sent 1,000 bicycles of hope.”

By Inah Kaloga
Inah Kaloga is an ICRC communications coordinator based inKinshasa, Democratic Republic of the Congo.


©
Illustration by J.P. Kalonji/
Eleventh Hour Artists Ltd.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

“In a lot of places,
Father Christmas
travels on a sleigh;
here, he has sent
1,000 bicycles of
hope.”


 

 

 

 

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