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.
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.
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
“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.
by J.P. Kalonji/
Eleventh Hour Artists Ltd.
a lot of places,
travels on a sleigh;
here, he has sent
1,000 bicycles of