On our first working day in Goma, we met with a panel of women who were all running for MP seats in the next elections. At one point, someone asked which issues they deemed the most important platform of their campaign.
One woman, a second-time candidate from Masisi, was adamant that roads were the number one priority for her constituency. She had so many things to say about the importance of roads: “It’s all about roads,” she would begin, and then several minutes later, “And also, the roads…” We stayed on the subject so long, especially because for everything she said we had to wait for translation, that by the end of the session it had become a bit of an inside joke to the group listening to her jeremiad. We get it! Roads are bad.
A week later, it feels like an obsession with the roads of North Kivu is absolutely justified.
We’ve all seen some bad roads in our time: pothole-riddled, miles of hazardous hairpin turns, six inches between the tires and the edge of a cliff. But the specificity of what you see on the main, paved streets of Goma compared to villages just a few miles in each direction is staggering.
The very first thing I noticed driving through central Goma was the sheer number of UN and other aid-org vehicles. I suppose that’s to be expected, given what we’ve all read about the area, but I would estimate that nearly a quarter of the downtown traffic is UN-related. It’s a striking visual, and a constant reminder of the region’s hardship.
The second thing that caught my eye: I never would have expected the Congo to have laws about helmets on motorcycles, but that seems to be the case. Taxis aren’t done here, so everyone takes a moto. The drivers all wear shiny red helmets with ID numbers scratched into them, and most of the passengers have a matching helmet. Whether they all actually bother to secure the strap under their chin is another matter. Baby steps.
And the most distinctive aspect of Goma raods: les chukudus! A specialty of the Goma region, these sturdy, handmade wooden scooters are everywhere you turn. Only the men seem to steer them, but they appear to have a wide range of uses, from carrying people or goods to simply giving oneself a boost to get where you’re going a bit faster. They take tremendous balancing skills to operate, and are a pride of the region. A golden statue in a roundabout at the town center features a man propelling himself forward on a chukudu.
A few miles further, all three of these elements remain, but all in a rougher state. The UN vehicles are there, but you often find yourself passing massive trucks suitable for dirt roads and difficult terrain rather than gleaming white SUVs. The motos zip along, but with fewer helmets and more passengers per bike. And the chukudus abound, often hauling even more goods than a non-Congolese could even keep upright, but it’s more common to see makeshift chukudus, which are shorter and not as uniformly made. It’s as if the diminished quality of the roads has made everything around them lose a bit of their sheen.
On Thursday we found ourselves maybe 30 miles outside Goma. The trip took nearly two hours. We were bounced and jostled so fiercely that Caleb, our fixer-extraordinaire, grinned and shrugged, “Congolese massage!” As a souvenir I’ll be returning to Washington with a pretty purple bruise where my head hit the roof in the same spot a few too many times.
But all of these observations about traveling around North Kivu leave aside the biggest problem for the majority of the region’s population: the obstacles for those without motorized transportation. On top of the punishing distances, time consumed, and massive loads to be carried by hand, head, or back, so few of the people walking hours over the sharp volcanic rock that is their earth have shoes to protect their feet. It’s not uncommon in neighboring countries, and many people think shoes aren’t the most essential need. But there were too many disintegrating toenails and open, cracked sores to make this an acceptable way of life.
Roads are, without a doubt, important. Maybe it’s not a bad thing, sometimes, that their poor quality means we can’t pass by so quickly, missing all the details that deserve our attention.
Glendora Meikle, IRP