Tag: transport

DR Congo’s tshukudu, the all-purpose transport scooter

What do you do when you need to deliver several hundred pounds of potatoes, 150 stalks of sugar cane, 30 eucalyptus saplings and eight sacks of coal, without motorised transport?

For residents of Goma, in the war-scarred east of the Democratic Republic of Congo, the answer to this, and many other problems, is the tshukudu.

A local but highly efficient tradition, the man-powered wooden scooters are everywhere on the paved highways and dusty sidestreets of Goma, holding their own with the motorcycle taxis.

A man with his tshukudu in Goma on June 19 2014. (Pic: AFP)
A man with his tshukudu in Goma on June 19 2014. (Pic: AFP)

They’re operated by a group of 1 500 proud, often burly men who not only have their own union but saw a giant, gold-coloured statue erected in their honour a few years ago in this capital of North Kivu province, on the border with Rwanda.

“The tshukudu is our whole life,” said driver Damas Sibomana.

Their vehicles, pronounced “chookoodoo”, measure about two metres long, have wide handlebars and a raised front wheel. They balance improbably large loads, as the tshukudeurs – as the drivers are known – push their vehicles along almost as much as they “drive” them.

Many drivers live outside the city and their day begins by transporting agricultural products grown in the verdant hills to the north, which feed the city’s markets. The good news? It’s downhill.

Once in the city centre the drivers await further orders for deliveries or return, again fully loaded, back to their starting point.

Men transport goods on tshukudus, wooden push-bikes, in Goma on June 18 2014. (Pic: AFP)
Men transport goods on tshukudus, wooden push-bikes, in Goma on June 18 2014. (Pic: AFP)

Jean-Marie Firiki gets up at 4am but his descent stops in Kibumba, 30 kilometres to the north of Goma, which boasts of being the tshukudu’s birthplace. The 35-year-old works as a tshukudeur at dawn and builds the machines during the day.

“A decent tshukudu costs $50 (36 euros),” Firiki said, “but the cost of a beautiful one can be $80-100” – quite a sum in DR Congo, where the majority of people live in extreme poverty.

But the boon is no fuel costs, and driver Sibomana says they can earn $10 on a good day.

There are no machines in the workshop that Fikiri shares with other craftsmen. Like most of the country Kibumba has no electricity supply. The men work the wood – here it’s eucalyptus – with a handsaw, a chisel, a plane and some sandpaper. It takes two days for a craftsman to make one scooter.

Invented in 1973
Paulin Barasiza works next to Fikiri. The 52-year-old traces the invention of the tshukudu back to about 1973.

Our fathers would sell potatoes and tobacco at a Rwandan market several kilometres away, he said. “They used wheelbarrows but these where inefficient. This is where the design came from” – inspired by bicycles.

The first tshukudus were made entirely of wood and the wheels were greased with palm oil several times a day to keep their gears from seizing up.

Sales began to pick up in the late 1980s but the decades that followed have been marred by inter-ethnic violence and regional conflicts that would ravage Kivu and still mark the province today.

It was paradoxically during this dark period that the tshukudu experienced significant upgrades: old tires glued on to protect the wheels, metal hubs and bearings and the addition of springs to aid steering.

Today, tshukudus cover vast distances and can carry up to half a tonne. Some models have a brake that works by applying friction to the rear wheel.

When a big load needs transporting to Goma, Sibomana employs two our three extra drivers for the day. Solidarity is strong, and thanks to help from other tshukudeurs, he was able to buy a field and a plot of land where he is building a house.

In early evening after a hard day’s work the scooter takes on another role: courting. The roads are full of young drivers taking their girlfriends out for a ride, both standing on the tshukudu as the man, in back, scoots it along.

The profession is held in high esteem. To have a daughter marry a tshukudeur means she “will not die of hunger”, said local historian Dany Kayeye.

A coffee vs livelihoods: Different kinds of loss

Every evening around 7pm, they would pack up their belongings, take home the cents they made that day and come back the next morning to do it all over again. Some would stay longer at their stalls, well into the night.

At 4am every morning I wait for the sound of the trains coming in and out of the Khayelitsha train station, which is just three minutes away from my house. I’m an early riser so I’m reading or writing at this time. At 5am, the daily hustle starts. Their voices, calling out to commuters to buy a piece of meat, coffee, dagga muffins, a newspaper, sweets, a bible or teabags, reach my ears as loudly as the chugs of the trains. I have come to expect these sounds. They are synonymous with my mornings; an assurance that I’ve lived to see a new day.

But on the morning of May 13, I could sense that something was amiss. I didn’t hear their voices at 4am. When I got to the train station, I saw their makeshift stalls which had been erected against the walls of the train terminal tossed to the ground. Five guards in big jackets with a Prasa (Passenger Rail Agency of South Africa) logo kept watch. Their message was loud enough without a word being spoken.

The hawker fondly known as the ‘clown’ of the train station, who sees us off every morning and welcomes us back in the afternoon, was not at his usual spot. He has become a part of my life, the same way strangers who take the same bus or train route every day become part of each other’s lives. Our relationship is mostly nods and hellos. He’s a loud, charming character who’s never ever quiet. He has an audience to entertain, to sell bibles to.

That morning, he sat on his usual chair but not at his usual place by the entrance to the train station. He had already created his new makeshift stall: a flattened piece of cardboard balanced on top of two empty paint containers. Bibles were piled on top of it. The eviction the previous night had not deterred him. He was here to work, to avoid poverty creeping up on him as it does on so many. The other hawkers were not yet operating. The support that the wall of the train station provided was gone, so they needed to rebuild their stalls from scratch.

The woman who sells cow tripe, her face a painted canvas of struggle, resilience, and hope, was also not at her usual spot. Another lady, whose right hand always has a plastic glove on while her left holds a fork, was not selling snoek. The woman on the second level of the stairs, whose back is to the Khayelitsha Hospital, wasn’t there. She sells clothes, beanies, gloves, leggings and watches.

Two months later, their absence still haunts me. Metrorail owners moved them out of the station to an area outside the gates, an area already congested with other hawkers trying to make ends meet. There’s nothing to shield them from the winter cold or the rain, and the ‘clown’ man’s voice can no longer be heard.  

We passengers may have a wider train platform to walk on without them there, but it’s little relief to me. I can’t buy a newspaper or coffee anymore, but my loss is meaningless compared to theirs.

Dudumalingani Mqombothi, a film school graduate, was born in Zikhovane, a village in the former homeland Transkei. He loves reading, writing, taking walks and photography. He plans to write a novel when his thoughts stop scaring him.

Accra to Ouagadougou: A long, winding road

We had just settled down to enjoy the journey to Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso’s capital city. We were over the bumpy part of the road outside Accra and the luxury bus was air conditioned. But it wasn’t the long distance ahead of us that began dampening my spirits. It was the driver.

When he got to a shopping complex near a town called Nsutan – just 50km out of Accra – he slowed down, turned off the road and stopped. I did not know it was common for luxury buses to stop for passengers to refresh themselves during a journey. And even if they had to stop, I felt it was too soon. But the driver and his assistant got down and went into the complex, the passengers following on their heels. Thirty minutes later, the driver came and announced: “Let’s move on.”

I was at the beginning of my journey to Ouagadougou to attend a conference of international journalists, which was starting the next morning. I did not want to be late and we still had more than 720km to go.

After the passengers got back into the bus, the journey continued. Buses like the one I boarded abound everywhere in the West African sub region. They are supposed to be comfortable, slow to break down and quick to get to passengers’ destinations.

But things were not going as they should have. At Kumasi, 200km from Nsutan, the driver drove the bus to a filling station and stopped once again. When I asked why he could not just go on, he snapped: “If you’re so desperate to get to Ouagadougou, why didn’t you take a plane?”

It was clear that this was going to be a tiring journey.

After the driver finished refuelling the bus, we headed for Tamale, a town more than 200km from Kumasi. As the bus crawled on, the driver stopped briefly at Tetina to pick up passengers. I discovered this was normal practice for drivers along their routes. I wanted to ask him whether the money would go into his employer’s coffers but I did not. Like bus drivers everywhere, the driver would oppose anyone who questioned his behaviour.

A few hours after we left Tetina, we encountered another bad piece of road. There were gullies, potholes and loose stones in and on the highway. To cope with them, the driver slowed down.

After two hours on the bad road, the bus got to a transit spot called Sawara in Katanpon, about 96km from Tamale in northern Ghana. The driver, who had been behind the steering wheel for 12 hours, stopped the bus, got down and sneaked into one of the joints in the place. After 30 minutes, he emerged, refreshed. His assistant took his position behind the steering wheel. This too, I discovered, was standard practice.

Now that it seemed we were making progress I felt better disposed to appreciate the buses. A 40-year-old Ghanaian acquaintance told me in Kumasi they had been around since he was a young boy. He told me a luxury bus could make as much as 3 500 cedis (more than $2 000) from an Accra-Ouagadougou return trip.

Our bus was typical of thousands of luxury buses that ply their trade in the region. They provide employment for drivers, ticket issuers, managers, clerks and canvassers, rescuing many young men and women from unemployment in the villages or from perpetrating crime in the cities.

Besides, when the buses stop at transit points, they are besieged by hawkers, who offer passengers all manner of goods for sale. The buses also carry traders and their goods around the region. They provide a reliable, regular service and so boost business.

By 8am we had crossed the border. When we drove into Po, a small town in southern Burkina Faso, the driver slowed down and stopped. He said that armed robbers were fond of attacking buses a few kilometres further up the road. He would not continue unless escorted by policemen through the area.

An hour later policemen escorted us past the trouble spot and we closed in on Ouagadougou, thinking there would be no more problems. But there were – the bus hit an enormous pothole just before a narrow bridge some kilometres from our destination. I hit my head against the window, bruising it. But the driver steadied the bus and crossed the bridge.

He stopped the bus at the Ouagadougou International Bus Station at 12 noon, 29 hours after leaving Accra. I was late for the conference, but I nodded to the driver and he gave a thin smile. As I moved towards a street, I sighed. It was the longest journey of my life.

Adetokunbo Abiola is a prize-winning Nigerian journalist and author. This post was first published in the M&G newspaper.