Congo – A Bridge Too Far

The Long haul to Dolisie –

congomap2 (1)Hopping the famous Trans-Gabonais train, I departed at Moanda, the second to last stop. I had a mild interest in seeing Franceville; however I was a day behind (I wanted to leave Libreville Thursday, yet there was no train Thursday), and went directly into one of eastern Gabon’s larger towns.

Its claim to fame is a large Manganese mine that employs most of the town’s population, and of course justifies its rail link to Libreville and the ports of Gabon. The station is on the other side of a hill and connected to the town by a dirt road, so I whiled away my time in a shared taxi en route to the centre and eventually the waiting spot for buses heading south.

Indeed, I was a bit ahead of schedule and decided that since I was already halfway to Kinshasa, and the next flight from Libreville to there was on the 15th, I may as well go by land from Moanda to Brazzaville. Of course, there is no accurate information of travelling to Congo Brazzaville and I knew little of what I was getting into.

So, south to the town of Bakoumba and an hour later I was sitting at the town’s one general store with the local folks staring at me with eyes wide open wondering what I was doing there. I had hit a dead end of some sort: This is one of those routes in Africa that the traveller on a schedule shouldn’t take. I learned then that when guidebooks say that a border crossing is “less commonly used” in Africa, it really means “some unemployed European did it back when Brazzaville was aligned with the Soviets”, because I certainly was the first foreigner to pass through in quite a while; not least because the border was apparently “closed” because of upcoming elections in Gabon.

A local young fellow working for a mission in Bakoumba offered to help me (for money, of course) to find a truck that I could hire to head south to the border, and to find the local policeman to get my exit stamp. Yes, I would have to pay all of them – the policeman, the fixer, the driver and, once all of that was arranged, the Gabonese army. I didn’t mind any of the small costs (except the taxi – expensive at USD40) until the Gabon Army got involved.

The gendarmerie in Bakoumba firmly demanded USD20 from me for some sort of extra exit stamp, and I wasn’t too keen on this. Quite often to try and avoid a bribe I’ll ask for a receipt, saying I need it to send to my embassy in the capital. Surprisingly, he wrote one out for me (from a suspiciously old receipt booklet) and demanded my twenty bucks. It all seemed very fishy; however, at that point I was slightly convinced that this was normal procedure. It wouldn’t be the first time I paid a real tax at a border.

And finally, in the late afternoon light, we arrived at the frontier of Congo. After grinding along a winding dirt road through heavy jungle and tiny villages, with another drunken policeman writing illegible French in my passport to confirm he saw me pass this way (and surprisingly not asking for any money), the barracks of the Drunken Gabon Army of Bakoumba loomed before me.

They confirmed the border was closed as a result of the elections. The Congo side was open, of course. And, of course, it wasn’t really and truly “closed” – it just needed about 40 US dollars to be, um, reopened. Yeah.

So what could I do? They had guns; they were drunk on the local moonshine, called palm wine (I was offered a plastic cup of it, and after one sip I think I prefer unleaded gasoline), I no longer had a visa to Gabon but did have one to Congo. So I paid the ‘fee’, crossed the border, and arrived at the barbed wire and thatch huts of the Congo frontier.

congo2-130The hissing of insects in the jungle was nearly deafening and a few men emerged from the darkness. Congo’s border formalities were in fact incredibly simple; its officers incredibly friendly. They told me I needed to walk to the border town of Mbinda, a mere seven kilometres. I was preparing my pack for a walk when one offered to call into town and see if someone could pick me up. I checked my cash reserves – exiting Gabon had taken a toll on my finances.

Yet sitting around a smoldering fire in the deep jungle that separates Gabon and Congo, I was reminded why I continue to travel to Africa – friends aren’t hard to find, the heavy red sunsets ignite the soul, the smell of charcoal and thick foliage in the air creates an irreplaceable atmosphere. They had no electricity, and went about their border formalities with only an oil lamp and a flashlight.

Getting into town cost me another twenty dollars, from a guy who could smell money (and a white guy) from a mile away – seven kilometres to be exact. I think I would have preferred to walk. He took me straight to the Catholic mission, and I quickly realized that Mbinda was not the large-ish town that I had expected. I was led to a spartan room by oil lamp and asked if I wanted to shower that evening. I replied yes, after a long stinking journey from Libreville. A few minutes later in the shared washroom a plastic bucket full of water was waiting for me. Ah yes – no running water in Mbinda either.

“The train leaves Tuesday, so you’ll have to wait”, the police officer said. It was Saturday night – I hadn’t expected this. The last information I could find on Congo-Brazzaville said trains were running every day. This was far from the truth.

Congo’s civil war technically ended in 2003, but their infrastructure remains at wartime operation – if you can even say that Congo has an infrastructure. A train goes once a week from Mbinda to the third largest town in the country, Loubomo (also known by locals as Dolisie), and then one can catch the other weekly train east (or west, depending on various things) to either Pointe-Noire or Brazzaville on Sunday. The local rebels, known as Ninjas, raid the trains that run through their territory from east of Loubomo to Brazzaville, and if the train gets halted and robbed, it may be a few weeks before the train starts running again.

congo-006There had to be another way. I found another traveller – Leroy, a Congolese who had been fleeced by the Gabon army and then turned back with nothing, and I offered to pay his way to Loubomo if he could find some transport. Yet this was not so simple, as I was desperately short on cash and needed to be careful, but also leave somewhat quickly. And so began the long, hard haul overland into Congo.

We hitched a free ride with a Malaysian guy a short way to a small village called Mayoko. There are many Malaysians in this part of Congo – cutting down trees and shipping them overseas. Sitting in a cab with the Malaysian made a bizarre change after the often gregarious, if hard to understand, banter that your average African engages in with his seatmates. He could only respond “yes, yes” to any questions I asked him about his business here, which perhaps meant that I shouldn’t know. They were, after all, operating in a country with very little in the way of environmental protection or even the rule of law.

And then began the hard part – a large logging truck, a Mercedes Comilog with the phrase PASSAGERS INTERDIT stenciled on its side. This would be my next ride south, for about fifteen bucks, and it would only get harder from there.

Sunset coloured the sky red as we trundled along in a massive Mercedes logging truck, through the hilly slopes near the Congo-Gabon border. There was little room in the cab to sit – five of us packed tightly together and a few more hanging off the rear of the tractor. The driver was wired up on something, more than likely a few things, and took his hands off the wheel every so often when the truck was moving in a straight line to sniff back some kind of powder into his nose. He was hired by the Malaysians to take his truck through the thick forest here, south and then west to Pointe Noire, about a week’s journey. His payload of fifteen tonnes of logs had to be worth at least fifty thousand dollars by my guess; he was getting paid ninety dollars a month to haul it through these winding roads down to the coast.

Progress would be slow. At dusk, the rains came and the truck stopped on a hill. There would be no way to get the vehicle moving in the heavy monsoons so we would wait it out. I entertained the driver and the others, who had all piled into the cab to escape the rain, with information on how much truck drivers earned in Canada and the States. They made more than ninety bucks a month to haul fifteen tonnes of logs – the driver seemed to like this fact.

congo-007Once the rains ended, we exited the vehicle and watched its tires burn slowly on the muddy hillside, gaining a few inches every few minutes. After continuous periods of digging itself into the dirt road, the truck would jar to a halt and the mechanic on board would chock the back wheel. I entertained visions in my mind of an express bus to Mbinda – yet even finding a logging truck heading south was apparently modestly good fortune.

Deep into the evening the truck arrived at the crest of the hill and we piled in on our way south to the tiny village of Moungoudou, the President’s village (as they would ceaselessly remind me). Along a strip of dirt road in the middle of nowhere the villages of Congo pop up with their thatch roofs and mud bricks, oil lamps, and idle population. The others in the truck started passing around a jerry can of palm wine; I went to the one general store and bought a can of warm coke. A stranger sat with us and asked me to buy them all a round of red wine – everyone else in the circle shook their heads, glared at me, and then smiled when I replied “no”.

We continued in the morning much the same: through winding roads, other logging trucks joining us in convoy, grinding slowly up and down muddy tracks. Fog set in early in the morning and we had to wait – the driver would stand on the roadside chatting with villagers until another vehicle arrived from the opposite direction, and he would ask them about the road ahead.

In the afternoon of the second day, we finally arrived in Mossendjo – halfway between Mbinda and Dolisie. It was a modestly large town and we were ejected from our logging truck on its outskirts. The driver went into a large compound owned by the Malaysians, and we hitched into the town with a small pickup truck. In the centre a stretch of trucks sat on the roadside and crowds milled around aimlessly.

A bridge was out. The Malaysians were busy fixing it, but no one was coming or going this day. Leroy had informed me that Dolisie, Congo’s third largest town, had one bank with a Western Union office in it, so I did something I had not done before in all my travels – called my father and asked for a money transfer.

Even though Mossendjo didn’t have electricity, they had a guy with a cell phone who could call internationally. Yes, one guy. I got through to my father, informed him of my situation, and hoped that I could contact him again for more details in Dolisie. In Mossendjo, though, there would be little to do but wait.

congo-015We found a hotel. I was becoming increasingly frustrated, having a schedule of cities to visit and little interest in becoming too mired in Congo-Brazzaville’s various problems. A jerry can of fresh water and a bucket were waiting in the bathroom. No running water. No electricity. We waited out the afternoon, waiting for the trucks’ horns to begin blaring – a call to passengers that they needed to rush for their transport south. The call didn’t come. The blue sky turned to red sky, then black sky. I fell fast asleep; no one was going anywhere this day.

Leroy confided in me that he was, in fact, not Congolese, but French Polynesian, possibly born in Congo. When tribal connections run deep one’s ancestry is deeply important. His family, assumably, had given him money to get out and he had unwisely tried to exit through Mbinda. Now poorer and wiser, he was intent on getting to Pointe Noire so he could restart his journey. “Once I get out of Congo, I’m never coming back!” he proclaimed proudly.

In the early morning I grumbled loudly to Leroy and he quickly disappeared to find out what was going on. Minutes later he reappeared, saying he had secured transport south in a different truck. This large truck sat several feet off the ground, the back piled with goods and people. A cage covered it, enabling more people and more goods to hang from the roof. Its horns blasted, we negotiated a price with the driver, and in the still, early morning we slowly rolled off along the dirt road, heading south. Thirty minutes later he stopped at a small village and pulled out some tools to remove a rear wheel, drink some palm wine, and water the plants.

We were still following the rail line south. The Malaysians flitted past in a tiny rail car, tooting their horn, and the crowd of Congolese men turned from their palm wine just in time to watch them whizz by. I had lost all semblance of patience at this point, but was too tired to care – with my limited budget I was surviving only on bottled water and cans of sardines, and hadn’t eaten anything that morning. I sat on a bench in the truck and watched an hour go by, until we started again, roared further down the road, and stopped at another village behind a long line of logging trucks.

Ah, Tsimba… I had told my father I’d be calling around this time, but upon further investigation it turned out that not a single phone existed in the roadside village. It had a restaurant under a thatch roof, two small general stores, and a video hut repeatedly playing Tomb Raider throughout the morning. We passengers migrated from the back of the truck to a small wooden cabin with benches made from palm trees; I watched the sun rise, the clouds move, and my watch tick away hours.

congo-009In the early afternoon, as boredom had firmly set in, the driver led us on foot all the way to the front of the queue, to a clearing of dirt and mud, to a cement bridge and a mess of bent steel beams angling down into the river. One logging truck’s payload had proven to be too much for the old steel bridge. “C’est L’Afrique,” one man turned to me and said. “But this bridge, it’s French!” He corrected himself. I doubt the French had intended, when they built this bridge eighty years ago, that it would be used by a dozen logging trucks a day, and that the logging firm who came through would be too cheap to build a new one.

However, they had built a new one – sort of. Beside the bent mass of steel beams were four logs laid side-by-side; gone over once with packed mud, and large holes dropping down into the stream. The driver, his mechanic, and all of us passengers wandered out onto it and began the slow, agonizing, only-in-Africa kind of discussion as to what to do.

Take the risk? That hole would devour a tire. Pack some more mud into the holes? Wait for the Malaysians to properly repair the bridge? I looked across to the various planks that were hanging off of the steel beams, wondering how long it might take the two dozen passengers and other people hanging around to figure it out. Surely, I could have told them; but then I wouldn’t discover as much about how these people worked. And would they listen to me? And perhaps they already knew but still needed to go through the ritual of a lively discussion on how to fix the bridge.

Eventually, one passenger wandered over to the old bridge’s wreckage. Then another. Then a half dozen, then ten of us on the old bridge to pass materials over and five more on the new bridge to pile the planks onto the new bridge. The driver was standing there, holding his keys and sporting a big grin: “je prends le risque!” he shouted repeatedly, and then disappeared to the back of the trucks’ lineup to fetch our massive cargo vehicle.

Minutes later our repair job was done. The truck appeared at the foot of the bridge, and he revved his engine. We cleared out of the way, and seconds later it was over – he had passed through comfortably, the crowds standing around cheered and thanked God for his help, and we wandered to the top of a hill to pile into the back of our transport.

congo-010But then another horn sounded, and many of us ran back – a logging truck was going to try this crossing. We wanted to see this – would he screw up, and block the other bridge? He trundled slowly along, lining his tires up, but spent far too much time judging the situation. We had to leave, get on with this day, and most importantly get south.

Late afternoon, the clouds eased in and rain started to fall. We passed through numerous roadside villages, swapping empty jerry cans for ones full of palm wine, working our way south along the dirt road. Other bridges we shared with the train tracks – signs on either end warning trucks to yield to trains (obviously), and slowly but surely we were making genuine progress; however, none of this was easy – massive potholes in the ground were the rule rather than the exception, and once the rains truly arrived the tarps went over the back and those hanging from the roof piled into the rear. A bare light bulb kept us illuminated in the darkness inside and outside, and my butt was getting sorely bruised from sitting on a hard bench for over six hours. People stared at me as I stood up from a perfectly good sitting place, then laughed when I pointed to my rear end. I couldn’t handle bouncing up and down anymore; I needed to be on my feet.

The truck splashed through puddles, continuing through the early evening dusk, and I tried to stay hidden amongst the crowd – I was broke after all, and if any idle police officer saw my face I would surely be pulled into a small thatch hut and asked to pay a ‘fine’. I simply didn’t have the money for it.

My anxiety subsided when finally we arrived in Dolisie. Electric lights were the first indication that we had arrived into a town of some size; then shops with lights and even other vehicles could be seen. Private passenger vehicles! Motorbikes! The road here had been incredibly empty – with the exception of the logging trucks and the very rare old pickup, no real transport was seen.

I had arrived in Dolisie, three days after leaving Mbinda. I remarked to Leroy that the train should be arriving today as well, but he countered that the train would only just be arriving in Mbinda today. Once they’re done loading it, it will head south again.

And the train east, to Brazzaville? Sunday. Possibly. We would have to wait and see. We found a hotel room for the night and I had enough, barely, to afford a phone call back to Canada the next morning. I gathered my Western Union information and went across town to the Bank.

congo-011Dolisie is a vibrant town, though it had no paved roads. Red dirt tracks and massive piles of garbage were scattered amongst buildings; roadside stalls sold nothing but bread and dried fish, and in the town’s centre two general stores run by Mauritanians provided the best shopping experience I had seen in Congo. I could get my usual can of sardines, or I could splurge and get a can of spiced fish, as well as a bottle of water, and ‘glucose biscuits’ – truly horrible things with little taste, comprised of barely edible petroleum products, and designed only to keep your stomach from devouring itself.

Everything sold in these stores in Congo seems to be designed to survive a nuclear war – loaded up with preservatives, sealed like tight drums, covered in dust. Most people can’t buy this stuff, though, because they don’t have any money. The Mauritanians who run these shops must do some business, and it’s not from travellers. “You notice that when you walk down the street here, everyone turns to look at you?” Leroy told me. “There are no travellers in this town. There are no people like you, who take public transport. When people here see foreigners, they are in their private vehicles. Most of the kids you saw in the villages as we headed south, staring at you… That was probably the first time they had seen a white man. They’ve seen the Malaysians, but now they’ve seen you.”

Much discussion with Leroy revealed that Congo itself was dying or dead, a backwater that no one cared about. No economic development, few embassies, no real cities, and a neighbour with the same name that steals all the headlines (and the development money). Congo-Brazzaville is truly in dire straits.

The bank opened fifteen minutes late, I got my money, and then we hired a taxi to drive us back to the hotel so I could pay them and grab my bag. Then it was quickly to the airport, as the time was nearing eight-fifty in the morning; the plane left for Brazzaville at nine. We arrived at the airport just as I saw a small Russian plane leaving. Leroy had said that there were two flights each day to Brazzaville, one in the morning and one in the afternoon. Other people in town had confirmed this.

It was at the airport, a terminal without walls or electricity, that we discovered yes, there were two airlines operating in Congo. They both arrived and left at exactly the same time, and that time was a half hour ago. I would have another day in Dolisie… as luck would have it.

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