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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 side streets of Goma, holding their own with motorcycle taxis.

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 the 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 2m 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.

Jean-Marie Firiki gets up at 4am, but his descent stops in Kibumba, 30km 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 US$50 (RM160),” Firiki said, “but the cost of a beautiful one can be US$80-US$100″ (RM256 – RM320) — 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 US$10 (RM32) 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.

‘Our whole life’ 

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”, says local historian Dany Kayeye.


Day 3: Cheetah Walk at Tshukudu & Botswana

Happy birthday! I got it sung to me in 4 different languages that day (English, French, Danish and Swanna). It was awesome to say the least. So the day started off with a cheetah walk, another topic of conflict. I absolutely loved it. We drove out to this cheetah, which we found laying in the sun on a clearing, and we got to go up to her and pet her. I know this is wrong on so many levels and that cheetahs are wild animals that shouldn’t be taught to be friendly, but she was so lovely. She purred, which was loud enough to hear 15 feet away, and she was incredibly soft. She was friendly too and would rest her head on you. She was raised by hand after her mother was killed by lions. I liked how she was friendly and welcoming to us, but she wasn’t fed by us. She lives on the reserve on her own, hunts on her own and sustains herself. She knows the owner and comes when he calls, and you can tell she likes him because she will go straight to him and push her head into his hand and sit for him. She was absolutely amazing! It was incredible, but again, I was the only one who had that opinion. I know that Kelsey and Christine weren’t as fond of the place as I was, but I wasn’t shunned or looked down on for it, which was so nice. After the walk, we headed out and spent the rest of the day on the road. It doesn’t sound like much, but South Africa’s countryside is stunning. We took the scenic route that lead us up windy roads, through the mountains. I stared out the window for most of it, memorized. I hope I never forget what it looks like, as pictures don’t really do it justice. We then landed in Botswana after a uneventful border crossing (good thing… I really didn’t want to be stuck there for hours). We lost a little time travelling, so we camped just across the border in a small tenting area. I froooooze my butt off (I’m not the smartest and I forgot a proper sleeping bag, but I’ll have one tonight), but we got to slackline and I was able to take a few steps on it, which I have never done yet! AND, KG got me a cake with candles. I was so happy I almost teared up. It was certainly a fantastic birthday, and probably one that I won’t soon forget.


Day 10 (July 24th, 2014) - Tshukudu Bushcamp

Waking up to crisp air and open land will never cease to amaze me. Taking our morning walk today is something I cherished, seeing that we are leaving tomorrow. Our guides know so much about the flaura and fauna of the area - we got to see so many animal tracks today. Our camp received some surprise visitors today - the elephants! It took our group by surprise to see the three member family traipsing past the slightly ajar gate into our campground. Up close, they are absolutely gorgeous - they appear to have a lovely glint in their eyes and trunks upturned into a constant, mischievous grin. I finally saw a couple of monkeys swinging across trees today - they are quite the mini acrobats! Sitting around the bonfire tonight was solemn - our two week journey was coming to an end. We’ve gotten to know each other so well as a group, it seems too soon to be leaving tomorrow morning. Visiting Africa has been an eye-opening experience for me - I’ve learned so much in a short amount of time. I wonder how my outlook on life will change when I return home to life in America after seeing the widespread poverty, the spellbinding wilderness and meeting amazing people. I hope to someday return to Africa and explore other parts of this shockingly beautiful continent. 


Day 9 (July 23rd, 2014) - Tshukudu Bushcamp

Waking up freezing at six a.m. wasn’t ideal, but it certainly enhanced the camping experience! This morning’s bush-walk was like an out-of-body experience. Walking alongisde Ntombi, the camp’s cheetah (“little girl” in Zulu) was quite the privilege! She is such a graceful animal, as we saw her slink through the tall grass trying to stalk prey for breakfast. The vastness of the reserve is astounding - you can see for miles and miles with mountains peaking through the sky. Going on the game drives was the definition of a pure safari - hearing the male lion roar was unbelievable. I’ve seen these animals in movies and nature specials on television countless times, but witnessing their natural beauty in person was a thrilling experience. The giraffes all have this look on their face as if to say ‘I know something you don’t!’, and they’re quickly becoming one of my favorite things to spot on our drives, The poor hippos - I don’t know how their stumpy legs support all of that weight! It’s miraculous how these animals exist - I wonder if they even recognize us tourists as we snap photos of them in their natural habitat. The kudu animal was especially amazing, being that I’ve never seen nor heard of it before today. It’s such a beautifully detailed animal with its faint stripes and twisting horns. Looking up at the stars tonight was absolutely magnificent. The sky was blanketed with constellations - I could even see the Southern Cross and Scorpio! It makes me wish I had a greater interest in astronomy. The highlight of my day was being alone on the camp’s viewing tower. I scanned the area and my eyes suddenly latched onto three figures - elephants! Being the first person to spot them is something I’ll never forget. I literally felt my breath catch in my throat at the sight of them - elephants are humongous, but they’re incredibly gentle and graceful creatures.