Ituri Forest Pygmies | Who Rules the Forest? National Geographic Magazine: Trans-African Highway | Main East West Highway in DR Congo

Trans-African Highway | Main East West Highway in DR Congo

Our motorcycle bags have to be full of Jack Daniels for the warlords. It is the only way to move through this area outside the Ituri Forest in DR Congo.

From my journal:

There is always a problem with the motos… it take forever for Coco to get transmission fluid for our rental moto and then he gets gas on a second trip and it’s not enough so he has to make a third trip.  They’ve known about this for days.  It’s now about 9:30 am and I figure if we don’t leave soon we won’t make it by dark.  Our motorcycle bags have to be full of bottles of Jack Daniels for the warlords. It is the only way to move through this area. We take the Trans African a little beyond the edge of the reserve and then turn north into rebel controlled gold mine area.  Travel is slow because we have to stop at every locality chief and he has to read our Fait de Route (lips moving as they read)… then they stare at the paper for another half hour just to infuriate you… and finally one of their minions brings a stamp and they laboriously write on the back of all three of our papers.  We also have to have the military guys do the same thing… and they are scary so we give them bottles of Jack Daniels.  The road that goes north is only a moto tire wheel or so wide and the grass and branches have overgrown it… so you are being whipped by grass and twigs for hours at a time.

It’s actually very painful to be on a motorcycle that long… Coco is driving the rental with our packs and Paluku Raymond is driving our bike.  The commandant we just schmoozed with Jack Daniels told Paluku he doesn’t like white people.  “They say one thing and then they do the opposite.”

We finally enter the outskirts of Quarantesepte (47km mile marker town) and there is a woman coming towards us with water on her head…  When we are about five feet away from her I hear the water drop and she says “Mon Dieu, un blanc…” I guess there haven’t been many white folks here.  Paluku did this trip two weeks ago just to prepare for my arrival, and figure out who we had to schmooze.  Since this is a war zone, it’s safer to send a local to figure out if you can complete your task.

The chief we are going to stay with isn’t home and I am just exhausted… the chief of the “gold mine men” is in a dark corner of the barazza, but I am too tired to talk to him.

The next morning we have to go to the police chief of the locality to get more permission stamps on our travel papers.

A woman has shown up that is hanging all over Coco, our moto driver/mechanic… turns out she is his first wife and he sent a letter to her two days ago… he seems to be organized when it comes to thinking with his little head…  But when we finally got all the chiefs on board to go to the mines, Coco lumbered out to the motos and scratched his head about the gas and then slowly went in to get it and fill the tanks…  Finally ready to go, we all sat and waited for him…

We finally get to walk to an open pit gold mine… it only takes about half an hour to get there, but we have to stop in the little frontier mine town for tea with the locals and have various tours… by the time we get to the pit it’s bad light and the moment I go to the edge and everyone sees me, they all start yelling, dropping their shovels… wanting something, but I can’t tell what… 100 screaming miners in bad light… great…

The chief from Quarantesept is finally home… he is a very pleasant guy.  But there is a very unpleasant guy arguing with him when we get there.  The guy is a soldier who isn’t getting the proper level of extortion from the local merchants… one of those sunken eyes–I’ve killed people–I don’t give a shit anymore kind of characters.  He says he will shut down the pharmacies that aren’t paying him off and the chief says he will throw him in jail…  The soldier stands in the middle of the barazza and says you can’t throw me in jail, I have a machine gun and I will kill all of you… he holds his gun and slowly turns in a circle as if he was shooting the chief and all his assistants.

I decide it’s time to leave, I retreat to my room… but the argument just gets bigger with townspeople yelling at military and vice versa… in my mud hut room, there is an open air space between it and Coco’s room, I hear him crooning to his ex and I hear her soft flirty laughter…  The military finally leaves and Coco’s ex has suggested he come to her place and sleep with her… there seems to be no pretense about this adultery… there is a different attitude here about sex that probably makes AIDS very difficult to stop… the chief has five wives and 15 children…

I tell Coco it’s fine to go schwang a local, but he has to be back here at 5:30 am to go to the gold mine…  he is only 20 minutes late… not bad for Africa… We have to register every movement with the police chief in Cinqante and we wake him up to tell him where we are going.  It’s just Paluku, two chiefs and me on the 3-hour walk to the mining camp… All along the walk are particularly pretty African women ferrying fresh bread, cooking pots full of coco cola on their heads, water.  There is a sign in the woods that basically says this is the taxing point of the locality and there is a scant little barazza hacked into a clearing… everyone carrying something in to the miners has to pay a tax on their trip.  The chief has his own gold mine, and I realize that one reason he is so nice is he has this system pretty well schmoozed.

There is another hour and a half walk to the mining area itself… I thought we were going to see “plungeurs” who dredge an area with just a tube in their mouth for air… but we are seeing the “motopump” a piece of technology they are particularly proud of… it’s a sump pump basically, something you would rent at A-1 rentals if you had water in your basement.  This is particularly pathetic because they are working in the shadow of dead Belgian colonial machinery…  there are huge brick Belgian buildings with smoke stacks, ancient diesel generators that have been looted for metal pipes to pound rocks.  The gold from this area was hastily mined to generate the cash to pay for D-day and the rest of the allied war effort in WW II.

Everyone keeps mentioning this Canadian that came through ten years ago… It seems that Africa is devolving from Kleptocracies to Khakistocracies with the associated insecurity… this place seems to be solidly in the grips of the warlords… there won’t be another white guy in this town for a while.

The motopump isn’t that interesting, so we head for a gold mine that was drilled into the side of a mountain by some huge Belgian machinery… We walk in this perfectly formed tunnel for about an hour… The ceiling is high and the shaft is wide… it’s rare that I have to duck… But we’ve come in elevation and it’s gotten really humid… lots of bats… I can’t see thru my glasses, they are so steamed up… I do see some dim flashlights at the end of the shaft… There are Congolese sitting on the floor of the deserted shaft and they are just knocking rocks together hoping to see a glint of gold… I doubt if they even have an extra set of batteries for their flashlights… there are also a few folks digging away in areas that are way to dangerous for us to go… pretty desperate.

As we leave the tenement town, the Islamic guy that owned the marvelous new “motopump” technology comes running after us with a letter… it says… “Exscuzez me, one new engine from yew pleaz…”

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