Congo, the Congo. I think there is no true adventurer in whose head, this name does not resonate to the point of losing sleep. In both, one's own fantasies and in reality itself, the Congo evokes images of mystery, of intrigue; of a world that has remained impenetrable for centuries and that has once punished with death to many of those early explorers who have dared to cross it over time. The Congo, divided politically into two, the Republic of the Congo and the Democratic Republic of the Congo (ex-Zaire and only in the name of cynicism can be called democratic), is the lung of Africa, a huge portion of that dark green patch on the map of the black continent, the equatorial rainforest. There, I came after years of having dreamed about it, with my mind and my body finally ready to indulge in a unique adventure of a liftime. But the arrival would not happen so straight away, first I would have to know a side of the Congo that was not the one that I expected.
With a healthy amount of kilos that I managed to recover during my long stays in Luanda and Cabinda, I arrived at Point Noire, the stronghold of the foreign oil corporations in the Congo and my gateway to the country I had dreamed about so much. Although entering through here is everything but a dream, it's darkness. Something like going to eat in a good restaurant but entering the place through its back door from where they throw away all the scraps of food. The city is horrifying as I had already anticipated, and like every place in Africa with a lot of white people earning exorbitant salaries, it is very expensive and very unpleasant. Better to run away fast, but how?
Dressed in dust
When I leave the city heading towards Brazzaville, excited about crossing the Mayoumbé jungle, I find that the road is not only in the last stages of being paved by the Chinese, but has 4 lanes, that is four lanes smooth as silk!!!! do you know what that means? That not only it isn't like being in the jungle, but is in effect the total dissociation from it. This is great for the Congolese I suppose and I am happy for them because it improves their quality of life, but for me, this is a tragedy. I need to get out of here, this is not the Congo that I imagined and certainly, I did not come all the way here for this.
I suffer two days on the road where boredom (and disappointment) takes over, until finally, I find the escape I was looking for. It leads me through the villages along the ancient road. Therefore I passed the next few days, happily trapped in a hell of brutal dust, hills of long climbs and very unattractive landscape, but at least I get to enjoy the wonderful hospitality of the Congolese.
At the same time, as I cycle towards Brazza (Brazzaville), it is impossible for me not to notice how my whole life and life around me have been reduced to the very basics. Not that in Angola it has been very sophisticated, but this is on another level. Food availability is poor, quality is low and variety is non-existent. It all comes down to the manioc Congo style, which is virtually the only thing I will eat outside Brazza in the months to come along the jungle, accompanied almost always by saka-saka, a mixture of vegetables cooked with fish finely cut.
Poverty and precariousness become very evident, but this is not enough to erase the smiles of the people I meet. A mother passes by carrying her son, plus 40 kg of manioc and firewood on her head, at the end of a day of pure and hard work, and yet, she does not hesitate to stop to look at me with curiosity, greet me and give me a smile.
It is clear to me that people struggle here every day to survive one more day, as in almost all of Africa, although here I feel it is even more pronounced. All the work I see is precarious, rudimentary and hard. Women, on the one hand, take care of working the land, preparing the food, raising multiple children, attending the house; men, on the other hand, they try to earn a few pennies by doing any kind of gigs.
The broken roads punish the mechanics of trucks with millions of kilometers on their worn out engines. They break mercilessly, again and again, leaving them stranded for hours or even days. Dressed in dust and grease, they deal with all the problems repairing everything rudimentarily, only to be able to go for few more miles before breaking again, until finally arriving at their final destination someday. Once there, a new cycle will begin again, one more journey in this life full of hindrances that they have to live.
Children have a few years to spare playing in the dust before their premature time to start working arrives. In most of sub-Saharan Africa, children do not know anything about the Made-In-China toys that flood the rest of the planet, but they do not lack the creativity to create the means with which to have fun. A plastic jerrycan of palm oil cut in half with one ribbon tied to one of its ends to be pulled by some older brother is enough to fulfill the same role as the sophisticated truck with which my nephew plays in Montreal. And they have as much fun with it if not even more. They go around their villages taking turns and laughing their asses off.
However, the stages of life in this part of Africa occur in fast forward mode. Childhood is very short and rapidly turns into adolescence and an adolescent must deal with an adult life when it is clear that it lacks the maturity needed to live as such. Consequently, due to this overlap and even absence of stages, once adults, especially men, often behave as adolescents well into adulthood. And at the end of the road, there are the elders, whose luck becomes notorious for each year they manage to live past the age of 55. What connects them all without exception, from the age of 5, sometimes from 4 years old, is a hard life marked by the need to work to survive. Paradoxically, it is perhaps that very life of hardship but also of extreme simplicity that allows them to suffer less of superfluous preoccupations and to be able to smile more easily in spite of the adversity and the scarcity they live in.
I also spend my first week in the Congo dressed in dust, but I find relief in the warmth of its people, who, on seeing me on the bike during the day, exclaims smiling: "bonjour Papa!" (hello dad), And at night they welcome me in their villages with the affection of those have nothing but give everything. Nothing of the bleak, arid landscape of red soil that I'm cycling across so far, resembles anything of what I had in mind. But I know that I must control my anxiety and be patient because I still have to get to that longed green patch towards which I am heading now. This is how I got to Brazza, orange in color and desperate to lose myself in the green world but happy to be accompanied by the Congolese. As in northern Angola, they also tell me that same beautiful phrase that made me feel so very welcome there: "Nous sommes ensemble" here in French: "We are together".