Into the Congo

May 4, 2012

It is my 32nd birthday and soon to be one of the most memorable weeks of my life. The border crossing into the Democratic Republic of the Congo is intense. We sit in the small DRC immigration building in Bunagana, watching life go by outside. Babies are slung on the backs of both women and children. Wooden bicycles called tchukudu are loaded with goods and pushed exhaustively uphill by 4 or more sweaty boys and men. Women are in brightly colored dress and the children are clothed in rags.

We wait for what seems like forever, while the border officials around us come and go, play Congolese music on their cell phones, eat, and/or work. A female border official enters the building, followed by two young girls, each with an identical twin baby slung on their back. Each girl, maybe 8 years of age, carefully undoes the wrap, swings the baby from back to front, and then hands them off to mother to breastfeed. When done, the mother sits the twins up on her lap and I think they must be the two most beautiful babies I have ever seen. Finally, the mother places each baby onto the back of the awaiting older girls and throws the wrap over them. The older girls take the edges and secure the wrap like pros, before heading back outside.

We are called into the head official’s office. I find him quite intimidating. He has three gold-plated cell phones, a huge gold watch dangling from his wrist and is not happy that we do not speak French. There is no hint of a smile – all serious, all business. We try to explain to him that we are to be at Virunga National Park for seven days. He keeps saying “Okay, so gorillas today, Rwanda tomorrow”. It is wildly confusing. After explaining our schedule several more times, it seems that maybe we have gotten through to him. Either way, he is done with us. With a flip of his hand, he nods, “yes, yes, gorillas, Goma, you see all this, then go to Rwanda”. We shake hands, thank him, and then quickly retreat. Passports in hand, we bolt.

Kyle and I squeeze into the front passenger seat of the Virunga National Park truck and our driver takes us into the Congo.


What an intense culture shock. We leave the asphalt roads of Uganda and fall headfirst into the dirt and rock mayhem of the Congo. Here, everyone walks. Some carrying huge loads of bamboo 10+ feel long on their heads. Pushing their wooden bicycles (tchukudu) laden with heavy materials.




Little gangs of children dressed in tattered rags. Oh, the children. Absolutely beautiful. So many excited to see us, waving and shouting. The houses are made of a framework of thin tree limbs or bamboo, filled in with mud into all the cracks. And everything so lush and green. I feel so overwhelmed by so many emotions. It is hard to describe how I feel on this ride.

What an intense and amazing place, the Congo. And what a ride, Kyle and I squeezed together in a seat, bumping and jostling down the road. At one point the road turns to asphalt. This is not an improvement. This ‘better’ road is so old and covered in potholes, though I doubt potholes is a sufficient a word for these immense holes. We were more in the potholes for the ride than on the asphalt.


After an hour or two, we enter Virunga National Park and immediately run into a group of baboons. On the road. So crazy! Finally we reach the main headquarters of the park where we are given a minute to sit and rest while they change vehicles and drivers. Because now the road gets bad.

We clamber into an extremely high-clearance vehicle. The next hour was intense. The road was horrible – full of rocks and heavy-duty ruts. We were like popcorn in a popper, being thrown around that cab. And still passing by more and more Congolese. And the children, always the children. “Mzungu!” they would cry. Mzungu being the African term for a person of foreign descent. One group would see us and shout and scream; we would see others running to the road to greet us, again and again, their cries giving notice to those ahead to drop what they were doing and come. All the while we’re bouncing along on the (can you even call it a road?) road. Quite the butt-numbing, soul-stirring introduction to the Congo. After some sketchy, muddy, slippery sections – wow, how did we make it through?! – We reach Bukima Camp.

Two men take our packs and lead us down a trail. Then we see our camp. Gorgeous. Large canvas tents with thatched shelters overhead circle a large clearing, with a large, circular thatched enclosure at the far end, which would serve as the community center.

We organize our gear in our tent, which is comprised of two single beds, and head to the community center. From here, we can see over rolling hills and valleys of the Congo and overhead, the volcanoes of Virunga look down at us. It is time for us to rest, after our long, overwhelming day.


~ by Rachel on May 10, 2012.

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