Wood, wheels, workhorse: the chikudu story

In Congo, wooden scooters are mainstays of the local economy, expressions of self-reliance, and, sometimes, the stuff of apprenticeships, too.

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    Scooting along: A man pushes a chikudu near a refugee camp in the North Kivu province of eastern Congo.
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Kibumba, Democratic Republic of Congo

Emanuel Buke won’t train just anyone. Like a swami on a mountaintop, he is discerning about his disciples. For the past 16 years he has chiseled chikudus, two-wheeled wooden scooters unique to this part of eastern Congo. Here farmers use them to haul loads from the foothills of the Virunga Mountains to Goma, the regional hub. In the city’s hectic streets, thousands of chikudus make their way among motorcycles and the white SUVs owned by aid organizations.

Sturdy and effective, if not elegant, the scooters navigate these roads covered with the brittle rocks of solidified lava left from a volcanic eruption six years ago. Boys running errands coast down hills on smaller models, and adult men push chikudus six or seven feet long, weighed down with massive sacks of potatoes, building materials, jugs of water – or all of these at once.

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Chikudus are as much a source of local pride as they are a part of the local economy. Formal jobs are rare here, and crafting chikudus is a skilled and prestigious occupation.

So seven years ago, when Samson Nahubusa showed up at Mr. Buke’s door, Buke wasn’t surprised.

He’d seen kids like this before, teenagers looking for work in a part of the world where the best way to feed oneself can be to pick up a gun and join a militia. But Mr. Nahubusa had something the others looking to learn a trade didn’t: a tiny chikudu in his hand. He’d been trying to teach himself by building miniature replicas for years; now, he wanted to work on the real thing. He offered one to Buke as proof he had what it takes.

“Is this right?” he asked.

“No,” Buke said. “You made it wrong.... I have to teach you to do it.”

With that, Nahubusa became Buke’s protégé. For a year, Buke made Nahubusa watch in his tiny workshop, the floor covered in woodchips, attached to his house. Nahubusa waited patiently, until one day, he decided he just couldn’t wait any more.

“Let me try,” he said, and Buke handed him a tool. The work wasn’t perfect, but Buke saw potential.

“He was cleverer than the others,” Buke says now. “To do this work you need to have force and power, but be clever also. He caught on quickly.”

Nahubusa studied under Buke for six years. This year, he opened his own workshop, just down the street from his teacher. His perseverance is less a character trait than a need born of circumstance, he says.

“Local youth don’t have work.... I saw this could help me,” he says. “And it could be important in our village.”

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Chikudus are the brainchild of desperate improvisation. Before they overtook the dusty foot paths and rocky roads of eastern Congo, men carried produce to market in wheelbarrows. They traveled only as fast as they could walk, and transported only as much as their arms could lift. The 30 kilometer (18.6 mile) round-trip journey from the fields – near Buke and Nahubusa’s workshops – to Goma and back would take three days. The chikudu cuts that time by two-thirds. Riders load sacks of potatoes six feet high on the footboard and hang jerrycans off the handlebars, which are wide v-shaped pieces of wood. In a single day, it’s possible for a farmer to reach market, get water, and return to sleep in his own bed.

No one is certain when chikudus were invented, or by whom, but locals agree they appeared after independence from colonial Belgium in 1960. By then bicycles and motorcycles had reached Congo, and chikudu makers tried to replicate their functionality.

The scooters are an expression of self-reliance, a sophisticated solution to the small-scale farmer’s needs. The body is made from eucalyptus wood chopped down in the village. The wheels are sculpted from a hard wood locals call mumba, found in the nearby Virunga forest; craftsmen use machetes and makeshift chisels to turn the logs into round wheels. Then they wrap the wheels in tread cut from old tires.

A plank connects the front and back wheels; a shaft, supported by a wooden frame, rises from the front wheel and fits into the handlebars. A tire-tread or abandoned flip-flop nailed to the plank does kneepad duty. The makers brag that the largest chikudus can carry up to 800 kilograms, or 1,760 pounds. Unvarnished and driven hard, they last two or three years.

For all their idiosyncracy, chikudus imitate more modern modes of transport. Most of them, for instance, have shocks made of several springs or, where spare parts are wanting, ribbons of tire treads suspended between the frame and the shaft. They have ball bearings on both wheels, which craftsmen added to compensate for the chikudus’ biggest design flaw: Wooden wheels whirring on wooden axles generated so much friction that they frequently caught fire.

Speed leads to another challenge: stopping. Though some Congolese boys can stop chikudus the way American kids skid to a halt on skateboards or in rollerblades, most drivers need the rear brake, a piece of tire in the back nailed to the footboard, curving above the rear wheel. Stopping a fully loaded chikudu by holding a foot against that small piece of tire requires serious physical power, but it’s safer than the hand brake. Pull that one too fast, and you might fly over the handlebars.

“The hand brake is very bad,” concedes Eugere Bagaruka, who’s been building chikudus since the 1970s. “It could kill someone.”

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It’s perhaps evidence of eastern Congo’s isolation that chikudus aren’t more widespread. Buke says he built 35 for people from other provinces last year and one for a Kenyan. He says he even received an order from a Chinese businessman who wanted to see if chikudus could transport luggage.

Yet for all the chikudus’ success, their makers don’t see a path to riches. One chikudu sells for $100, but the building materials cost nearly $60. Bagaruka says chikudus weren’t born out of a hope that anyone would get rich – just a little less poor. “This was created because of the problem we got, to help us make transport,” he says. “We’re farmers. We’re digging. So we think, how can we take some food from these hills to come to the market?”

The risk involved in harvesting mumba for the wheels also eats into the profits. The wood can only be found in a national park, where logging by locals – and rebel groups – has become a problem. Park rangers on patrol arrest mumba harvesters, who pay fines or bribes ranging from $50 to $100 to get out of jail.

And then there’s the risk of just living in eastern Congo, where ongoing conflict has displaced tens of thousands from their homes. This spring, a camp for the newest of the displaced popped up just a few kilometers from Buke and Nahubusa’s workshops.

Still, neither man worries much about war. Nahubusa has a wife and a 9-month-old baby to consider, while Buke has already learned how to rebuild. His home was destroyed when the volcano erupted six years ago. Some of his neighbors fled to and stayed in Rwanda; some moved further north in Congo.

But after a few years, Buke came back. He rebuilt his house and his workshop, and he scrounged the money he needed for his tools. He has a trade, which, in this part of the world, means he’s fortunate.

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