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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.

By Alex Halperin and Jina Moore / August 29, 2008

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

Alex Halperin

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Kibumba, Democratic Republic of Congo

Kibumba, Democratic Republic of Congo

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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.

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.”

•••

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.