Congo: Jungle Misery
William A. Stoever
© Copyright 2022 by William A. Stoever
Photo by Manuel de la Fuente on Pixabay.
I took an overnight steamer up Lake Tanganyika to the town of Uvira, on the eastern edge of the Congo (Kinshasa). The map showed a road heading north towards Bukavu and then veering northwestward toward Kisangani, a dotted line indicating a dirt road passable only during the dry season. It appeared to pass through a vast undeveloped sparsely-populated jungle area.
This was the road I set out to hitch on.
I lugged my suitcase to the edge of town and stood there … and stood there … and stood there … seeing nary a vehicle passing …
Finally after a couple hours a truck came along and stopped. It was a beat-up dusty old thing that had doubtless plied the jungle roads for many years, a Dodge with running boards and rounded fenders, two tires on each rear wheel, faded from whatever original color to a nondescript gray, with a cab in front and a freight pen in the rear. Three men were crowded into the cab, rapidly dashing any hopes I might have had for a comfortable seat. One of the men gestured to the rear pen, where twenty or thirty people were standing, mostly men but interspersed with a few women and a couple children.
I handed my suitcase up to some fellow and clambered up into the rear. The other standees shifted around a bit to make room for me, but we were still wedged in almost shoulder-to-shoulder. I was the only white person on the whole vehicle, but my fellow passengers didn’t register any surprise at seeing me.
We started down the road, and red dust billowed out behind us. The road was rutted and bumpy, and the truck’s shock absorbers were long since broken, so the freight pen’s steel floor communicated every bump and pothole straight up my legs. Fortunately I managed to get a position standing beside the metal fence enclosing the pen, so I could at least hold onto something as we rattled along; pity the poor standees in the middle of the pen who tried to stabilize themselves against the bumps and lurches without any support. The muffler was obviously rusted out, and the roar of the engine added to our discomfort.
We passed almost no vehicles and very few pedestrians and only a very occasional thatched-roof hut alongside the road. Jungle trees and vines and undergrowth crowded around us, right up to the edge of the road, creating the impression of lurching down a narrow winding corridor. The sun beat down through the opening overhead, making me and I’m sure all the others hot, sweaty and miserable. I was probably the only one to get sunburned, though.
After an hour my legs began to ache. I tried shifting my weight back and forth between my right and left legs, but that brought hardly any relief. It got worse and worse as the hours wore on. No room to sit, even if I’d wanted to sit on the hard metal floor. There was nothing I could do about it … unless I wanted to get out and stand by the road surrounded by jungle; I could envision myself standing through the night, plagued by malaria-carrying mosquitoes, fighting off jungle predators and getting miserably hungry and tired.
The dust gradually penetrated into my nose and lungs, making me feel like I was dying of thirst. Nagging feelings of hunger began to gnaw at my stomach.
My fellow passengers seemed hospitable enough, but we could hardly communicate, and I’m sure they were as uncomfortable as I was, and nobody felt like talking anyhow. A child vomited on floor. Her mother tried to comfort her but couldn’t really do anything to alleviate her misery.
Once we stopped in front of a tiny thatched-roof mud shack, a ‘shop’ in a small clearing. The women immediately headed to one side of the clearing and squatted down to urinate, while the men headed to the other side and peed into the jungle. I did too, of course.
The ‘shop’ sold bottles of orange pop and packages of cookies and almost nothing else. I had become uncomfortably thirsty and hungry and figured I’d better take advantage of whatever nourishment the situation offered. I drank three bottles of orange soda, at room temperature of course; I figured (I hoped) it was safe to drink. It was sickeningly sweet and hardly quenched any thirst and made me feel bloated, but at least I figured it would help keep my body hydrated. And the cookies: dry sugary flavorless things, repulsively bland, zero nutritional value, a highly unsatisfactory ‘meal.’ But if you’re desperate enough … at least it was cheap.
One of the privileged riders from the cab approached me while we were stopped by the clearing and spoke in English: “The fare is two dollars.” I didn’t see any other riders making any such payments; maybe that was a ‘special fare, just for me’. I suspect the driver spotted me as a way to make some quick cash … Well, he had me over a barrel: if I refused to pay it, they might have abandoned me in the clearing until another vehicle came along, which might have meant waiting for who knows how long, judging from the almost total lack of traffic on the road. I reluctantly handed over the money.
Eventually, after five or six hours, we reached some small market town at a junction with another red-dirt road. The driver said something in a local language, and all the other passengers scrambled down, and so I got off too.
My body ached, my back hurt, my legs were excruciating, my muscles were stabbing with pain, my eyes and nose hurt from the dryness, my skin and hair and clothes were caked with red dust, and I was agonizingly thirsty and hungry. All-in-all, it was one of the most miserably uncomfortable rides I’ve ever had.
I had no map and no idea where I was in the jungle vastness, except presumably somewhere on the road to Kisangani (Stanleyville).
Fortunately I found an old woman cooking some kind of pancakes-with-a-bit-of-chicken on a charcoal stove under a tree. There were flies buzzing around, but the woman kept brushing them away from the dough. I watched as she poured some batter out of a metal bowl and spread it on the surface of a flattened piece of metal that served as a griddle. She pried a few scraps of meat off the carcass of a chicken with her fingernails and flicked them into the batter, making about five pancakes. I hoped her fingers were clean and the batter wasn’t rancid and the chicken wasn’t contaminated. After a couple minutes she flipped the pancakes, and soon after that put them on a piece of brown paper and handed them to me: fifteen cents. … Well, at least they’d been cooked, so I had hopes they’d be safe to eat. You take risks when you’re desperate … actually, surprisingly, they were rather tasty.
Stoever has been an adventure traveler his whole life.
-during a student summer in Europe he worked in work camps in Britain and East Germany.
-was imprisoned by East German secret police when the Berlin Wall was first constructed
-taught in Africa for two and a half years and hitchhiked the length of the continent
-made eighteen-month hitchhiking odyssey through the Middle East to South and East Asia
-impersonated a journalist, hitched rides on military planes and visited Vietnam during the Vietnam War
-returned home via the Philippines, Japan and the Trans-Siberian Railway across Russia
After returning to the U.S. he made his career as a college professor, finishing at Seton Hall in South Orange, NJ.