[From the hip] So let me get say this right off. Ituri district is absolutely nothing like what you have been told the Eastern DRC is. It’s undeveloped, and it has crap roads – these things are true. But it is also full of really friendly people, to whom we have not had to pay a single bribe, who have really gone out of their way to show us a great time.

There are militia bandits out in the countryside somewhere. And the road to Beni is unsafe until January according to the UN people who live in a giant headquarters up the road that looks like someone buried a battleship in the ground.

But we’ve also been warmly received everywhere we went, by locals and government bureaucrats alike. I’ve eaten some of the best food of my life – both at the UN restaurant, and in back alleys and squirrely little restaurants outside. Black beans of some kind, fried sweet banana, mashed sweet potato and, in the case of the aforementioned UN bar/club/food stop in Bunia, a vegetable burger that brought me close to weeping in happiness.

Getting in

We arrived in Kasenyi, on the border with Lake Albert, some time on Monday (I think? It’s a blur). It was still 45km from there to Bunia, and nobody was willing to do it late in the day. Including us, to be honest. So we overnighted and then pushed through to the town the next day on the back of small-engined Indian motorbikes. The road was terrible, but by no means the worst I have ever seen. The route also crossed a mountain range on the DRC side of the Rift Valley, with views from the top that go on for miles.

Those bikes there are called 'boda bodas'. From the fact that they started out ferrying people across a border somewhere in East Africa. The name stuck, and the bikes spread. As far as Ituri district even.

The first roadblock we encountered was one with two sleepy FARDC officers hanging out at a moderately large home-made speed hump. They were likely looking for cigarettes, or a toll (around $0.50 if you are a local, presumably more for four mzungus on the back of bikes). We will never know.The first bike got stopped, but the four others caught up fairly soon after, and the two FARDC troopers trying to hold us all at the roadbloack was comparable to herding cats. Whichever bike they looked at would sit smiling, while the other three or four edged on a foot. Half a foot. A few inches. Then one broke free and the rest followed, leaving the checkpoint in 100cc engine dust behind us.

The subsequent roadblocks (there were at least six) were a mix of either running through completely, to the impotent shouts of a couple of soldiers, or were far more genial affairs at the larger ones. The officers would wave us through with large smiles and shouts of ‘bonjour!’. I’m really not sure what I expected in the Congolese countryside, but this was nothing like it. There’s some pretty sweet footage of this and other nutty rides in the countryside that I wil never, ever be able to upload from here, but which I will most certainly share when I am back in the lands of the faster Internet.

This includes finding ourselves stuck in what passes for a traffic jam in these parts, thanks to a UN convoy heading back to Bunia from a remote posting out somewhere close to the town of Bogoro.

A UN traffic jam, starting at the back.

The front of the UN traffic jam, two trucks, a water tanker and an ambulance later. I would truly hate to be one of those guys on the uncomfortable-looking seats at the back.

All of which is really not intended to reinforce the horrible impressions of the Eastern DRC that you see in the media. Yes, the things you read about happen. And the area is massively underdeveloped. And there is a lot of army. And you cannot get chocolate anywhere.

But this part of it, at least, is peaceful. People grow crops here, raise kids, send them to school. There is even a university such as it is. What you read in the news is the tender edge of wounds that run deep into history, but the energy of this place is not those things. It’s so much safer, and so much more hopeful than you are told it is.

In the evening, with the right light and the feet to take you there, the mountains near Bunia look a little like this. Particularly if you are standing in a giant field of cassava. As I clearly must have been.


  • Another stunning post from you, Richard! I always appreciate the alternate view of a country, like a different angle through which to view a goal at a soccer game. These pictures are beautiful, the boda bodas are making me nostalgic, and I’m cherishing images of surprise and peace.

  • Nothing less than another fantastic read.

  • there are always two sides to everything… and so much written from such a narrow perspective most of the time. it’s when you’re there, on the ground, that it reveals itself for what it is – the good as much as the bad. glad you are there, and enjoying your stories from the road.

  • There is so much to be written yet on the surprise and peace. It’s s funny thing, the world. Even though I should really know by now that things will never be like I think they will, I continue to imagine (and then be pleasantly surprised) regardless.

  • Another wonderful post Richard. Keep them coming!

  • Chantal Heaven

    It is good that you paint an optimistic view of what you saw on the road. I don’t ride a bike – I walk – and I’ve walked off the beat and track into smiling happy villages and then I’ve sat down and talked in French to those farmers in Ituri Province and shared my food and time with them.

    Then little by little, the villagers open up and another story is told. Like the story told to me by Aristide, a fourteen year old boy who prides himself on his cassava field. Aristide is a farmer now. Then he smiles – that knowledgeable happy smile that you so correctly identify, Richard, in your blog – then Aristide slowly rolls up his T-shirt and shows me the scar on his stomach from the Bunia Massacre of 2005.

    Aristide was ten at the time of the attack. He was a a child soldier. Now he’s a farmer and he smiles and he tells me that he hopes that he will not have to use his machete again. Then he laughs and tells me not to believe what the Lemba tribe in the next Lemba village tell me. He is from the Hema tribe. Only the Hema tell the truth…

    I am 46. When I was 20 I worked as a volunteer English teacher in the Palestinian village of Tira in the West Bank. I was a student at Bristol University at the time, majoring in Political Science. I spent two months living with the Palestinian villagers who treated me with great courtesy and hospitality.

    The Palestinian students also smiled a lot…

    After my eight week stint was over, I said goodbye to my Palestinian hosts and set off for Tel Aviv Bus Station to meet up with Solange, another volunteer. We planned to travel around Egypt then on down through Sudan to Kenya.

    We never got there.

    The road to the Bus Station was blocked off. I got out of my sherute (a Palestinian taxi) and walked the last bit on foot. I remember looking at the ripped open bodies and the smashed glass. And then I thought of my Oncle Pierre laughing with his cocktail shaker and I saw in my mind’s eye, not glass and carnage but crushed ice and my Uncle smiling toasting in the New Year in the French Alps.

    That’s what war does to you. It makes you smile. That’s why the people on the roadside were smiling at you Richard.

    Back to Tel Aviv, 1985. I found another sherute and went back to the village of Tira. I walked into the living room of the family I have been staying with – slept with, ate with – for 8 weeks, and they were watching the television report of the explosion at the Bus Station.

    Um Saed was clapping and little Aziza – aged five – was also smiling as her grandmother took her tiny hands and curled her fingers. They both clapped and danced as they celebrated the bomb explosion; the same explosion that could have blown me to bits had I got to Tel Aviv Bus Station but a few minutes earlier…

    And do you know what I did, Richard? I took hold of little Aziza’s hands and danced too. And I smiled… And I never told them what I had seen.

    The Congolese smile for a reason. But they need people like you, Richard, to smile back; and in your smiling innocence they can forget their bloody past.

    Be careful Richard and learn to read the smiles. Travel safely.

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