Motorbikes are everywhere in Goma. The revving of their motors – along with the first cock-a-doodle-doos of the roosters – are the wake-up calls that gradually invade the city. Shortly after dawn, motorbike taxis are criss-crossing every Goma neighbourhood in their hundreds, noisy, raising dust, looking for a fare. Swerving in and out of traffic, the motorbike taxi driver seems oblivious to the danger he runs for himself and his passenger.
The beeping of their horns has become such a familiar sound that no one pays attention to it. This morning spectacle is one of the idiosyncratic experiences of a new day in this busy city. The municipality undertook an effort to establish the number of motorbikes and announced an approximate figure of 40,000. Given that Goma has a population of one million, that translates as one motorbike for every thirty inhabitants, which would be the densest concentration in any Congolese city.
The collective use of the motorbike came gradually to Goma in the late colonial period. At first, it was adopted as a private means of transportation by middle-class folk who could afford something better than a bicycle but couldn’t purchase and maintain a car. Goma’s bumpy, rocky streets were hardly conducive to automobile use, which remained confined to the colonial city area. Thanks to its speed and adaptability, the motorbike was to become the logical transportation solution.
Missionaries and administrative agents were the first to use motorbikes in the region. These were Japanese Yamahas, Kawasakis, Hondas and Suzukis. Their use as taxis emerged in the early 1990s and can be explained by the need for people to get around, but more importantly because of the relative affordability of Indian and Chinese imports. Reluctant at first, the city’s population has come to accept the risk of falls, dust and collisions. The Chinese- made Boxer TVS – which costs around $1,000 – is the common make plying the streets of Goma and the dirt tracks of its outskirts.
In 1988, the Greater Kivu province was subdivided into three new provinces: North Kivu, South Kivu and Maniema. This reorganisation had major demographic, administrative and commercial repercussions for Goma, which became the provincial capital. New civil servants arrived and new businesses were established, creating needs and opportunities for a city that was expanding spatially while becoming increasingly cosmopolitan.
Socio-economic change necessarily brought about new transportation needs – to commute between home and place of work, for example. The poor continued to walk but the emerging middle-class acquired bicycles, motorcycles and automobiles. After the volcanic eruption of 2002, the city had only a few kilometres of asphalted roads in the commercial downtown area, but roadworks have moved ahead significantly in the past few years, funded by international partners. Roads in the residential neighbourhoods are neglected: ‘a headache for car owners but a benediction for tyre merchants and mechanics’.
The widespread use of the motorbike for the transportation of goods and people first started in Goma (facilitated by its proximity to East Africa) and then spread through the territory – even the population of Kinshasa, who were reluctant at first, have adopted it. The motorbike in Congo today is somewhat similar in terms of social change to the mobile phone twenty years ago, when it was a major innovation. Built in Chinese and Indian factories, motorbikes are sold at affordable prices and constitute a real boost in improving the well-being of ordinary people. Maintenance is relatively easy and they are well-adapted to urban streets and rural tracks – even during the rainy season, when in the past transportation came to a standstill.
In rural landscapes, the profitability of the motorbike is directly linked to the availability of mobile phones and mobile coverage. Food and charcoal producers communicate with motards and intermediary buyers who in turn organise transportation with lorry drivers. ‘Everyone benefits,’ says Asumani, who has years of experience ‘inhaling dust’ on Goma’s roads. ‘Thanks to communication and transportation, food doesn’t rot in the fields or in village depots like it did in the past – and transporters don’t have to wait weeks on end to fill their lorries with goods. The utility of the motorbike shuttling goods back and forth between village and urban market is now welcomed by everyone.’
The image of a heavily laden bicycle pushed by an exhausted man is gradually disappearing, changing into one of a young man proudly straddling a motorbike with a bag of cassava, a yellow plastic jug of palm oil or even a pig or goat strapped on to the redesigned carrier rack. ‘The days when it took forever to get a load from one place to another on a bicycle are past – the motorbike does all that in a day now.’ Another example of this kind of change comes from the city of Kisangani: its famous toleka bicycle taxis are increasingly rare, having been replaced by the motorbike.
As the purchasing power of the young villager or city dweller is weak, coming up with the approximately $1,000 to $1,200 to buy a 125cc motorcycle is beyond the reach of most. But young men covet them because they represent modernity, prestige and freedom.
Many Congolese believe that the appearance of motorcycles is a witchcraft phenomenon – people enter into pacts with sorcerers to acquire them by sacrificing family members. Many of the motorbikes on Congo’s rural tracks are purchased by traders who advance payment for them – in exchange for promises of agricultural goods. Young men consequently enter into a kind of servitude to pay off their debts.
The motorbike’s impact may be slight in terms of agricultural marketing, but it is an emerging positive trend whose ramifications are difficult to predict. While it is unlikely that the motorcycle will contribute significantly to feeding Congo’s towns and cities from a macro-economic perspective, it is nevertheless already augmenting rural revenues. Asumani summarises these trends by saying that ‘in towns and in villages, the motorbike provides an innovative solution to our transportation needs’.
Goma: Stories of Strength and Sorrow from Eastern Congo is available now from Zed Books.