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The Congo’s wooden workhorses

They’re certainly not the sleekest design, and have, in the past, had a tendency to catch fire at high speeds. But in the war-torn and impoverished eastern Congo, these hand-crafted wooden scooters are a familiar form of transport – as well as for many, the only vehicle they can ever hope to own.

The wooden scooters of Goma, the Congo

Known as a chikudu or chukudu, the hefty pushbikes are a common sight throughout the region, usually piled high with teetering towers of cargo.

Nobody knows exactly when the vehicles were invented, but most locals seem to think they first appeared some time in the 1960s. Everyone agrees, however, that for those who simply can’t afford a regular pick-up truck, the wooden pushbikes make life just that little bit easier.

Before the advent of the chikudu, wares were transported in wheelbarrows; a slow and difficult journey across pot-holed roads or rocky terrain. Scooting not only cuts travelling times by around two-thirds, it’s a far more efficient method of transportation: it’s said that the largest of these wooden workhorses can carry an impressive 800 kilograms, or 1,760 pounds.

Crafting the sturdy scooters is a difficult and prestigious occupation, and despite their rough-hewn appearance, a surprising amount of resourceful engineering is packed inside those heavy frames.

Axles, for example, are lined with ball bearings to counteract what was once a serious design flaw: the first generation of chidukus often caught fire due to the friction of wood whirring against wood.

Recycled springs provide much-needed suspension, and old flip-flops nailed to the platform make kneeling more comfortable. A chunk of tyre-tread suspended above the rear wheel can be kicked backwards to – hopefully – bring the scooter to a juddering halt, and old tyres are also wrapped around the wooden wheels to enhance their durability and smoothness.

If you’re beginning to see this humble wooden bike in a very different light – as a symbol of ingenuity and resilience rather than as a make-shift, clumsy apparatus – for the Congolese, too, it represents a small triumph over a long history of hardships and extreme poverty.

In the busy city of Goma, where hundreds of the vehicles wend through the bustling crowds each day, a golden statue of a chikudu and its rider takes pride of place in centre of the town. Look closely, and you’ll notice that they’re carrying the entire world with them.

Sculpture of a golden chikudu, Goma, the Congo

Photo credit: 4.bp.blogspot.com