Michel was at work in his radio station, a
standard-issue UN container at the garrison headquarters built in the
ruin of a Belgian-era cotton factory on the outskirts of Kalemie. He was
deep in thought, trying to work out how to deal with an imminent
public-relations crisis: peacekeepers in Kalemie and elsewhere across
the Democratic Republic of Congo had been caught paying local girls,
under the age of consent, for sex. Michel had just come from a meeting
where the scale of the problem had been revealed. He seemed happy for
the distraction. I introduced Benoit, an aid worker from Care
International, and told him my worries about security. 'Benoit says
there are mai-mai [local rebels] all along these tracks. Do you know
anyone local who could help me get through?'
'There is one person I know who dares to travel regularly through the bush. He is a pygmy and runs a small aid group here in town. His name is Georges Mbuyu.'
Benoit and I piled into Michel's Jeep and drove to a derelict Belgian villa. A small man wearing plastic flip-flops emerged. When he saw Michel, he grinned. The pair greeted each other warmly in Swahili. I told him I wanted to go overland from here to the Congo river, to follow the route used by the explorer Stanley, but needed help with security. He thought for a moment. 'I cannot remember the last time a white man went through that area. It has been many, many years. But I know some of the mai-mai near town. Some are not rebels, they are just villagers who want to protect themselves. These are good people and I can talk to them.'
'Would you be prepared to accompany me, by motorbike, towards the river?' I tried not to sound desperate. For a moment, Georges was quiet. 'I cannot go with you all the way, only some of it, but I think you will be safe if I go with you.'
It was Benoit who spotted the problem. 'We have only two bikes, there is no space for Georges, and how would he get back here to Kalemie?'
Michel was optimistic. 'My friend knows a man with a motorbike, who might be prepared to rent it.' Half an hour later, a grubby-looking man called Fiston Kasongo appeared. His eyes were bloodshot and his breath smelt of alcohol. 'If you want a motorbike, I am your man,' he said. He could barely stand, he was so drunk. He led us down a track where he had hidden a bike in some long grass. 'There is my bike. It is a great bike.'
I could see Benoit was not convinced. But Georges was game, and that was enough for me. Fiston wanted $125. Benoit's eyes flickered disapprovingly, so I offered $50. Fiston did not hesitate. He shook my hand, and asked for a down payment to buy some fuel. I gave him $20 and he disappeared, weaving along a footpath through the high grass in a cloud of blue exhaust smoke that spoke of an engine in distress.
As I emerged from the house on the morning we were to leave Kalemie, Benoit appeared to be wrestling with eels. It was still dark, and with my head torch all I could make out was his shape, leaning over the back of one of the motorbikes, struggling with various long, black things with a springy and clearly disobedient life of their own: he was using old bicycle inner tubes as luggage straps to attach my kit to the back of his motorbike.
Wearing a bright-yellow plastic raincoat, with heavy gloves, kneepads, goggles and black, shiny wellington boots, he looked like a ninja North Sea trawlerman. The 100cc motorbike was now sitting heavily on its rear wheel, with my rucksack, a jerrycan and various other pieces of gear bulkily taking up most of the rider's seat. Above the handlebars was another hulking arrangement of fuel bottles, water canisters and other bundles. And on top of it all, Benoit was wriggling into two rucksacks - one on his back, the other slung in reverse across his chest.
From Blood River by Tim Butcher. Copyright Tim Butcher 2007. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt maybe reproduced without written permission from the publisher, Grove Press.
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