“Earn much, consume little, hoard nothing, give generously, celebrate life.”
V. Grigg, 1993
Why is it that the best laid plans so often fall apart at the last minute? The farmer meeting had gone on longer than expected, and nightfall was already approaching when the time came to leave Lukula to return to Boma in Bas-Congo. Alas our vehicle had abandoned us, going off, unbeknown to us, in a completely different direction! Lukula is a relatively small town, but after some searching, Plan B emerged!
The taxi-driver introduced himself as Petit Prince. His car had clearly seen better days. We managed to squeeze the 4 passengers on board, and after some groping under the dash-board to connect the wires, the engine sprung into slightly hesitant life.
The windscreen seemed to be heavily dependent on a wide adhesive sun-screen strip. The multitude of cracks bore a striking resemblance to a map of the Congo River basin, but the mosaic did not seem to cramp our driver’s style! The road itself was partly asphalted, but there were gaps, in places a few metres long, in others a kilometre or two, with bone-shaking pot-holes lurking to trap the unwary. Petit Prince knew his road well, and navigated between the hazards at high speed, with supreme confidence, and a good deal of skill.
Once night had fallen, the headlights gave excellent illumination of the foliage on the left hand side of the road and almost directly overhead. A single oncoming beam would often belong to a one-eyed truck, which would plunge us into about 100 metres of total obscurity from its trail of dust and black fumes. Even Petit Prince deemed it wise to slow down, at least on some occasions.
The few towns along the road were an opportunity to gain a little time, as the tarmac was generally better. Chickens and goats would scatter in all directions, while shadowy forms of cyclists and pedestrians, all but invisible in their dark clothes, clung to the road-side to keep clear.
Conversation was limited by the loud music streaming from the crackly car radio. Congo is one of the main centres of music and art in Africa, and the songs are full of stories and encounters. There was no mistaking where we were as we drove through the darkness!
On arrival in Boma, Petit Prince came to an abrupt halt on the outskirts of town. He refused to go further. We all piled out. The sixteen dollars for the sixty kilometre, hour and a half ride for the four of us only brought us as far as the edge of town. From here on, we were on our own. It took fifteen minutes of haggling, but with a few extra dollars he was finally convinced to go the extra four kilometres! Honour was satisfied.
One cannot but be impressed with the hard-work, courage and endurance of the many who, like Petit Prince, so skilfully apply themselves to the wearisome task of making a modest living in the midst of such difficult circumstances. With no room for self-pity, no social security system, and probably no reserve to fall back on, each day is a new struggle.
It is very humbling to meet such people, to see what they so uncomplainingly cope with. It is again to be challenged as to how we can respond, what we may do, to work for a more equitable distribution of the earth’s resources.