Transport in Africa: Chikudus & Goma's economy

Author: Andrea Dijkstra

The first time I see a Congolese pushing a chikudu through the dusty streets of Goma, I cannot suppress my laughter, because of this way of transport in Africa. But the time I spend in the hectic streets of this war torn city full of motorcycles and white SUVs owned by aid organizations, the more I start to admire the men who can literally transport anything on these giant two-wheeled wooden kick scooters; long plastic tubes, jerry cans full of petrol, dozens of beer crates, bundles of chickens tied together, potato bags loaded six feet high and even big metal doors.

Manoeuvring on roads covered with solidified lava

The chikudu appears to be unique to this part of eastern Congo, another demonstration of eastern Congo’s isolation. But why not use a bicycle or pull cart that are both commonly used for transport in the rest of the continent? "On a chikudu you can carry loads up to 1100 pounds, way more than on a bicycle," the 31-year-old chikudu-driver Mbanga points out as the first reason. Secondly he states that chikudus manoeuvre Goma’s roads much easier as they were covered with brittle rocks of solidified lava by a volcanic eruption eleven years ago.

No one is certain when chikudus were invented, or by whom, but locals agree they started to appear after independence from colonial Belgium in 1960. By then bicycles and motorcycles had been introduced in Congo, and chikudu makers tried to replicate their functionality.

The wooden vehicles frequently caught fire

Mbanga himself started to help push chikudus owned by others at the age of four. Earning one dollar per load, he saved enough money to buy one himself reaching the age of twelve. His chikudu appears to be an example of simple ingenuity. A spring attached to the wooden v-shaped steering wheel absorbs the shocks of the uneven streets. By pressing a wooden block against the rear wheel, the vehicle breaks. And an abandoned flip-flop nailed to the plank connecting the front and rare wheel does kneepad duty. Both wheels have ball bearings, which has been added to compensate for the chikudus’ biggest design flaw: wooden wheels whirring on wooden axles generated so much friction that they frequently caught fire.

A new chikudu costs around 150 dollar but a driver usually wins this back within six months.
Mbanga earns between ten and twenty dollars per cargo, depending its size and weight. His friend, the 38-year-old Muhiema, has even set up its own hotline people can call when they need transport of their goods.

The UN organized the first chikudurace

Chikudus are as much a source of local pride as they are a driving force behind Goma’s local economy. Whether the city was peaceful or threatened by rebels, chikudu drivers always continued to transport their loads. The United Nations based in Goma recently even organized the first chikudu race as a way of expressing their admiration for this way of transport in Africa. It is with good reason that a giant golden chikudu now shines on the main roundabout of the city being the most important symbol of the trading city.

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