Somehow I missed this entertaining homage to the chukudu – Congo’s idiosyncratic wooden scooter – in The Washington Post a few weeks back. Amazingly, there are still journalists – in this case Africa correspondent Stephanie McCrummen, whose regional duties include making sure I can’t contribute a single fucking story to the Post‘s foreign desk [Ed. – Nothing personal!] – who can bang out 700 words on the eastern Congo that don’t include the word “rape.”
Available in three models — small, medium and large — the chukudu is a marvel of practical engineering and endurance. It has become the donkey of eastern Congo — a beast of burden that hauls vegetables in the good times and fleeing people in the bad. Purely utilitarian, chukudus are rarely painted or personalized. The most common flourishes are mudflaps for their wooden wheels. And unlike the minibuses of Nairobi, chukudus rarely inspire nicknames.
“I just call it ‘Chukudu,’ ” said Bunjuru Brazira, 40, when asked on a recent morning if his scooter had a name.
Brazira also observed he’s “like the dean of chukudus” – high praise (for himself) indeed, if you consider the reverence the Congolese have for their chukudus.
“Chikudus are as much a source of local pride as they are a part of the local economy. Formal jobs are rare here, and crafting chikudus is a skilled and prestigious occupation,” wrote Alex Halperin and my friend Jina Moore in a 2008 piece for The Christian Science Monitor. The two also detail the apprenticeship of a young chikudu-maker in Goma.
Emanuel Buke won’t train just anyone. Like a swami on a mountaintop, he is discerning about his disciples….
So seven years ago, when Samson Nahubusa showed up at Mr. Buke’s door, Buke wasn’t surprised.
He’d seen kids like this before, teenagers looking for work in a part of the world where the best way to feed oneself can be to pick up a gun and join a militia. But Mr. Nahubusa had something the others looking to learn a trade didn’t: a tiny chikudu in his hand. He’d been trying to teach himself by building miniature replicas for years; now, he wanted to work on the real thing. He offered one to Buke as proof he had what it takes.
“Is this right?” he asked.
“No,” Buke said. “You made it wrong…. I have to teach you to do it.”
This is a story, I think, that’s just dying for the Hollywood treatment. Can’t you picture Morgan Freeman and Cuba Gooding, Jr., playing the lead roles?
This, my friends, is the Congo story we’ve been waiting for.
UPDATE: Investigative sleuthing (i.e., clicking on the first link after Googling “chukudu“) pulled up another piece in The Washington Post‘s archive from just last year. Makes me wonder if I shouldn’t just wait a year to send my own chukudu proposal.