I’m in the city of Beni, in the Democratic Republic of Congo, about to head out to the nearby trading hub, Butembo. It’s only 33 miles along a main highway. But in Congo, a drive like this can be long and potentially hazardous.
Congo is one of the most unstable and least developed countries in the world. One thing that makes the country hard to govern is the decrepit state of its roadways, often called the worst in the world.
I’ve been to Congo several times before, but for my girlfriend Lindsay, who’s just arrived in Congo, this is her first experience with Congo’s infamous roads. It’s not uncommon for people to get sick on their first road trip here. But as we start out, Lindsay isn’t too concerned.
“I think it’s gonna go pretty well,” Lindsay says. But she admits that she’s a little worried. “About the car breaking down. And rebels attacking,” she says with a laugh.
The United Nations base here rates this stretch of road as a yellow zone, which means attacks aren’t likely, but most of the route is within 5 miles of a rebel stronghold.
Another concern is that many of the vehicles on the road are in terrible shape. I’ve seen mechanics here repair cars with twine. On my first trip down this road, we had to stop three times for repairs.
But the biggest problem is that the highways in Congo are in terrible condition; they’re essentially dirt paths. Downed trees and large rocks sometimes block the way. The roads are so bumpy that I’ve banged my head on the roof as we’re driving. During the rainy season, large trucks can get stuck in potholes for a week.
On this day, Lindsay and I hope to make this 30-mile journey before nightfall.
As we leave the city, we stop to pay a toll.
It’s hard to believe that much of that money is being reinvested in the highway.
But suddenly, that’s not our main concern, because there’s a man up ahead motioning to us. There’s a problem, my translator, Kabuyaya, says; we have to show our passports.
We’re hauled in to an army checkpoint. The military here is notoriously corrupt, and they’re known for creating new fines on the spot. For Westerners, these can run into the hundreds of dollars.
But we’re lucky this time. Kabuyaya talks with the soldiers, and they send us on our way, without demanding a bribe.
“I was a teensy bit scared at the beginning,” Lindsay says afterwards, “but I was surprised. That went really well.”
“So far, so good,” I say.
Maybe they let us off without a bribe because our battered car suggests we don’t have that much to give. Still, our car is reliable compared to other vehicles here. On this trip alone, we see two overturned trucks and numerous broken-down cars awaiting parts.
Kabuyaya and I ask the driver of one of the disabled trucks how long they’ve been here. He says they’ve been stuck here since yesterday.
By this stage of our trip, Lindsay is doing fine, but I’m starting to feel sick from the rattling around. When Kabuyaya tells us this is one of the “best” roads in the region, I lose it.
“This is the worst road I have ever driven on anywhere in the world! How is this your best road?”
Kabuyaya responds, “We call it the best road because it seems to attract the attention of the government. It tries to repair bad things that block people to pass through it.”
Sure enough, farther up the road, we see evidence of the government’s attempts to improve things. There’s a road crew consisting of bare-footed men with shovels, who slowly move piles of dirt into the seemingly endless potholes.
The men say their salary is $30 a month, but often they don’t get paid. Most people in Congo assume that the taxes they pay, and the road tolls they’re charged, are siphoned off before they can ever fund any road improvements. That kind of corruption also affects the schools in Congo, and the foreign aid, and the police.
In some ways, poor roads are a cause of many of Congo’s problems, but they’re also a symptom of the many issues that keep the country under-developed.
We arrive in Butembo after more than 3 hours — travelling about 10 miles an hour. We didn’t break down, fall off a cliff, or get attacked by rebels. Lindsay feels fine after her first trip on a Congolese highway.
“I survived better than you. You look extremely pale, and for most of the journey you didn’t say anything and looked pretty sick,” she says.
I ask her how this compares to other highways she’s been on.
No comparison, she says. “This is unique. I’ve never quite been on a highway like this. I don’t know if you’d called it a highway. But I guess it is for Congo.”