DRC: Meet the intrepid ‘Motards Sans Frontières’

A network of motorcyclists makes it possible for MSF to assist people in remote areas in the Democratic Republic of Congo

Travelling from Minova to Numbi, in eastern Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), would be the dream of many motorbike fans. More than two hours of slopes, slippery surfaces and obstacles of all kinds make the journey a test of skill that many local motorcyclists overcome with apparent ease and the serenity of those who face great difficulties every day. As a passenger on the back of the bike, an outsider can hardly admire the beautiful landscape as they worry about the difficulty of a route that requires the driver to perform acrobatic exercises. But after a while, and seeing the amazing skill of the driver, the passenger is willing to go wherever necessary.

But for the thousands of inhabitants of Numbi and the surrounding highlands, it has nothing to do with fun or the landscape. It is practically the only route to Lake Kivu and the nearest city, Minova. And for a sick person or a pregnant woman it is also the gateway to the only hospital in the area. In that case, driving a motorcycle with a patient as a passenger on the back is more than an adventure, it is quite a feat.

"I have never encountered an impossible situation, you always find a way ... but sometimes you have to cross yourself before accelerating," explains Shabadé, one of the motorcyclists working for Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) in the province of South Kivu.

Whether in exploratory missions to detect the needs of populations in remote areas or as a service to transport patients, these bikers are essential to bring medical care to tens of thousands of people who otherwise would remain deprived of assistance. Lack of access to health is a major problem in DRC, a country that has less than one hospital bed per thousand inhabitants and slightly more than one doctor per 10,000. These indicators are among the worst in the world.

"It's a lot of pressure because you have to go fast but also carefully because you are driving people in a delicate situation," admits Akonkwa, an MSF mortorcyclist in Numbi. Last September, a grenade blast injured a dozen people just outside the headquarters of MSF in that village. The motorcyclists had to urgently evacuate several of the wounded to Minova, some of whom had very serious injuries.

But sometimes not even the expertise of these motorcyclists is enough to reach the health centre in time. "Recently we were driving a pregnant woman to the hospital but she started to have the baby. Luckily, the guy on the support bike had some experience and we were able to help the woman to give birth. Everything went well", recalls Brimana, one of the newest members of the group of MSF motorcyclists in Numbi.

To manage routes like the one from Numbi to Minova, that cars only do in extreme cases, and  never in the  rain, MSF has consolidated its network of motorcyclists with the local youth, most of whom made their living as part of the country’s vast network of mototaxis. Like Shabadé or as Brimana, originally from a village near Minova. "Six months ago, I was hired one day by MSF to transport apatient in an emergency. Apparently I did well and they offered me a steady job. I passed a test and here I am," explains 22-year-old Brimana. He recognises that he makes a better living. "Before I had to pay rent for the bike I used as a taxi, "he says, also stressing the personal change his new work has brought. "I feel like I’m progressing This job teaches you much more as a person and gives you a better understanding of the society you live in," he says.

The difficulties of the road are not the only ones faced by these bikers without borders. Like many other civilians, they often have to deal with the armed conflict that has plagued various parts of the country for at least two decades. "Once we were on an exploratory mission in the south of the province and militiamen stopped us at a roadblock. Things got ugly and we had to flee as they shot into the air," recalls Pascal, one of the motorcyclists of the MSF emergency team based in Bukavu, south of Minova.

The motorbikes are an essential part of many operations in the region, such as the frequent vaccination campaigns, in which the only way to take vaccine containers deep into the jungle is on two wheels. "Sometimes the bike carries a load of 150 kilos, which is a lot," explains Pascal. Thanks to them there have been several immunisation campaigns in the area. Hundreds of thousands of children have been vaccinated against diseases like measles, which can still be fatal in DRC.

Shortly after arriving in Numbi, still with his back a bit battered but fired up by the trip, the outsider is offered to ride further to Shanje. Along a stony, muddy track for almost one more hour. No problem, with these bikers you can go wherever necessary.