Traveling from Minova to Numbi, in eastern Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), would be a dream for many motorbike enthusiasts. More than two hours of slopes, slippery surfaces, and obstacles of all kinds make the journey a serious test of skill.
But for the thousands of inhabitants of Numbi and the surrounding highlands, this trip has nothing to do with fun or the scenery. It is practically the only route to Lake Kivu and the nearest city, Minova, and, for a sick or pregnant person, it is also the gateway to the only hospital in the area.
For Doctors Without Borders/Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) motorcyclists, driving this route with a patient as a passenger is more than an adventure—it’s quite a feat. "I have never encountered an impossible situation, you always find a way,” says Shabadé, an MSF motorcyclist in South Kivu. “But sometimes you have to cross yourself before accelerating."
To manage routes like the one from Numbi to Minova—which can only be traversed by car 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.
"Six months ago, I was hired one day by MSF to transport a patient in an emergency,” explains 22-year-old Brimana. “Apparently I did well and they offered me a steady job. I passed a test and here I am.” He recognizes 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.”
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 be completely without assistance. Lack of access to health care 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.
However, even the expertise of these motorcyclists is sometimes not enough to reach the health center in time. "Recently we were driving a pregnant woman to the hospital, but she started to have the baby,” recalls Brimana. “Luckily, the guy on the support bike had some experience and we were able to help the woman to give birth. Everything went well.”
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,” recalls Pascal, on of the motorcyclists working with the MSF emergency team based in Bukavu, south of Minova. “Things got ugly and we had to flee as they shot into the air.”
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 [about 330 pounds], which is a lot," explains Pascal. Thanks to the motorcyclists MSF has conducted immunization campaigns in the area. Hundreds of thousands of children have been vaccinated against diseases like measles, which can still be fatal in DRC.