Like a swami on a mountaintop, Emanuel Buke is discerning about his disciples. For 20 years, he has chiseled chukudus, two-wheeled wooden scooters unique to eastern Democratic Republic of Congo. He doesn’t take on just anyone.
So when Samson Nahubusa knocked on his door, he was wary. He’d seen kids like Samson before, 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 Samson had something others hadn’t: a tiny chukudu in his hand. He’d been teaching himself by building miniature replicas for years; now, he wanted to work on the real thing.
“He was cleverer than the others,” Buke now says his protégé, who’s joined the ranks of craftsmen in the village of Kibumba. For these two men, chukudus are a source of pride. For the communities that use them, they are an expression of self-reliance, a sophisticated solution to the local farmer’s needs.
Sturdy and effective, if inelegant, the scooters pound rural roads covered with brittle rocks of solidified lava, left after a 2002 volcanic eruption. No one knows when chukudus were invented, but everyone here agrees they appeared after independence from Belgium in 1960. By then, bicycles and motorcycles had reached Congo, and chukudu makers tried to replicate their functionality.
Boys coast down hills on small units, while men push chukudus six feet long, bearing sacks of potatoes or cabbage or jugs of water—or all at once—from the foothills of the Virunga Mountains to Goma, the regional hub. Makers brag that the largest chukudus can carry up to 800 kilograms.
The body is made from eucalyptus chopped in the village, the wheels sculpted from hard mumba wood from the nearby Virunga Forest. A plank connects the wheels, wrapped in old tires, and a shaft rises from the front wheel to the handlebars. Most chukudus have shocks made of springs or tire treads. Wooden wheels whirring on wooden axles once generated enough friction to start fires, so now wheels have ball bearings. Today’s chukudus, varnished and driven hard, last two or three years.
The value of a chukudu is speed, which leads to another challenge: stopping. Though some Congolese boys can stop chukudus the way American kids stop skateboards, most drivers need a rear brake—a piece of tire nailed to the footboard, curving above the rear wheel. Stopping a fully loaded chukudu this way requires serious force, but it’s safer than the hand brake. Pull that one too fast, and you might fly over the handlebars.
The cost of a chukudu is high by local standards: a USD 100 chukudu needs USD 60 in parts. But craftsman Eugere Bagaruka says they weren’t born out of a hope of getting rich—just a little less poor.
The scooters, he says, “help us make transport. We’re farmers. We’re digging. So we think, ‘How can we take some food from these hills to come to the market?’”