Tag Archives: Congo River

Humanitarian Logistics in a Nutshell – Part 1: Transport

When an aid agency is running a program in a community, the program invariably requires the transport of people and goods from place to place to meet the needs of the community in question. This can range from small projects needing only a very small amount of supplies delivered to them from the nearest big city by road, right up to massive famine relief operations transporting hundreds of tonnes of food by cargo plane each day from warehouses far away.

This Ilyushin 76 strategic airlifter plane is being used to transport large quantities of supplies to various MONUC bases in the Democratic Republic of Congo. These planes have a capacity of around 45 tonnes! Incidentally, passengers in an Il-76 run by a different company a few years ago in DRC experienced a rather strange event.

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When Medical Emergency Relief International (Merlin) responded to the 2010 Haïti earthquake by setting up an emergency reconstructive surgery centre on a tennis court in Port-au-Prince, we had to send many tonnes of supplies from Europe to make it all possible. Thomas Cook Airlines donated free cargo space aboard some of their flights to the Dominican Republic, right next door to Haïti, so we loaded huge air pallets at Gatwick and Manchester airports with tonnes and tonnes of medical equipment. Air transport is very expensive, so the free cargo space was a lifesaver in the literal sense of the word.

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In more remote locations, when air transport is needed, only very small planes or helicopters can be used. A small Let L-410A airplane can carry around 2 tonnes of cargo if there are no passengers on board, and land on dirt airstrips or straight sections of road.

Medical supplies being transported by a Busy Bee Congo Let L-410A aircraft in Maniema Province:

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Offloading medical supplies at the Punia-Basenge dirt airstrip to a waiting Merlin LandCruiser:

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This is the Let L-410A landing at Tingi-Tingi Airport in Lubutu, which is actually just a straight section of the road that links Lubutu and Walikale. Before each landing, Merlin staff check the road and block it at both ends. The pilot does a loop over the road to see for himself that it’s safe to land, then comes down out of the sky and taxis over to our waiting vehicles to offload equipment and drugs and have a friendly chat.

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Land transport is really important for aid agencies as well. In a place like Canada, land transport consists of huge trucks, big trucks, medium trucks, small trucks, cars, and sometimes trains. In the places where aid agencies work, like the Democratic Republic of Congo, the options are occasionally big trucks, sometimes medium trucks, often pickup trucks and 4×4 vehicles such as Toyota LandCruisers, motorcycles, bicycles, and occasionally other contraptions like oxcarts.

This is an AWD (all wheel drive) medium-sized truck used to transport medical supplies to our projects in North Kivu province:

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One of our 4×4 LandCruiser pickups used in Lubutu to transport people and supplies all over the place:

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To transport several dozen mattresses from our Kindu office to clinics supported by our Pangi office we hired tolékistes, cyclists who transport things on roads that are not passable, or close to impassable, for vehicles. Often they walk the entire way, pushing the loaded bicycle along narrow forest paths and through mud that can be knee high in places. These men below pedaled and pushed about 140km over several days and all the mattresses arrived at their destination intact.

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When goods need to be shipped long distances without a rush, an alternative to expensive airfreight is seafreight. For instance, when setting up a program in Haïti, it soon became apparent that Merlin would need to purchase a few LandCruisers to get around the country. Logistics staff at head office in London arranged the purchase with a company based in Gibraltar, which arranged to ship them by sea from Gibraltar to Haïti for us to pick them up.

In some countries, aid agencies use boats on a smaller scaled, such as when moving around the Irrawaddy Delta in Burma, or transporting goods from place to place within DRC, where there are rivers everywhere. For instance, we transported about 30 bags of cement, each weighing 50kg, in a motorised pirogue from Kindu to Lubao along the Congo River (known along this stretch as the Lualaba River). A pirogue is a traditional canoe commonly used in the Congo, made by hollowing out a tree. On the right of this photo there’s something that looks like a spear, but it’s actually the paddle used for one of the smaller pirogues.

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There are other ways of transporting things in the places where aid agencies work, some of which really show the ingenuity of the people involved, and I’m sure in the years to come I’ll be able to post some photos of creative transport solutions in tough situations.

Kindu Paradise

I’ve now been in Maniema Province in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) for two months of a six month humanitarian logistics placement with Medical Emergency Relief International (Merlin). Most of the past two months has been spent in the small city (large town?) of Kindu. Kindu is on the Congo River (though at this point in its epic journey toward the Atlantic Ocean, it’s known as the Lualaba), with a small part of the city on the east bank of the river and the vast majority spread along and away from the west side of the river:

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On the way from the MONUC-controlled airport into Kindu, visitors are greeted by a big sign that says in French, “The revolutionary city of Kindu welcomes you”

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Here’s a map of the eastern part of DRC with Maniema Province in white and Kindu in the middle:

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Kindu’s roads are mostly dirt roads which aren’t in terrific condition, but they’re far better than the ridiculously bad roads in expat-saturated / NGO-saturated Goma. This is looking toward our home just after the car in the distance, on the left hidden behind some trees:

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Looking north along the main drag in “downtown” Kindu:

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Looking south along the main drag, with the MONUC headquarters on the right and the Catholic cathedral in the distance:

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When I first arrived in Kindu, it was still rainy season so rainstorms and lightning were pretty much daily occurrences. At our house, we have a paillotte (think gazebo with straw roof), which offers relatively good protection against the downpours:

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We collect rainwater in a 1000 Litre plastic tank, because the city water doesn’t always work so we need a backup supply. Of course it doesn’t work very well with the lid closed, so a minute after this photo, I opened it:

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There are also cats which appear cute in this photo but in reality are very annoying and catch no rats:

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And there are loads of toads:

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Our office is behind the MONUC headquarters:

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There are also palm trees at the office and a moon in the background:

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As I mentioned at the start of the post, Kindu straddles the Congo River. To cross, the vast majority of people take pirogues. A pirogue is a sort of canoe made by hollowing out a tree trunk. Most are human-powered, with long paddles that seem like oversized spears. Some have Honda outboard motors and charge a bit more for the crossing. They range in size from a capacity of one boatman and zero passengers up to a hundred passengers. Sadly, the biggest pirogue capsized a couple weeks ago, drowning the majority of the passengers on board the overloaded vessel.

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There are two watering holes where the few expats in Kindu, and some upper class Congolese, go for the occasional afternoon beer looking out over the water: Le Palmier which has been flooded since March by the high river…

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…and Vero Beach which is only partly underwater and offers some nice sunset views out over the river:

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April 28th was my birthday, so a fellow intern named Steve made me a Pringles cake (Pringles are a real luxury in Kindu!) and gave me a coconut which was deeelicious!

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Although a Google search for Kindu brings up a few negative reviews, and Tim Butcher wrote rather dismissively of his 2004 visit to the city in his poorly written travel diary Blood river, in fact Kindu in 2010 is a quiet but pleasant city. Some might even call it paradise:

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