Congolese drivers navigate trucks laden with goods and passengers through mud and jungles for hundreds of kilometres.
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In Kamina, an important railway node in the southern Democratic Republic of Congo, every day hundreds of people are getting on a train named after a bird, the “swallow”. Locally known as the “hirondelle”, it is, for the most part, the only link people in remote villages have to the outside world.
For vendors like us, not getting on the train is worse than falling ill ... our children eat, go to school and live because of the train.
More than 2,000 people, three times the train’s capacity, squeeze into its carriages, bathrooms are used for storage. For those who aren’t able to find a place or who can’t afford a ticket, there’s always the roof. The train is unkempt, which makes travelling aboard the ‘hirondelle’ a dangerously risky journey.
“I prefer to lie down. If you stand, you might get cut in two,” says one passenger on the train’s roof.
Much of Congo’s rail network dates back to the colonial era and has had little maintenance in decades of conflict – it is old, run-down, badly managed and in desperate need of an overhaul.
The “swallow” has been around for more than 50 years. The old engine was bought second-hand in South Africa. A relay of 10 train drivers is needed to cover the 1,600-kilometre-long journey across Congo.
Mr Molongo, the 63-year-old train driver, takes over one of the hardest legs of the trip: 120km of trouble, which takes him eight or nine hours.
“In the old days, we used to do it in four hours. The tracks became very bad and there’s no proper maintenance these days,” he says. Accidents and delays are frequent. Molongo supplements his income by allowing about 10 passengers to travel in the driver’s cabin. It’s as close as it gets to first class on the train.
Back in second class, one challenge is to avoid stepping on someone as passengers try to move around in the overcrowded carriage. According to passenger Clement, “if you put three people on this seat, you’d still have enough air. But there are five or six on each side. So with 10 or 12 people in the compartment, the conditions are terrible.”
The overcrowded train can also turn into a death trap. Train accidents are becoming more common, frequently killing passengers sitting on top, between and inside the cargo holds. Also, the train’s snares pose a serious threat.
“As the train is moving, this (snare) sometimes opens up and when it closes up again, it could take your foot off. When it opens up wide, someone could fall through it and be killed,” says one passenger.
Those up on the roof are risking their lives as they can easily be knocked off the moving train. The danger comes not just from above but also from the sides. Even at the moderate speed of 30 kilometres an hour, a tree branch can cut like a machete. So a lapse in attention could be fatal.
“I fell onto the rails, I nearly died,” explains a young passenger who got knocked off the train. “I was lucky because God saved me. That’s why I’m still here.”
But the journey isn’t easier by car, by bike or on foot, as roads in Congo are generally in poor condition and often impassable during the rainy season. So every day, thousands of Congolese are getting on the “hirondelle” – chancing life and limb to get to work.
For some Congolese, the ‘hirondelle’ is more than just a means to move across the country. Stopping at virtually every station from Lubumbashi to Ilebo, the train attracts many street vendors who turn the stops – often due to technical problems – into buzzing markets.
“For vendors like us, not getting on the train is worse than falling ill,” says Victor, one of the vendors who has been riding the ‘swallow’ for 10 years. “It’s our work. We’re like miners who need to dig to get their minerals. We must travel on the train. Our children eat, go to school and live because of the train.”