24 Feb 15 07 Jul 21

Motos Sans Frontières: How a network of motorcyclists helps MSF deliver healthcare in Democratic Republic of Congo

This article appears in the Spring 2015 issue of Dispatches, the MSF Canada magazine.

Travelling from Numbi to Minova, in eastern Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), would be a dream ride for any motorcycle enthusiast. More than two hours of slopes, slippery surfaces and obstacles of all kinds make the journey a test of skill, as well as a chance to take in some beautiful scenery.

But for thousands of inhabitants of Numbi and the surrounding highlands, riding these roads has nothing to do with fun or the landscape. It is practically the only route to Lake Kivu and the city of Minova, and many sick or pregnant passengers rely on the skills of local motorcyclists to help them reach 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, a motorcycle driver who works 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 help bring medical care to tens of thousands of people who otherwise would remain deprived of 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,” says Akonkwa, an MSF motorcyclist in Numbi.

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 MSF motorcyclists in Numbi.

Going where cars fear to tread

To manage routes like the one from Numbi to Minova — which, thanks to treacherous and uncertain terrain, cars only do in extreme cases and never in the rain — MSF has consolidated its network of motorcyclists with locals already making their living as part of the country’s vast network of mototaxis. And it’s not just in South Kivu that MSF uses motorbikes to reach patients.

Oonagh Curry is a Canadian who recently returned from Goma, on the other side of Lake Kivu from Minova, where she was MSF’s deputy head of mission. She says the bikes can be an essential tool for MSF’s work elsewhere in DRC. “We consistently use motorbikes in the remote areas surrounding two of our projects in North Kivu,” she says. “Populations who are most affected by violence, including those who are repeatedly on the run from fighting, are often located in some of the most remote and difficult to access areas of eastern DRC. Motorbikes help us reach patients in places where there aren’t any roads or where heavier vehicles can’t go because of heavy rains and landslides.”

 The responsibilities of MSF drivers can also go beyond ferrying passengers and supplies. “As with all staff working with MSF, you need to be a humanitarian and driven to do what is necessary to reach patients in need of medical care,” says Curry of the motards, as MSF’s motorcyclists are known. “Once they’ve arrived and have had a chance to rest after several hours of rough road, they often take responsibility for whatever is necessary to make sure our medical activities go smoothly.”

For many of MSF’s motards sans frontières, working in such contexts can make their occupations about more than just income. “This job teaches you much more as a person,” says Brimana. “It gives you a better understanding of the society you live in.”

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