Not THAT Bridge !

Maurice in the middle of a good time
Maurice, center front, singing and dancing with his fellow “bridge engineers.”

We often build bridges: Our bridges are made from mahogany and termite nests.

Bangengele bridge repair in south
On the road to ChombeKilima, we built the abutments with termite nests that are “strong as cement.” There is something in the saliva of termites.

In the Southern buffer zone of the Lomami National Park we put in ten bridges on the road to ChombeKilima, and another on the Balanga road and yet another on the Watambolo road.

minister inaugurates bridges_2014_BANGENGELE
The Minister walks the mahogany boards. The Entandrophragma mahoganies are durable wood, but not too dense for our chainsaw.

The Provincial Environment Minister took a motorbike 120 km to see the bridges. No 4-wheel vehicles can negotiate these roads, only bicycles and motorbikes, but they are still the primary “thoroughfares” and still need bridges.

When Maurice said that there was some road and bridge work in the Northern Buffer Zone we figured this would be possible and within budget.  I had recently been over the road to Elengalale camp where Maurice is based.  It had some bad parts.

road needed fixing
A bad place on the road to Elengalale. It could be improved with some serious shovel and pick work. Machetes would open the road verges.

But I thought the three bridges along that stretch weren’t too bad. 

bridge I thought they would reinforce
This bridge on the Elengalale road can be used as it is. Perhaps Maurice just meant to reinforce it with new logs?
Roadwork serves the purpose of outreach too. Above Maurice’s assistant, Leon, is talking with the road crew (and kids) about totally protected species.

Bridge repair is a frequent request from villages.  Without bridges farm produce does not get to market or family members to hospital.  We, too, use these roads; all of them have our patrol posts at their dead ends. 

So, when Maurice told us the road work was finished, but there was more bridge repair needed and that he was working with the Mbole elders to assure it happened efficiently, we gave our approval. 

Song a part of it
Maurice on top of a girder with the singing bridge crew.

Who is Maurice:  He is one of our own most faithful “elders.”  He has been with the TL2 project from the beginning and before that, worked with John Hart to inventory elephants in the Salonga National Park.  While doing outreach among the Mituku he was tortured by the bandit Portugais who is now the instigator of an ongoing insurrection; while he was TL2 team leader at Obenge in 2012 he was threatened by the rogue, prison-escapee, Thoms; when he started working in the north at Elengalale he was met by a hostile population.  Over a period of several months he won over the villages and they built a patrol post with him. 

Maurice’s first bridge budget was reasonable. 
But the budgets kept coming, the next month and the next month.

This photo was slipped in the file
This photo had been slipped into the file.

We had not noticed the picture of the Ilipa bridge in the photos of proposed road repair.  The Ilipa bridge is a major bridge, much bigger than anything we have done before.  It is on the road before the bifurcation to Elengalale.   By the time we realized what was underway it was too late to halt the work.  Maurice had mobilized a sector and two chiefdoms.  Practically every village south of Opala was participating.

Why the bridge had to be raised
Ilipa River during rainy season. An island, with only the bamboo showing here, has to be built up. It allows the bridge to be in two smaller segments.
Inspirational talks before the sleepers are moved
Maurice was doing what he does well : work with the chiefs, organize and motivate people.
our early crossings of Ilipa
Crossing the Ilipa River in a dugout with a motorbike on board.

The Ilipa bridge is the major bridge between Opala and Elengalale.  We crossed it in dugouts the first few times I visited.   At that time even the log crossing was down.   

crossing one part of Ilipa with cargo
Crossing one of the two Ilipa bridge with a bicycle.

When the logs were in,  the Ilipa crossing had improved to this.

But why was fixing the Ilipa bridge suddenly urgent? Apparently a number of villages had put pressure on Maurice after a motorbike fell in the River; it was carrying home the corpse of a beloved elder in his casket.

However, in a place where all work is done with shovels, machetes and axes, along with the heft and dexterity of the human body, this was a huge project. 

We visited and saw the enthusiasm. Belgian foreign aid gave empty sacks, a wheel barrow, and some shovels.   The territorial administrator cheered Maurice on.  It was too late to say no. 

Maurice was confident, “Don’t under-estimate what human labor can do.”   This was the continent that built the pyramids, after all.    But that was slave labor, here we would have to count on the chiefs – and Maurice — to keep up the enthusiasm.  Thank goodness, among the Mbole people, the chiefs have power.

the elders dance after consultation
Chiefs and elders dance and sing with Maurice after a meeting. All decisions are reinforced with music and dance.

In  june 2018 the work began:   the trees were selected to become the girders  that would support the largest bridge.   The first planks were sawn and lianas collected to build up abutments

choosing one of the trees
The trees for the major sleepers were all Wele, Pterocarpus soyauxii.

But Wele, the species used for the main girders, is not frequent and the appropriate tall, straight trees (four for the first bridge) were all between five and ten km away.

Different trees were used for the surface planks, and the abutment framing-wall.

examining the timber_June
Maurice and others examine the sawn wood.

In July the work on the abutments began.
1700 sandbags were filled and put in place.

starting to build up the abutement
Sticks, lianas and boards were used to frame the abutments at both sides of the bridge and on the central island.
sandbags were the first building block
Sandbags were filled and carried to the site – 1700 in all.
moving beams to finish abutement
The logs spanning the River were lifted to put sandbags in place.
bringing and arranging sand bags for abutement
The island was raised sandbag by sandbag.
reinforced with sand bags
By early September 2018 the Ilipa bridges had new abutments, but was still spanned by the same logs.

But it was in October and November that the drums began to talk seriously.   Men were called from distant villages to the Ilipa Bridges.  Time to pull the sleepers out of the forest.  Manpower was needed.

Mbole bridge work_is it straight? copy
The trees had been felled and the girders squared-off months earlier.
Guiding beam out of forest to path
A rough forest path was cut and now each girder had to be positioned .
first steps to moving beam out
And wrestled onto the skids.
high spirits as they ready to pull a beam
The rotin lianes were ready for the harness and lead. Spirits were high.

All four sleeper logs for the first bridge were between 5 and 10 km away and took five to seven days to get from forest to destination.

this is how the pyramids were built
The weight of villages was called to help.

We bought goats, village women provided greens. We bought manioc, village women provided the pounding into flour and cooking. Everyone ate.

replacing the rollers under the beam
The elders carried the skid sticks from the back to the front to keep the sleeper moving.
pulling beam into final position
Finally onto the bridge.

One by one the sleepers were pulled into placed over the course of  October and November.

first bridge done_december 18
One bridge is done by the end of December.

For the second bridge – the materials are ready.  As the rains peter out, Maurice and the chiefs will mobilize manpower again.

Is this Maurice’s folly?  Or a “do-it-ourselves” miracle by Maurice and the chiefs?  In any case the conservation outreach aspect has been huge.


  1. ISUNGU Jérémie
    Posted 2019-03-07 at 9:24 am | Permalink

    What i can say about all you are doing in lomami national park is to thank you alot and congratilation!
    These the facts of the conservation of nature.
    Let’s go on!!!!

  2. Daniel
    Posted 2019-03-20 at 11:38 pm | Permalink

    What an incredible effort. Congrats to Maurice and the team, well done!

  3. Tumba Libère
    Posted 2019-11-14 at 12:33 pm | Permalink

    Ms. and Mr. Hart, as well as the Congolese team led by Mr. Maurice and all the area’s park people, for the involvement of everyone. We are impressed by the work being done

    One word: many thanks! Aksanti sana kwenu wote!

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