These are Congo's toleka traders.
"We use drugs to keep going," says a scarecrow named Kambale Vivalya.
I meet Vivalya while he is heaving an enormous sack of shoes—cheap plastic shoes—to a gold mine 300 miles (480 kilometers) away, on the far side of the Ituri.
"I take ibuprofen for pain and Indocin to keep awake," he says. "Otherwise you won't make it. Many people have died on this job. You get exhausted. You go home after a trip. You sleep. You don't wake up."
When we finally part, he shakes my hand politely and wishes me luck. I wipe the blood of his blistered palm on my trousers.
Few countries in the world have collapsed as disastrously by the wayside—regressed so starkly into preindustrial ruin—as Congo. Once called Zaire, the nation was picked clean during three decades of misrule by the dictator Mobutu Sese Seko, then gutted by more than six years of anarchy and civil war. Today Congo is the shell-shocked colossus of central Africa—a country almost the size of western Europe that seems to have sleepwalked into some feverish dream of the post-apocalypse.
Nowhere is the decay as surreal as on the roads that span the country's Wild East, a vast jungle where the fighting has never stopped.
What words can be uttered about those roads? Clogged with mud, strangled by bush, reduced in many cases to absurd footpaths, they slither for hundreds of miles through a tropical forest second in size only to the Amazon. They span a landscape where the 20th century has ebbed like a neap tide, leaving behind the detritus of modernity: towns with trees growing from roofs, factories crumbling like Maya ruins, coffee plantations run wild.
The roads are no longer roads. They are Ho Chi Minh trails of survival. And in their shadow-smeared margins the Mbuti can be glimpsed, shy, silent, watchful. In many cases it is their own world, dismantled and repackaged into sellable commodities, which they see passing by. The Pygmies covet, as we all would, the aluminum pots, cigarettes, and manufactured clothing carried by Congo's bicycle caravans. Yet in exchange, loads of timber, wild meat, and gold are streaming out of their forest home along the same tracks—a bonanza of raw materials swindled from the Pygmies by unscrupulous shopkeepers and middlemen. Moreover, the tiny hunters' ancient bonds of trade with local farmers—a quasi-feudal system that swaps Mbuti field labor and forest products for food crops and metal tools—are becoming frayed.