When Kabuika Kamunga won a bicycle in a raffle in 1993, she wasn’t sure she would remember how to ride it. The last bike she’d owned was an orange-and-green cruiser she’d ridden as a child growing up in Zaire. It all came back to her, though, and she ended up riding her new bike everywhere.
Kamunga had come to Chicago in 1986 to study chemistry at DePaul University. But after a few semesters, the economic and political situation in Zaire deteriorated, and her parents stopped sending money. Kamunga was forced to quit school and support herself by working a series of odd jobs, including baby-sitting and teaching French.
Back home the situation was dire. Her father, a pediatrician, was targeted by the government for treating people who had been injured in antigovernment riots. “He gave help to anyone who needed it,” she says. “As a doctor, he didn’t care who he treated or if they could pay. But he got in the middle, and they didn’t like that.” Her mother, who was a nurse, and brother were killed in 1993 in fallout “relating to the political situation” (her father moved to Montreal in 1995). Kamunga was trying to earn money to support her surviving siblings in the capital city of Kinshasa when she met a Roosevelt University political science professor, Frank Untermyer, who arranged for a scholarship. She started attending Roosevelt later that year.
Riding her bike was one of her few solaces during that time. “I would be dead tired after a lab. If I took the train home I would feel very sleepy, and by the time I got home I would be even more tired. If I traveled by bike I’d still have energy.” Kamunga got a better bicycle and took a solo trip to Wisconsin and Michigan’s Upper Peninsula in 1995. “I was homesick and fed up with everything, but I couldn’t go home right away. The midwest tour was a way for me to clear my mind.”
The other thing that kept her going was a new interest in medicinal plants and traditional medicine, something her Belgian-educated parents had never embraced. “Everything for them had to do with modern Westernized medicine,” she says. “I was never exposed to anything else. I had been inside operating rooms, watching surgeons operate and everything but had never seen anything relating to a traditional doctor curing somebody.”
Natural methods of healing intrigued Kamunga, who recalled that when she was a child people would knock on her family’s gate and ask for leaves from a long, slim, eucalyptus-like tree that grew in the backyard. “Whenever I was studying for school at the library, I would take a break and find myself reading other types of books, and they always related to medicine somehow–plants, botany, Chinese medicine. It became a hobby. Then I began to realize that I wanted to have it be more than just a hobby.”
Kamunga, who’s 30, has worked as a chemist at NutraSweet Kelco for the past six months but says she sees a correlation between her two interests. “Chemistry is everything,” she says. “It’s not necessarily those bad toxic chemicals that you find mostly in the cities. It’s also the chemistry of plants, of nature itself.”
For several years Kamunga has been saving her money and hatching a plan to ride her bicycle from Chicago to her hometown of Kinshasa, in what’s now the Democratic Republic of Congo, though the State Department currently has an advisory against traveling there. She plans to study the use of traditional medicine at a local clinic and later publicize its use in the West. Along the way she wants to study at botanical gardens, museums, and clinics across Europe and Africa. “It will be like going to medical school but in my own fashion,” she says. “I want to learn how to standardize the traditional medicine to make it more efficient in today’s world.”
Kamunga will break down her 10,000-mile journey into increments of 35 miles per day. She plans to take the Queen Elizabeth II across the Atlantic in mid-November, “if I can get the price reduced or if I can work on the ship and have passage for free.” The African leg of her route will depend on the political situation in each country.
To train for the trip, Kamunga has been riding, working part-time at a bike shop, running, swimming, and practicing karate. She says she would like to raise $50,000 for the clinic and $20,000 for the trip itself. “It’s not really about money. It’s about doing it. It’s interesting–when you run out of money you find all kinds of resources that come up. The second half of my midwest trip was fun because I did not have money. I stayed in backyards and in churches, and I met some incredible people because of it.”
After a year in Kinshasa, she says, she’ll move on, possibly to study herbal medicine in Japan. “People ask, are you going to settle down somewhere? I cannot see myself settling down. I see myself traveling back and forth between two areas but not settling down in one spot. It’s almost as if you’re asking me to stop learning.
“I recently read something about my tribe, the Baluba. They’re considered nomadic in Zaire–they always need to move. They are very nomadic, independent, and stubborn. Now I know where I get all that.”
A benefit for Kamunga’s trip featuring dinner, dancing, live African music, and a slide presentation about traditional African medicine will start at 6:30 on Saturday at the Uptown Cultural and Arts Center, 4740 N. Racine. It’s $25 in advance or $30 at the door for the whole shebang, or $12 in advance, $15 at the door for the slide presentation and dance, which start at 8. For the dance party only, which starts at 10, it’s $8 in advance or $10 at the door. Call 773-769-6752 for more.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Kabulka Kamunga photo by J.B. Spector.