Hearing what marginalised groups have to say in Equateur Province, DRC (January 2015)

fishermen and women

I cannot believe that it is now over a week since I arrived in the DRC. Time flies when we are busy and also when we feel that we are achieving something, and I have to say it feels like I have been more useful here over the last 10 days then I am in a month (maybe even more?) in London. At the same time, there are so many times when I wish I could somehow give more, help more, be more for the people I meet and work with.

There is a sense of natural rhythm, a peace at the end of the day here in Mbandaka, right by the river. It masks the hustle and bustle on this river which starts early in the morning and finishes late in the evening, with many boats still out overnight. We are staying in a hotel that is right by the river. As I look up from my laptop, I see small fishing boats—the type of boat that is carved out of tree trunks, known as pirogue — with any number of people in them, some of them loaded with all sorts of greenery, others with just fishermen and women casting out their nets, little babies visible on backs or laps. Occasionally you spot one that belongs to someone who has a bit more money, the electric motor and smell of Diesel momentarily disrupting the peaceful atmosphere, which is otherwise only interrupted by the sound of voices, bird song, or the occasional squeal from the pigs that are apparently not too happy with being loaded onto boats at the nearby port. Then there are the big boats that travel from Kisangani to Kinshasa—overloaded to the point where you would think it would sink— animals, goods and people everywhere, the latter patiently facing a slow journey of weeks prior to reaching their destination. Birds of prey circle above, undoubtedly seeking out fish, the means of survival not only for them but for 80% of the population here in Equateur Province. On the other side of the river, I can see the little fishing villages, home to so many of the people I see day in day out; much of the fish they gain from their daily activities is doubtless for sale in town, some of it at the little bamboo hut that is the restaurant Chez les Trois Soeurs where our project officer Nelly and I have been having lunch every day. We have enjoyed delicious fish with greenery and a decent portion of foufou (a type of firm mash made of corn) which filled us up so much that we got away with having only a light dinner, if that. …a very good thing given the food here at our hotel is very overpriced. I have tried so many types of fish in our short time here—Mulongo,Muganza, Mudjanza, Mboto and Grand Ngolo from the Libongo family, in addition to Musombo, which has been my favourite not only because it tasted lovely, but also because it has comparatively fewer bones. My Lingala is non- existent, so that I will probably never know what their British counterparts would have been.

Today is our last morning and Nelly and I are waiting for the driver to pick us up. ….for a change, we are going to the airport by hire car and not by moped, the most common means of transport here, together with normal bikes. I have loved our moped journeys—the fresh air in your face, the opportunity to see people, pass by the market and soak in the atmosphere makes up for the slight sense of unease on there as well as the discomfort of the potholes. As I looked out over the river this morning I felt joy but also grief about all I have heard and seen these last few days here. I am relieved that even after so many years of doing this kind of work, God still breaks my heart when I see and witness poverty and injustice—I think if I am ever numbed to a degree where I feel nothing anymore, I will have to change jobs. Anyway, the kitchen staff must have thought this Mundele (“white lady”) is crazy crying over her breakfast but then they probably think that anyway—or they may just be too busy worrying that I am covered in mosquito bites. (I have actually been able to allay that particular fear by explaining to them that what they see on my skin are actually freckles….)

It’s been so inspiring seeing our Participatory Governance project here, which is now entering its third year and is funded by the European Commission. The project aims to enhance dialogue between local authorities, elected politicians and the population and to ensure that there is mutual communication, consultation and also respect. For the local population, this means being listened to by those chosen to represent them, and seeing their hopes and limitations adequately reflected in policy and budgets; for local and provincial leaders, it means an opportunity to be valued rather than hated by the communities, to be respected by them following greater accountability towards and consultation with them. Prior to the project, local communities distrusted their leaders, were scared of expressing their opinions out of fear of being punished (not an entirely unfounded fear) or simply thought that politics had nothing to do with them. Many people did not like paying their bills or taxes, as they did not understand what good that would do them, and never tried to make their voices heard; local leaders, in turn, made policy without asking people what they wanted and needed and where, resulting in markets being built in places where they were of no use and in laws being passed with which they population could not identify.

It’s so encouraging to see that this is now changing here. The Local Participatory Governance Committees (CLGP) supported by our project work with all segments of the populations to identify their needs, draw on their capacities and advocate for change by talking to local mayors, leaders of local communes and others. In their work, they have been helped by the Provincial Parliamentary Liaison Committee (CLPP) which works with the CLGPs to consolidate information and to liaise with provincial politicians by helping to formulate, propose and seek approval for new laws and regulations. For example, we are waiting for the –hopefully soon successful—outcome of a new law regulating fishing activity here in the region. There has already been a first meeting at provincial parliament level, during which the law was not passed as there were still questions about coherence between provincial and national fishing regulations (I believe one point of contention was that the provincial law had failed to include a paragraph prohibiting the use of impregnated mosquito nets for fishing, as it kills microorganisms and the fish themselves….incidentally, a stark reminder of the fate of many a mosquito net given for a totally different purpose……..). That said, the MP shared with us that 30 members of the fishing association had actually been in the room with him during the initial session, providing feedback and ideas on little pieces of paper to help him answer the 26 questions he was asked by his government colleagues.

As the aim is to involve all gender and age groups and all sectors of the population and to adequately represent their concerns, the CLGPs and CLPP also make contact with local associations: cooperatives, women’s organisations, local NGOs and other local movements.

In Equateur Province this has recently led to the inclusion of associations representing fishermen and women and pygmies respectively, and we had meetings with both groups during my time here, which has been very interesting.  Unbelievable that in a place where 80% of the population depend on fishing, fishermen and women are stigmatised.

It has been hard to hear their stories. They are marginalised by the population, overlooked in policy making. It is their children who are blamed at school or elsewhere when someone has been naughty even when they are totally innocent.  They are bullied and verbally abused.  The pygmies are even more isolated: people are prejudiced towards them due to their lifestyle and  culture– to such a degree that yesterday, they held their special dance performance in a tiny squashed room instead of going outside…….. they preferred a more private space where no one could notice their presence, for fear of being insulted. A person who marries or has a relationship with a pygmy is shunned by his/her family; pygmies cannot get decent jobs, are ripped off in the market where people ask them to pay so much tax on their goods that they are left without anything at the end of the day. It breaks my heart to hear that—what an unjust world we live in. To be honest, when I look at the pygmies, I cannot even really tell they are pygmies—true, there seem to be certain traits (notably their height) that make them stand out but otherwise hard to spot the difference—especially for me as an outsider. The meeting with them was very hard-hitting: N. and K. (the project coordinator who works for our local partner) were so moved by their stories yesterday that they could not hold back the tears during the meeting; I only got emotional this morning, partly due to the fact that it always takes me some time to digest what I see and hear, and partly because I could not understand what was going on yesterday: I asked Nelly and our local partners to hold all the meetings in the local language-that way, people are at ease and can speak freely……I can gauge a lot from the general atmosphere, am told the essentials and the team update me at the end of the day. Translation disrupts the dynamic so much and gives the wrong impression about my importance…..in the end it is crucial that my local colleagues understand and that they, not I, are the face of the project and it is good if we give that message in subtle ways as well.

So I usually work hard with them prior to any meeting, developing questions; preparing documents; and then share follow up afterwards when we are back in the office ………during meetings, I listen, try to gauge what is going on (which is often easier than one would think…..you can read so much from people’s facial expression, gestures and passion), give some encouragement to the group to which we are speaking and take photos and sometimes film footage.

I am glad that it will be the week-end soon, so I can digest all these experiences, get a little rest and also catch up with some work and emails. Power supply is not forthcoming in Mbandaka so long reading and email sessions have not happened—plus I am sure to have a week’s emails to attend to. That said, I will also hopefully have a half day off on both Friday and Monday as Friday and Saturday are major national holidays. Both days mark the anniversary of the death of political leaders—tomorrow (Friday), the Congolese remember the assassination of Laurent Kabila. It will be good to have some time to rest and hopefully also walk around a bit, maybe get a swim in somewhere. During my last visit to DRC in June 2014, I randomly bumped into a girl with whom I did my MA in London in 1999/2000 (I attended a dance performance at a local school and Karin was there with her husband and child) and they have invited me to stay with them while in Kinshasa which will not only be nice but also save Christian Aid money. The hotel here in Mbandaka has been lovely but is not cheap…….but as all other hotels are relatively unsafe, mosquito and rat infested and extremely noisy, we had no choice…….sometimes rest and healthy living has its price and N.  and I saved money by not eating the overpriced food at the hotel but filling our bellies at little local restaurants instead.

It’s time to go so I will sign off here until I get another opportunity to write…from wherever that may be. I am due to travel to Kindu in Maniema Province sometime soon , which will probably also entail a few days in Goma if just for transit purposes….. …..we shall see……..


river view in Mbandaka