How transport can change lives (22 July 2015, Maniema Province, DRC)

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I am sitting here remembering of how frustrated I sometimes used to feel while still driving my little car when I got stuck in traffic or when I got delayed due to road works. I think I have a lot to learn about patience…..

Today I met some wonderful families who live in Risasi community, a remote village here in Maniema Province in Eastern DRC. They, too, depend on a road—for survival. In fact, the bumpy dirt track—some places sand filled, in others just hardened mud with giant potholes, is their sole connection to markets where they can sell their crops.

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Without the road, they cannot sell what they have produced and so they do not shy away from what is a truly arduous journey: by bike or my motorbike, packed to the full with sacks full of goods, jerry cans full of water and even people—many of whom sit on top of the jerry cans or sacks; or even on foot—carrying heavy wood or produce either on their heads or in giant baskets on their backs, supported by a rope tied round their heads. Many of them are women.  The best place for them to sell their goods is Kindu town but that is a very long journey by bike or motorbike, let alone on foot,  and so many of them have to compromise and opt for a less lucrative, more local market.

Yet today the 12 women and 9 men with whom we were privileged to meet were full of smiles and joy.  Their harvest has been successful and for the first time ever and they have been able to raise significant income from it.

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Through a project implemented by our local partner Uwaki with support from Christian Aid and a combination of Christian Aid funds and funding from UK Aid Match, they have set up farming cooperatives and received not only agricultural seeds of high quality and training on good farming practices, but also support with accessing Kindu market. Uwaki and Christian Aid have then helped them sell their crops –some produced on land owned by individual families, others by harvest yields from a community field-by organising lorries to come and drive their produce all the way to the market in Kindu. Each family has paid a small amount towards the transport (around 1 dollar per sack of produce), with the rest covered by the project.

The combination of agricultural training and transport assistance has yielded astonishing results. This gentleman, for example, pictured here with one of his little twins, used to sell 11 bags of rice for USD 220; access to Kindu market has allowed him to sell the same amount for USD 500, more than double the income he had before. On this photo you can see him next to roofing materials which he has bought with his savings so as to be able more comfortably accommodate his 18 family members.

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Other families like him have bought extra mattresses, building materials or much needed furniture or have paid school fees or medical bills for their relatives.

The project has also produced incredible, unexpected by-products.  The farmers told us that as a resulting of training side by side with the women as their equals, they have come to see that men can also help their wives to carry out tasks which are traditionally considered “women’s jobs”. The women in the meeting confirmed this, with some saying their husbands help them in this way from time to time, especially when they are ill or unable to work for whatever reason; others have even gone further and now regularly take on jobs which are usually considered beneath men. One of these is the arduous task of de-shelling the rice which involves a big wooden pole and a lot of physical strength. Men who take on this task are mocked and told their wife wears the trousers—yet in Risasi, men are now stepping out and challenging the status quo. In fact, the spirit of partnership between men and women was even evident during the focus group discussion: husbands and wives were treating each other as well equals. I get goose bumps every time I think about it.

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The farmers’ association also runs its own savings scheme. Members of the cooperative pay a monthly membership fee. While awaiting their harvest, families who suddenly need money –be it for medical bills, school fees, even a funeral or other family emergency— are then able to  borrow money from these savings and pay the money back into the fund once they have sold their produce and raise some income. (The baby on the photo below, for example, had a very warm little head and was suffering from Malaria. I do so hope the family take the little one to the doctor soon but, in the meantime, prayed for him for healing)

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The senior programme manager and head of office here in Kindu, Pascal, is now encouraging them to gradually increase their membership fees so that with time, communities will be able to afford the transport costs themselves without depending on a project like this one. He and one of the many dedicated Uwaki staff are also thinking about how to introduce some training and awareness-raising on nutrition into the support they offer the communities. Sadly, and despite the fact that the cooperative members have had a bumper crop and a good sale, there are still many children with the big bellies that are a tell-tale sign of malnutrition. Many of them are also running around in torn clothes or even naked—it is hard to tell whether this is due to the heat or due to lack of clothing. They were so adorable though–running around after me, posing for the camera and giggling away, torn between wanting to come close and shake my hand and yet also scared of the “muzungu”, some prone to running away when I spoke to them directly or stretched my hand out to them 🙂

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The UK Aid Match project, which finished in the spring of 2015 and now continues with Christian Aid’s own funds,  does not fall within my usual remit of work—it was managed by a Christian Aid team called “Large and complex programmes”, usually multi-country grants which are not covered by our programme funding team. But it was very relevant for me to visit this community: Pascal and I are still working hard to develop short concept notes which we can proactively present to donors and Pascal is keen to replicate the piloted approachin other parts of Maniema Province.

What I have seen and learned during this visit will now feed into a meeting with a donor, which I will be attending in Kinshasa on Monday: Pascal and I have been working hard on a concept note for an agricultural training programme in Kibombo, which has, this year, been affected by an infestation of little white flies (they are tiny, I even saw them and thought they were bits of dust flying around!), destroying thousands of hectares of crops with detrimental impact on the families whose livelihoods depended on them. I do hope we get some funding for this work and that we will manage to make a good case on Monday in Kinshasa.