On the road
“Rubaya is a remote town in North Kivu, a beautiful region in the east of the DRC, close to Rwanda and Uganda. The DRC is lush, green and fertile with 80 million hectares of arable land and more than 1,100 different minerals and precious metals. It has the potential to be one of the richest countries in Africa and a breadbasket for the region but decades of conflict and poor governance have created a long term crisis. More than 25 rebel groups operate in just two provinces in the east, forcing millions from their homes, and many have been displaced by conflict time and again. Some people in Rubaya live off small-scale farming or mining but the majority rely on anything they can do to make a few dollars.
Over the course of a few days we introduced ourselves to people walking the road to Rubaya – a long mud road in a terrible condition – and interviewed those carrying goods to the market. We wanted to know more about the streams of people walking huge distances and carrying the most extroardinary things with them. Almost every bundle of produce came with a story and everyone’s persistent physical exertion was echoed by their inner strength to survive.”
“Maombie left school when she was 14 because she didn’t have enough money to keep going. Only two of her 12 siblings are receiving an education. School is expensive and many are making the tough decision to spend money on food instead. Their children have to drop out when they run out of cash or when they flee fighting.
Maombie was going to sell vegetables at the market in Rubaya and does this walk every day. She would make around $3 selling her goods but said she would be “taxed” along the way. Many face illegal “taxes” enforced by rebel groups or sometimes the army. Different armed groups extort goods or money from traders and farmers, or loot their fields. People put themselves at risk just by carrying valuable goods in order to feed their families. It may be a disincentive to work for some but those we met travelled despite the dangers. Sometimes soldiers or rebels ask people to carry goods for them and they’ve got no choice but to do it.”
“Mumburi had had his guitar strung in town – he plays gospel music in his local church and said that he loves to ‘dance and sing for my Lord’. He told me that he does the walk between Rubaya and the market twice a week to sell bread, milk and doughnuts but that business is not good because of the conflict in the area. He earns around 10,000 Congolese francs (about $10) a week, which is above average.”
“Nkamanze had been walking for three days from her village to sell sweet potatoes in Rubaya for $4-5, which would help to feed her six children. Every day she begins walking at 6am and she stops for sleep at around 9pm at family homes along the way. She lives off the sweet potatoes she carries. She’s got a bad back and says she can’t feel anything below her knees. Almost everyone we met was in pain of some sort: unsurprising, considering the amount they are walking and carrying. Some people go to hospital but it’s expensive so they have to prioritise. Most have no choice because they need to earn a living”
Le Blanc, 25
“This man is five hours into a six-hour walk to the market. We met one woman who had been walking for four days. It shows you how bad the situation is in some parts of the country, that people would walk for days to make a few dollars. The market itself is not huge: the one in Rubaya is mainly just people selling vegetables on the side of the road.”
“Zawadi fled her home with her husband and three children when a rebel group attacked, chasing them from their village at gunpoint. They spent two nights at another village on their way here and are living in a temporary hut made of wood and leaves. When we met Zawadi, she had spent the week carrying vegetables and goods for people and told us that her back and neck hurt. Despite her problems, she had a positive outlook. ‘Even though life is what it is, my heart is at peace,’ she said. ‘If Congo was at peace like my heart is at peace, I could grow food because we would have land and we could save a little. We would be able to start a small business’.”
“Matisse is an orphan – his father left the family and his mother became sick and died. He sleeps wherever he can and he survives by carrying bags for people along this road. So many children have lost parents to disease and conflict or were separated from parents during fighting, and are now very vulnerable. I have met many people who have adopted children – families that can barely afford to feed their own children take separated children in as their own.”
Anna and Eleanor travelled to the DRC with Oxfam, whose Strength to Survive appeal (oxfam.org.uk/strength-to-survive) focuses on the Democratic Republic of the Congo and 30 other countries and aims to “help people to prepare for the worst, survive when it happens and come back stronger.”
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