24.08.2011 - 10.09.2011 42 °C
I like the heat of Africa and I am no longer good with the cold, but although DRC dry season has had me breaking out the fleeces and woollen socks it has been good for one thing - road travel. Equateur rainy season brings raging storms that cut out comms for 2 days [and have my other half panicking that the war has started again and I have been its first victim] and makes road travel the worst part of my job. Eleven hours later and my back and neck feel as though they have been in traction for a week, lest we forget I have lost an entire working day to travel 200km at a snail’s pace. The Gemena base station has now become almost entirely isolated, with irregular and unreliable flights to the capital maybe once a week and frequent closing of the three mobile phone networks that serve the province. This has made the aforementioned Gemena – Dongo – Gemena road trip essential for any kind of movement in and out of the province, and carting 3 phones around everywhere and a proliferation of one line emails a necessity for basic communication with the teams. It’s getting old very fast.
Dongo itself is recovering fast. The security situation is stable, the market and churches are full and the local schools are set for their highest intake since the conflict. NGOs are widening their work, moving South on the notorious Enyele axis to work with the returning populations and although the road is pretty awful the villages have grown and agricultural activities have begun in earnest. A young girl along the Enyele route offered to show us an unexploded item 1 km into the forest, little did I know I was on a wild chase with Dora the Explorer and 2 hours later we stumbled across a cacao plantation being farmed by her village and the pods exported to Cameroon via Bangui. Commerce is a good sign. And we found a rocket fuse! It’s a different story further south where the army and police out-number the locals and a very small percentage of the population feels confident enough to return to their homes, but the headway is visible and the situation is definitely stabilising. The elections have not come at a good time.
On the trip back from Dongo we saw lots of large groups of young men dressed in traditional grass skirts and headdresses with traditional weaponry, conducting ceremonies with community leaders. These young warriors were taken into the forest about 7 months ago by ‘trainers’, local community leaders, who have been teaching them how to hunt, fight and live in the forest. During this time they are also all circumcised which is why we also noticed a large number of funerals taking place throughout these villages – the training is violent, the boys can be as young as 10 when they leave, and the circumcision is not sanitary. Many boys each year die from infections, beatings and malnutrition. The surviving boys return as men and are now considered dangerously strong; women from the villages flee for days to avoid being beaten by returning warriors keen to display their new skills.
The Congolese members of our team born in large towns, cities or the capital shook their heads at these stories and muttered about the backward ways of ‘les villageois’ but it is more realistic than traditionalistic. I have lived in this part of the world for more than a year and I have been shocked at how basic my life is here; and it’s even more shocking given that my life is dramatically better than the lives of even the rich Congolese in this Province. More than once I have wondered how the villagers in some of these areas survive; their existence is based around very basic hunter-gatherer principles, relying entirely on the forest for their survival. In dry season when the tributaries disappear their lives must be almost impossible. So, although far from ideal by our standards, these traditional ceremonies do what they must – teach young boys how to survive the life they have been born into.
I was travelling with an American guy, who asked where he could buy a Coca Cola as soon as we arrived in Gemena. Apparently all Americans believe Coke is available everywhere in the world which says a lot about their marketing department but not too much about the US national curriculum. North Equateur definitely fails the ‘Coke Test’. When the river is up you are fairly sure to find a Congolese beer or two but cans are expensive [$2] and thus very rare finds. When the river is low you are lucky to find to find fuel, and bottled water is flown up by commercial flight and therefore only available to the richest of North Equateur’s residents. I think the reality is that the supply follows the demand, and being the only expats in Gemena besides the small MONUSCO contingent – who have their own private supply of everything – I imagine the demand of 4 expats is not high enough to warrant the 300km, 25 day boat delivery of cans of Coke. And the girls only drink Diet.