Roads and Development in Eastern Congo: Declining Livelihoods and Growing Self-Reliance Among the Lese and Efe
Mail arrived yesterday from Kuli, the clinic health worker. It had been over nine months since we last received word from the Lese and Efe who run the community clinic and primary school in the Ituri Forest in what is now the Democratic Republic of Congo. Kuli must have been determined to share with us the latest information about his community, Andisengi. He had walked 100 miles out of Lese territory to hand a wad of letters without envelopes to someone heading to Beni, one of the gateway cities to East Africa. From there, the letters miraculously made their way to Nairobi, where an anonymous and clearly generous stranger placed them in a plain brown envelope with no return address, affixed the necessary stamps, and sent the package to us at the Ituri Forest Peoples Fund here in the United States.
Habari yako? We are OK here but were terrified during the war when Mobutu's soldiers came. No one in Andisengi was shot. We all fled across the river to hide further into the forest. The soldiers broke into our houses and took all our seed rice and peanuts. They broke the door of the clinic, pillaged the dispensary, and stole the cash box. They took my stethoscope, my tweezers, and my syringes. The women had hidden the microscope so the soldiers could not steal it. They tore down the door of the store house and took everything. We heard lots of bombs near the Nepoko River. We only returned to our houses when the liberators arrived. We only have cassava and plantains to plant this year but Kabila's Alliance soldiers don't steal from us. We don't know how we can restart the clinic without medicine, but the school still has one or two books, and the teachers are all still here. We will wait and see if anything improves with Kabila, now that the war is over. When are you coming here?..."
Kuli, like most people in the Ituri, has great hopes for his country now that Mobutu is not in power. For the last 30 years, the people of the Ituri Forest have powerlessly watched a corrupt and incompetent government grow rich, as the road system has progressively collapsed and rural livelihoods have plummeted.
In 1985, Mobutu's regime declared that all schools that were not built of brick with corrugated tin roofs were no longer eligible for state support. This effectively closed rural primary schools and brought children's education to a halt in Andisengi as the nearest mission-run school was over 40 miles away. Yet, a group of parents in Andisengi were sufficiently concerned about keeping their school going that they organized a work team to repair the mud-walled and leaf-roofed school room. However, they were unable to persuade the teacher to continue teaching in exchange for food and help in his field. This understandable rebuff by the teacher spurred the community to ask us to establish the Ituri Forest Peoples Fund. The initial goal of the Fund was to sell locally made crafts, seek donations in the U.S. to pay the teacher's salary, and to purchase text books. Since then, this special project of Cultural Survival has been able to help the Lese and Efe by providing books and supplies for the school, supporting nine teachers, and educating over 230 children each year.
Community Development in the Ituri
Families in Andisengi have a tradition of independence and an abiding suspicion of those not very closely related to them. Typically, families are able to make do on their own because they can provide themselves with food and shelter. Arranging schooling for their children, however, is a community-level challenge, one that exceeds the capacity of any individual family. Becoming a community is essential for supporting a school. For the independent families of Andisengi, this has not been easy. Families needed to trust that they would not be alone in committing time, energy, and scarce capital into community projects. Equally important, families needed to believe that they could provide community-level services for themselves, instead of waiting for others (the Belgians, the Mobutu government, or most recently the American researchers) to do so. Even with these barriers, the concept of, and capacity for community-level self-help has progressively taken root in the Ituri. In Andisengi, it has been a process championed by two bright and hard-working brothers who, as a result of their persistence and honesty, have gained considerable respect in the community. It has also been a process necessitated by Mobutu's increasingly feeble and predatory government that failed to provide poor rural communities with social services or access to markets, but never stopped taxing them.
Soon after starting the school, the community established a Parents' Committee to help establish a consensus on community level actions pertaining to the school. Committee roles and membership were decided solely by the community. The Committee members are consistently strong advocates for educating children and they have a reputation for integrity and fairness. Interestingly, they have not been the "big men" of the community.
In the last five years, the Committee's actions have gained the confidence and respect of the community and reflect the Committee's progressive empowerment. The Parents' Committee was able to bring the community together with the teachers to clear a field behind the school where the children cultivate cassava. The children bring half of the cassava home to share with their families and when they can, the remainder is dried and sold to passing traders to buy school supplies. The Committee started organizing end-of-the-year school graduation celebrations that not only publicly lauded children for their progress in school, but brought families together as a community to provide and prepare food for the feast. Most recently, the Committee negotiated the difficult tasks of choosing the school headmaster and settling disputes between the community and a teacher.
Building on the success of the community primary school, the Lese and Ere of Andisengi decided in 1992 to establish the only clinic and pharmacy within 50 miles. The ingenuity and creativity of the Clinic Committee prevented inflation from eroding the value of the money that patients paid for clinic services and that the health worker uses to buy medicines and supplies. The price of palm oil was known to rise over time. Therefore, it was decided that Kuli would purchase palm oil with the money in the clinic cash box and store it in plastic containers. When Kuli was ready to make the 80 mile trip to the nearest mission hospital to buy medicines, he could sell the palm oil to recoup the cash without any loss in its purchasing power.
Challenges to Community-Based Development
There are numerous difficulties facing communities like Andisengi in providing themselves with social services. All of these obstacles have been exacerbated by the declining state of the roads. The road has always been a concern for the Ituri people, but never so much as it was last year when we returned to the Ituri to continue our research. Kombuta, one of the teachers of the community-run primary school, bemoaned:
The roads are dead. The government killed them. They stopped fixing the roads after beating the Simba rebels, back when I was a boy. It's been months since we've seen a Toyota 4x4 pass by. And since the heavy rams started even the bicycle traders have ceased coming. I doubt that they will be back until the dry season arrives in January. At least when the traders were around we could sell bushmeat for clothes, salt, and soap. Now we've had to start making our own salt from charred banana skins, and my daughters, look over there, they are making soap from palm oil and ashes. There are even some families that I know who are having to resort to wear bark-cloth like our ancestors!
Kombuta was fight; over the last 30 years the shameful state of the roads has been the primary factor driving the local economy and dictating whether forest resources are exploited or conserved in eastern Congo. In the 1940's, as part of the war effort, the Belgian colonists forced Ituri Forest farmers and foragers to build the three roads that now traverse the region. These laborers and their families were then resettled in roadside villages where they have largely remained since.
In the 1950s, the road through the Lese district was two lanes wide and sufficiently cambered to allow cars to speed along at over 80 mph. In 1981, when we first arrived in the region to conduct research on the socioecology of Efe foragers and Lese farmers, our battered vehicle could easily travel the last 70 miles to our field site in six hours. Last summer, however, the road was hardly recognizable as such. It was now a narrow, double-tracked walking trail, liberally interspersed with water-filled holes often 10-15 feet deep and hundreds of yards in length. In many places it was guesswork where the real road lay, as truck drivers had created multiple tracks in tenacious attempts to get through the quagmire. Abandoned vehicles littered the roadside and mini tent-cities huddled next to disabled trucks where the drivers waited for weeks or months for their assistants to return from a walking search for spare parts. In 1996 the first 30 miles of our trip took six hours, the last 40 miles took two days on foot.
In the 1960s and 1970s, the road was in a decent state of repair and Lese farmers made a fairly good living cultivating coffee, peanuts, and rice for the market. Ere foragers benefited from the market economy through their exchange relationship with the farmers. However, as the roads became increasingly impassable, markets for rice, peanuts, and coffee ground to a halt and rural families slid into poverty Ngofi, the local chief, still keeps a charcoal fueled flat-iron as a reminder of the days before independence when the road was good and he could buy prized U.S. hand-me-downs for his wives and children.
By the mid-1980s, bushmeat was the most valuable item produced by the Lese and Ere that was still in sufficient demand to warrant the high transportation costs. However, closure of the road in 1996 cut off even this source of revenue, severely hurting the Lese and Ere economies and returning them to a time when all goods were produced and consumed locally.
Collapse of the road system has not, however, hurt everything in the Ituri. On our trudge to the field site, we were astonished by the number of primate troops and elephant signs we saw. It seemed that as the roads became impassable, plantations were abandoned, and the bushmeat trade declined, the wildlife thrived once again.
Catch 22 in the Ituri
In the summer of 1996, it was impossible to believe that conditions in the Ituri would improve. Yet in less than a year, the situation has changed dramatically. In June 1997, Laurent Kabila declared that one of the first priorities of the newly created Democratic Republic of Congo was to rehabilitate the dilapidated road system. Though getting information about the region has been difficult these past few months, the message is consistent. The roads are improving and it is primarily the traders who are responsible. Since the Kabila Alliance took over, the disincentives to repair the roads have been removed and traders, keen on exploiting the rich resources within the forest, are finding ways to fix the bridges and fill the holes.
What will this piecemeal repair of the road system mean to the Lese and Ere living in the Ituri? Once again, they will be able to obtain much needed goods such as clothes, salt, and medicines -- initially, no doubt, through the sale or exchange of bushmeat. How long forest game populations will be able to withstand the intensification of hunting is unclear. Evidence from research m the area suggests that monkeys and some species of forest antelope are highly vulnerable to over-hunting. Unless markets for agricultural crops revive quickly, the new-found prosperity of the Lese and Efe associated with the repair of the road system may be short lived.
Equally important, is that a marginally improved road system may encourage families who live in densely populated Kivu to move into the Ituri in search of agricultural land, or abandoned coffee plantations. As one trader from Kivu said "If the roads get better, I'd buy a coffee plantation from one of these forest villages and my wife could move there to manage it for me. I bet I could get it really cheap. Just last week a Lese offered to sell his overgrown plantation to me for my sneakers-they are desperate." With the revival of the old coffee plantations, inevitably other immigrants will come in search of employment and "vacant" forest land needed to grow their own food crops For each acre of coffee plantation revitalized, an additional three acres of Lese and Ere forest is likely to be cleared to feed the plantation workers and their families.
Though repair of the road system may bring a modest increase in prosperity to the exceedingly poor inhabitants of the Ituri Forest, bushmeat hunting is unlikely to be a sustainable source of income. Furthermore, the potential influx of large numbers of wealthier and better educated immigrants may jeopardize the Lese and Efe's access to their land and forest resources and threaten their long-term security. Only a revival of agricultural markets is likely to sustain and improve the rural livelihoods of the Efe and Lese and increase their capacity to support their community school and clinic. However, this assumes that they can hold on to enough of their land to benefit, once more, from participation in the market.
So while the future for the Lese and Efe and prospects for their community school and clinic is neither clear nor necessarily rosy, one thing is sure: the roads have been and will continue to be a mixed blessing!
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Article copyright Cultural Survival, Inc.