Eastern Congo is an area heavily afflicted by various rebel groups. With these rebel groups comes conflict and with conflict comes refugees fleeing from the areas of violence. This past December, Samaritan’s Purse intervened into one of these conflict zones near the crossroad center called Komanda. SP stepped in to help the refugees that had gathered in the surrounding villages by hosting a fair.
A temporary house built for shelter for a fleeing family
A fair, in the NGO world, is essentially a formalized market paid for by an external source (in this case SP). SP gathers surveys on the displaced people, seeing who they are and what they need. They then proceed to gather a group of vendors that offer the goods that are needed. These two groups are then gathered together (usually in an open space, such as a soccer field). The refugees are given coupons with a monetary value and then allowed to pick and choose what products they need. The vendors in turn collect these coupons instead of money and then cash them in with SP when the fair is complete. This process helps stimulate the local economy while giving displaced people the freedom of choosing what they need instead of being handed out items they might already have.
I, along with a team of 8 others, drove to Komanda, in order to do post-fair evaluations this past week so that we could see what impact the fair had had on both beneficiaries and vendors. This is that story:
Stopping for a break on the drive to Komanda
The drive there, despite being only 75km from SP’s base in Bunia, is often well over two hours due to the conditions of the roads. Nine people piled into a seven passenger Toyota Prado is also not very conducive to a comfortable the ride. Nonetheless, we made it safely and without any problems.
We arrived around 2 in the afternoon and decided to stay in the second hotel we examined. The first hotel actually had SP blankets in the rooms! Not their intended use to say the least. But it would be interesting to see how the blankets had moved from a refugee distribution to ending up in a hotel. The second hotel was an enclosed compound right in the heart of the center. We moved into our rooms without the owner present – he was ‘away’ but offered to come if we paid for his taxi. Needless to say, we declined that offer, but took the rooms and met him later on that evening. Its location near the city center allowed for us to be near most places, including the bars. Every night we could hear the various bars competing to see who could be the loudest, like waves rising up and crashing against each other.
Our hotel for several nights
The rooms were simple enough. They were not very large and only had a bed (mosquito net included) with a small wooden table and chair. Not a bad deal for $10 a night, except for the heat. We had dropped a bit in elevation which made the air in Komanda thicker and therefore muggier. Even just sitting at night one would begin to sweat. That, compounded with the cloud of dust from the dry season continually settling over us, caused an ever present griminess to form on our skins. The hotel had showers to wash it off, but showering was an adventure of its own.
Every room is given a small plastic bucket. You then had to go over to the gate, where there was a huge caldron sitting on a wood fire. You proceed to fill your bucket half full with this heated water before going over to another blue barrel where you could fill the rest with cold water giving you a warm ‘shower.’ This barrel water is probably the dirtiest water you’ve ever seen. Even with only a couple inches left in my bucket I couldn’t see the bottom. The water is brought by kids every morning. They carry jugs on their backs, looped onto a piece of cloth around their forehead. It cannot be a pleasant job, especially because they have to do multiple trips in order to fill all the blue barrels.
Where gathered our water for showers
After finally settling in we proceeded with the formalities of announcing ourselves and our mission to the local officials. We met with the heads of several offices, including the police chief and director of the merchants’ council. Next we headed out to several of the nearby villages that we had decided to target in our first day of surveys. The point of this was to meet the village chiefs and let them know that we were coming so that they could find people that had participated in the fair. This would help us use time more efficiently rather than walking around asking each household if they had attended the fair.
Jonathan showing the chief and elders what our intent was and who we’d be interviewing.
We made it back to the hotel around 7pm and ordered our food from the small restaurant attached to the hotel. This was made on African time, meaning we didn’t get our food until about half past eight. Keep in mind as well that we hadn’t eaten since leaving Bunia because of how busy we’d been which meant we were all fairly hungry. For dinner I was finally able to enjoy fufu (manioc/cassava/gozo) with greens and a piece of chicken cooked in palm oil – a classic African meal, all eaten with your hands. Fufu is perhaps the most filling food one can eat, which probably explains some of its popularity in Africa. It is a thick white paste with a distinctly gooey texture. The chicken tasted like palm oil, and was more bones and some fatty skin than actual meat. The whole meal cost 2500 francs, or less than $3.
Left to Right: Cassava, Sombe (Cassava leaves), and chicken in palm oil
The next day started at 6 am. After rinsing off the night’s grime and getting dressed I walked across the street with some of our team and found a small shop that had small instant coffee packets. I was also able to buy a few small beignets (small, deep fried, dough rolls) to enjoy for breakfast. By 7am we were on the road to the villages.
We had targeted several villages for the day and would visit them in pairs of two. Due to the language barrier (the interviews would be held in Swahili), I was not part of an official team. Therefore I quickly joined the team going out to Matete because the said it was in the “bush.” To get there we drove about 8km from Komanda, then turned off onto a small road and drove another 4km. From there we had to get out walk on forest footpaths for 3km before coming upon a small cluster of houses.
The walk out to Matete took us through forests and tall grasslands
The walk wasn’t hard at all and we were able to appreciate some of the forest of Congo, including incredibly tall trees. The villagers were also beginning the process of preparing their field for the rains in March. This process involves burning large portions to get rid of all the weeds and other stuff that has grown in the area since the last harvest so many of the fields (in between all the trees – no room for tractors meaning it’s all done by hand) were still smoldering in ashes.
I stayed in Matete for about two hours, watching the interviews and hanging out with the kids, before heading back.
An older sister looking after her brother in Matete
I then went to another village were two of our group were holding a focus group. Instead of one-on-one interviews, they would select ten people (ideally half men, half women) and ask them a variety of other questions and get their input. However, it was hard to keep these selected people separate from the rest of the village which resulted in the focus group being closer to 20-30 people, not including all the children who were there as well.
Ezdras taking notes during a focus group
The rest of the day I spent with the focus groups. We did two more after Pinzilli (the one mentioned above). One of the villages that we held a group at had actually been robbed several days before. They said over 20 armed men had come in and stolen pretty much all the goods they had gotten at the fair, as well as stole some livestock, and most tragically three teenage girls. Soldiers were looking into it, but nothing had been discovered or resolved as of yet.
A mother tells the story of being robbed by armed men
Another village we visited was really a community of displaced people. They had set up temporary shelters all around a church in the center of the village. The houses were built with sticks and mud, and then had used SP tarps for the roofing. They had appreciated the fair and were using all the NFI (non-food items) that they had gotten, but the hardest part was finding food. Without their own gardens to tend, and no steady sources for jobs, it is hard for them to meet the day-to-day needs of food. This has forced them to sell and/or trade a lot of the stuff that they had bought at the fair in order to get food, leading them back into the circumstances they had had before the fair.
Temporary houses set up with SP tarps as roofs
On the way back we visited the chiefs of the villages we’d see the next day in order to tell them we’d be coming and to prepare them for the interviews. By the time we got back it was already 5pm and we hadn’t eaten since early that morning. We all ordered manioc and meat again. In total that day I spent a 2500 francs, or less than $3, on food. Five-hundred was spent on breakfast, and only two-thousand for dinner. Of course water was another 1500 because you have to buy it bottled seeing as the local water isn’t suitable for drinking.
After dinner, Noel and Ezdras (two from our team) and I walked around the local market just to see it and met with several people. It was not a huge market, but decent size due to the crossroads of Komanda. You could find most anything you could need, and probably many of your wants as well. We then strolled down the road to a friend’s house where we talked for an hour about all sorts of topics, but mostly agriculture because they were all involved in that field. We were even able to sample local coco beans straight from the trees and make hot chocolate from the powder. We returned to the hotel by motorcycle and called it a night.
Ezdras and Noel getting ready to lead a focus group
The next day was fairly similar to the first. We had selected the targeted villages and broke up into teams of two again to best use our time and man power. I went with Merry (our coordinator) to another displaced community that was being hosted by an Anglican church. There we did some one-on-one interviews, not based on the interview form, but more open ended in order to capture more of their personal testimony and stories.
Jauve, pausing in her story, as she told us about fleeing in the bush when rebels attacked her village
It was an eye-opening experience to say the least as we got to hear about how these people had fled through the forest for almost a 100km on foot. They had not been able to take anything with them because had to leave in such a rush so they had arrived in Komanda with only the clothes on their backs. The fair had helped them get their feet under them again by provided essentials like cooking pots and blankets for which they were extremely grateful.
Catching a ride between villages (Ezdras, Merry, Jonathan, and myself)
Everything was wrapped by mid-afternoon so we started organizing all the data before dinner. We ate another meal of fufu and meat before going to bed. Saturday morning we made the return drive to Bunia, once again without any difficulties except for the discomfort of the road and the crowdedness of the car, both bearable. It was encouraging to see how the work of SP in Komanda was benefitting the people in very visible and tangible ways. However, it was also hard to see people living in those situations, knowing that it’s not their home and that they could always use more. For every person we had helped during the fair, there was probably another four or five that didn’t get anything even though they needed it. Nonetheless, the impact we had made was overall positive and the people sincerely appreciated the help that had been given.
Kids pausing from the days activities
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