Rather like China in 1980, you can see anything on the back of a bicycle here – tomatoes, 8-foot poles, huge bundles of plastic jerry cans – but you’ll never see a woman on the front of a bicycle, and, unlike Sudan, they don’t even seem to have a donkey as a consolation prize. I was told that women walk over 20 kilometres to reach the fields where they used to live when life was safer: and then they walk back with massive loads of firewood or cassava. One of the ideas fomenting in the mind of Alana, a volunteer of ours who has been living here for six months, is to create a bus service so women are safer, less exhausted and more productive. Maybe if each person paid one stick of cassava as their fare…
Generally women are regarded as of secondary importance, and although I did see quite a lot of men transporting things and running the motorbike taxis that are the main way to get around, I’m willing to believe that women do most of the work. This is, sadly, thought to be sanctioned by the Bible. Flory Kazingufu, our peacebuilding partner out here, is writing a book to show a different interpretation of the Bible.
I am loving it here in Uvira, on Lake Tanganyika, just over the border from Burundi. The economy, though pretty basic, seems very dynamic, with lots of people bustling around and very few just sitting around. I’ve been trying to work out why it felt so good, apart from the beautiful surroundings – and eventually realised that it’s a local economy, not one distorted by large numbers of international expats leading parallel lives. Flory explained that with a port on the lake, and closeness to Rwanda and Burundi, there is a lot of trade here. People look well-nourished and healthy, and it’s good to see a lot of girls in mid-teens still in school uniform.
This morning our Head of Africa programmes, Tom Gilhespy, and I met members of RBPC, a local peacebuilding network that we helped to set up two years ago. We talked with them about the work that different organisations are doing to reintegrate ex-combatants. Particularly interesting was their answer to the question, how do you avoid giving too much power to an individual or a group to choose which ex-combatants are included in a livelihood project? I guess part of the answer is that they aren’t being given anything except the opportunity to work hard, which is perhaps less attractive than a bike that can be sold, which is the classic UN approach. But they had really thought about it, and developed a triangulation system whereby the ex-combatants’ organisation, the local authority and the community all have to agree on the list.
In the afternoon we went 20 kilometres into the bush to meet a group of ex-combatants making bricks. They were firing 125,000 – it seems an incredible number for a not very large kiln – which would sell for $3,600. They seemed pretty confident that they would earn enough to build a house, or get married and pay a dowry – which seems to be so obligatory that in the marriage service there is a question about the dowry, and if it’s not answered properly the official will refuse to complete the service.
In the same place, I sat in on a community court, or baraza, which Flory has set up in nine villages. This one was hearing two cases. The first was a ‘rebound’, ie the solution proposed first time round hadn’t been implemented. Five people had borrowed some money in a solidarity group, and when some had difficulty repaying at the appointed time, one member pledged his land on the basis that they would repay him. Another member was a woman, and she was taking her part of the repayment to Bukavu, some distance away, when she was killed in a road accident. Her husband recovered the money but refused to repay it, because he said the enterprise had cost him his wife. The baraza had decided he should repay, but he was adamant, and did not in fact turn up to the hearing to which he had been summoned. The man whose land was pledged was getting very impatient and threatened to report all the other members of the group to the police, which would probably have led to them being locked up or having to make payments to be released. Instead, the baraza proposed, and it was agreed in principle, that a loan of $175 would be taken out to enable the man’s land certificate to be returned, and the remaining members of the group would repay over time with small amounts taken out of their salaries each month. The complainant thanked the baraza, for diverting him from doing bad things to his colleagues.
The second case also proceeded without a key individual. A woman had been sleeping away from her husband and had got pregnant. He had been prepared to accept the child and pay all the hospital bills, but one day at the hospital he saw that another man had been registered as the child’s father. The woman had fled to her parents’ home, and did not appear at the hearing. The husband wanted financial compensation for what he had spent on the child. The baraza decided that the women’s court, which exists within the baraza, should summon the woman and hear her side of the story, and then report back to the main baraza, which would hold another hearing. Again the husband appeared grateful that he didn’t have to pursue the individual himself, either with the police or by attacking him.
After the men left, we got talking about how few of the women could read or write, and the possibility that the school teacher, who was co-chair of the women’s baraza, might hold weekly literacy classes, in conjunction with the microfinance group. She wanted a fee of $30 per month for a weekly two-hour class: if divided in two, with 15 women in each hour, it could be affordable at 50 cents per week each.
As we drove home, I was thinking that the things we discussed – a daily bus for women, literacy classes, justice that is free and fair – are not the things that will make a dramatic growth story for DRC: but they might make more difference to women’s lives than any amount of inward investment.