Sunday, August 21, 2005

Back in Kindu!

Sorry for disappearing from my own diary. I have not started my own rebel movement or been kidnapped by some elses, but rather I had to head to the field for nearly two weeks and didn't even have the time to post a warning that I would be gone.

It's hard to know where to begin how to describe this trip. With the birth of a pair of twins, one of whom was named after me? With nearly having to spend the night in the middle of the jungle when our vehicle got stuck? With my motorcycle getting a flat tire as I was on my way to one of our activities carrying essential material?

I will start with the location. I went about 175 miles south and southeast of Kindu to implement seed fairs, an activity that my team and I have been putting together for the last two months. Basically, people around here need seeds, particularly in isolated villages. Agricultural production is way short of the pre-conflict levels, and a lot of people have not been able to harvest enough to save much seed for the next planting seasons. Instead of buying seeds from major distributors and handing them out in villages, we invite local sellers to come and "sell" their seeds to beneficiaries, who can decide what they want to buy and from whom, like in any normal market setting. To these beneficiaries (who are chosen my their village) we give fake money, which they give to the sellers instead of cash, and at the end of the day the sellers give it to us and we give them real money (everyone still following?). The upside is that cash goes into the local economy (which is almost entirely a barter system), beneficiaries can chose what they like rather than just receiving a set quantity of seeds, and we don't have to move a lot of a seed around, which is quite pricey. We bring out own improved varieties and act as a vendor. This way we can try to help introduce varieties that yield higher quanties.

We chartered a plane to head down to Kasongo, 150 miles to the south. We brought $35,000 cash with us. It might sounds dangerous to travel with these amounts, but we are pretty discreet, and banditry is actually not much of a problem in the province. However, this cash was in Congolese francs. Why does this matter? Well, the largest denomination of a Congolese Franc is $1. In total, our cash, which was placed in three large suitcases, weighed 500 lbs. As we were loading the suitcases onto the plane, the pilot (Steven again from Airserv) offhandedly asked me what was inside. I said we had a couple of bodies.

The first fair was 50 miles from Kasongo, in a village called Kibenga. I spent the night before the fair there, so that I could be up bright and early to make sure things were going smoothly. I stayed in a nice little mud brick home, the occupants had built a new outhouse just for me and another colleague. Children peaked through the window at us as we sorted out papers by the light of a gaslamp. We were a bit stressed - we needed at least 7 tons of seed to come in locally in order for there to be enough for everybody, and when the night before we only had 1.5 tons. We were hoping that people were traveling through the night to bring their seeds to the fair.

At 6am we were at the site of the fair, eyeing the vendors waiting in line to have their seeds weighed. By 10am we were up to 6 tons, but the rest of the team with the cash were no where to be seen (they were coming from Kasongo that morning). They showed up just as we reached 7 tons and were starting the fair - rains the night before had fallen several trees on the road, which they had to hack away with machettes. The fair started.

800 beneficiairies poured through our entrance, some started bee-lining to our machette stand, which was soon overrun. We had put up ropes and had our security team keep everyone in line as we exchanged coupons for machettes. The fair went smoothly, vendors made a killing as they were able to set higher prices than normal, and beneficiaires were happy with the tools and seeds they were able to acquire. All in all, a success.

Fair number two was four days later and 40 miles down the road. The road was terrible. Imagine driving on a moderately difficult jungle mountain bike trail and that's basically travelling by car in the congo. These arent roads. The morning of the fair I was up before dawn so that a priest (who works sometimes with our project) and I could take a motorbike to the sight and bring the fake money. On the way we got a flat tire. We walked the bike to the next village and found a guy who was transporting seeds to the fair. We convinced him to the ditch the seeds and bike to the fair site and let our team know where we were. The priest, named Abbe Fulgence, and I then sat down and chatted about life, religion, Congo, and our work. An our later two of our field staff sped down the path towards us. We grabbed out helmuts and were off to the fair, leaving the other motorcycle in the village. Our driver would fix the tire later.

The second fair had more seeds but more problems. There were a few cases of fake beneficiaires that we had to sort out, our delay on the road meant a delay in the fair start time. We had the problem of a tool vendor trying to trying to get more money than he was owed and other complications, but all in all things went fine. The road back was terrible and we were exhausted after the three hours it took us to travel 18 miles back to the village where we were staying.

The final fair had so much seed we eventually had to stop registering vendors. During the fair a beneficiairy went into labor and gave birth to set of twins, who were promptly named "Sarah" and "Abbe Fulgence." Luckily it was a boy and a girl. This incident reminded me an Irish girl I had met named Muireann, who freely admits that her name is almost impossible to pronounce. She takes a bit of pity on the Congolese girl who was named after her in Goma. We finished the fair, packed up the car, and drove back to Kasongo.

It took us 15 hours over two days to drive back to Kindu. This included crossing the Congo river(by barge), chopping up and removing five trees that blocked our path, repairing two bridges, and having the truck get stuck many times in the mud. All while squished into the cab of the truck between our nun finance officer and our driver. The night of the first day I really thought we were going to spend the night in the jungle, but after 30 minutes and much manuevering, we were able to get our truck out of small ditch it had slid into. It would have been uncomfortable but not dangerous to have spent the night out there, but luckily it didnt come to that.

Now I am back in Kindu, and in my absence many of my friends who had been on vacation have returned. Last night I sipped a gin and tonic with a German friend, who is set to spend three years in Kindu. She told me that she's decided that she will only spend a year, regardless of her contract. It's not that Kindu is that bad, but it's a transient place as far as work is concerned, a revolving door of UN troops, UN workers, and us NGO people. It's a lifestyle that's constantly changing, which takes a lot of energy, a bit of resignation, and much creativity.


Anonymous Anonymous said...


Thanks for the informative update. I'm quite interested in your comment that it would NOT have been dangerous to spend the night in the jungle. Is crime not an issue out there? or is it that the locals respect the NGOs?

3:07 AM  
Blogger Mom said...

Wow...when you said during your last 2 seed fairs you faced "some challenges", that was putting it lightly. Sounds like an incredible ordeal to me. No wonder you're tired! We'll rest up in Tanzania. After the safari.

3:13 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

hey, sounds like a blast. wish i could've been there with you! sara

12:23 PM  
Blogger Sahara Sarah said...

Not that it's a great idea to spend the night in the middle of the jungle, but it's not there are roving bands of criminals. People often walk and bicycle through the night and sleep on the side of the road. The main danger would be running into the military, but once youre in an area you know if they are around or not and can avoid crossing paths with them.

Sara, wish you were there too. want to apply for a TDY here? or me there?

5:56 PM  
Blogger 007 in Africa said...

Hey there. From the last time you explained it to me, I think the best part of the "fake" paper money is that the beneficiaries HAVE to spend it on seeds. I imagine that if you gave them Fr 8,000, they'd be using it towards other means...and thus not necessarily helping themselves for agricultural projects.

"This included crossing the Congo river(by barge), chopping up and removing five trees that blocked our path, repairing two bridges, and having the truck get stuck many times in the mud. All while squished into the cab of the truck between our nun finance officer and our driver."--stuck in the back of a car on a terrible road next to the poking sister sounds like my idea of FUN!

4:42 PM  
Blogger Black River Eagle said...

Great story Sarah and I think I better understand what a "seed fair" is all about. The quantity of seed (6-7 tons) and the quantity of cash ($35,000 bucks) was surprising though. With roads being like you describe it must take a lot of people to transport that amount of seed to these fairs, or does most of it move by truck and cart?

Sure would be great if people could conduct commerce down there without the risk of handling so much cash. You can't be safe with that kind of money on you standing in front of the NYSE.

Nonetheless it is nice to know that not all of the eastern DRC is crawling with marauding bandits, militias, and corrupt soldiers and police. The fact that locals can move about at night without too much fear is a good sign.

The pic of you and 007 and the kids looks great. Too bad the camerman stuck his hand right in the middle of the shot.

2:30 PM  
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8:10 PM  

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