Back to Mbayo
In August we returned to Manono territory for a celebration ceremony of all five baraza villages. People from each village had convened in Mbayo as a centre point and had been waiting for days for us to come. For us it was the usual two helicopter legs in this vast territory. With the malnourished children of Kabeke at the forefront of my mind, I arranged with UNICEF, UNHCR and OCHA (the coordinating UN agency for humanitarian affairs) to come with us to make some assessments. They are of course aware of these villages but they are really remote and so the only feasible way to get to them is by helicopter. UNICEF are already helping to finish the school building and health centres in Mbayo and Kabeke, and we are applying for “Quick Impact Project” funds to contribute to these and to supply “moulins” (mills for grinding corn) to all five baraza villages.
This time I brought a sack of leather footballs which one of my team had managed to source locally (surprisingly). Again, it felt like a pathetic drop in the ocean, but the gesture went down well. The provincial government authorities came with us and officiated the presentation of bicycles to each baraza. I couldn’t help cursing the Chinese again for their crappy products. I was pursued relentlessly by one woman who had discovered with dismay that her tyres were already flat and the pump had somehow got lost. I didn’t know the Ki-Luba for “blame the blasted Chinese”.
We arrived to an eager welcome of singing and dancing. With five villages convened in one, it was pretty crowded; children and young men climbed trees for a better view. Many women were in their “Sunday best”: elaborate dresses of bright oranges, reds and yellows. The customary chiefs stood out with their eclectic mix of western suits, traditional fur hats and whatever combo seemed to take their fancy. The female Minister wore the expected frilly frock and high heels. Standing next to her in my khaki lightweight safari trousers and clumpy walking boots, I felt like a frump. Still, I refuse to do frilly. Not for a field trip anyway! That said, I do plan to go clothes shopping in London when I’m back on leave and kit myself out with a few more formal outfits for political meetings. When we stepped out of the helicopter, the (male) Minister was presented with a terrified white chicken with its legs tied and a bowl of white eggs. These got handed over to my UNHCR colleague, much to my amusement, but not to his.
Despite all the setbacks and hardships – not least the lack of food and healthcare – there was nonetheless a sense of celebration and relief that they are not fighting each other anymore. Whether the peace will hold remains to be seen. In Nyunzu territory to the north, the Luba-pgymy conflict is flaring up again, reportedly stoked by the local security forces and political machinations, and there is already a spillover of displaced people heading south towards Manono.
It’s frustrating to see the humanitarian needs when we are not a humanitarian agency. But in Civil Affairs, we have big cross-mission liaison role, so we coordinate with humanitarian agencies and facilitate their work where we can. What we do is to try to contribute to the long-term recovery of these communities, who are mainly in this awful state through conflict. So we literally work to help “build the peace” and make it take root, by engaging in conflict resolution and protection of civilians. With a state that is so corrupt it’s an uphill battle though. The “army” – the FARDC – is a rag-tag mix of ex-combatants and soldiers and God knows who else who, because they are poorly paid and sometimes don’t receive their salaries for months on end, resort to harassing the local populations: erecting checkpoints, extorting money from them and much worse! The PNC – the national police, are in a similar situation regarding salaries and can also be a burden on the communities they are supposed to protect, although they are far more trusted than the army. We have a few PNC “guarding” the UN compound at the front, alongside a private security company. Just the other day, one of them (policemen) called to me through the fence as I was approaching my office and asked me for money. I called a Congolese colleague to speak to him and explain clearly that they are not to do this, but at the same time I cringed at the injustice of someone working just alongside me who is probably not getting paid. The UN tries to support the state in improving both the army and the police, but as long as they have this quiet dictatorship, and a country still riven with armed groups (mai-mai) and hundreds of intercommunity conflicts over land ownership (lack of), ethnicity, as well as spillovers from neighbouring countries like Rwanda and Burundi, it’s hard to be over-optimistic about the near future. It amazes me, therefore, how up-beat the Congolese are. Great sense of humour, and you should see them on the dance floor!
Coming back to the Mbayo baraza celebration, it felt like a really worthwhile trip. Of course the politicians took full advantage of the occasion to splurge their propaganda on the people, but the very fact of their/our presence signalled that they were not completely forgotten. We took our Public Information section with us, who recorded the proceedings for a local radio station. I made a short speech in my best French (cobbled together on the helicopter with one of our Community Liaison Assistants), which was translated into Ki-Luba line by line. Once again climbing into the helicopter, hot and caked in dust, my legs felt creaky and weighted down. The next day I tested positive again for malaria.