Instead of leaving Goma a big old ferry, we packed into a bathtub toy with 16 other people, all substantially bigger than anyone of us and dressed a whole lot lauder in Congolese fashion. Once wedged in, we skipped across the lake, bouncing from wave to wave and bombarded with Lingala music for two hours until we reached Bukavu, the capital of South Kivu. From first impression it seemed more of a functional city than Goma, with vehicles other than NGO and UN zig zagging the crumbling roads and muddy strips.
It is unbelievable but entirely possible that Bukavu has seen even more misery than Goma, in 2006 it was overrun by rebel forces, who proceed to try and rape every woman in the city, giving it the dubious distinction of ‘rape capital of the world’. Security has improved but remains fragile. Rumors suggest that 3 weeks ago, the same rebel group, now incorporated into the Congolese army, took the airport from DRC and UN soldiers, in a effect show of power
Our indispensible partner in this ambitious project is the International Rescue Committee, they are the largest NGO in Congo and this is their biggest base. They run 4 programs from here, the largest of which is a community driven reconstruction project(helping communities to help themselves) that has a budget of 160m $ and is estimated to benefit 1.8m people. In most communities, villagers have chosen accessible drinking water as their second highest need after education. Clean water is a real crisis, only 15% in rural areas and 42% in urban centers have access to clean drinking water and the fact that they still chose education as their top priority says a lot about Congolese desire to improve their lot.
Before you, like me ignore this statistic, you should realize the following. Waterborne diseases are the biggest killer of children under 5, and half of the world’s hospital beds at any given time is occupied with its victims. In the countries on our route, clean drinking water sounds harmless compared to say, civil war, but as I am fast learning the struggle to obtain clean drinking water is one of the mayor obstacles that prevent the development that could lead to more stable societies.
To see firsthand what the crisis is about, we drove for hours through rolling green hills with many little streams trickling into the valley below. Water seemed the least of anyone’s problems. The area’s outside Bukavu remain in danger from the many rebels armies hiding here, but superficially everything seemed rather idyllic, apart from woman my mother’s age carrying loads I would struggle under. Noticeable hardly man could be seen carrying anything at all.
Our destination was a few neat huts build on the side of yet another hill. Once we stepped out of the car we were cheered until we sat down in the town hall/ church, a dark building with holes for window and well worn wooden benches. We had come to witness the opening of a simple water system, the project had cost only 50 000$ and being gravity fed means it has little maintenance. It should be supplying water to 3000 people for the foreseeable future. Another useless statistic, if you like me don’t know what life is like without water at you every convenience.
At first I was puzzled by the passion with which the village sang the national anthem and their allegiance to a government that has not changed a water pipe since the Belgium’s left 50 years ago but Congolese are proud to be Congolese, and I assume that the passion was for mans believe in ideas and his need to belong to something larger, instead of to their nonexistent leaders.
The speeches were above my struggling Swahili, but touching because of the people who stood up and spoke. The pride of the very poor, perhaps victims for most of their lives to forces out of their control, for the first time had a hand in accomplishing something concrete.
What drew my attention most was the woman. It is disturbing how vulnerable I know or believe them to be. My thought kept going back to the security briefing we had earlier in the day. Fresh social unrest has broken out just South from here, full military operations, that will no doubt lead to the scattering of militia and the pillaging of every local community in their path. Our own trip down the border river, the Ruzizi, is in jeopardy because of the new development but we get to chose whether we would like to be brave, they just have to pray another storm will pass.
There can be few places worse to be a female. The fact that perhaps points this out best is that in Bakavu there is a hospital that is the world leader in vaginal reconstruction for rape victims. Try to forget that statistic. By all rights woman here should be quivering in the corner and not be organizing committees to improve their daily lives. Clean water is fundamentally a woman’s crises, because it is them that have to expend the physical effort to carry 40lt, spending a minimum of an hour a day fetching water from often unclean sources, or even more draining, caring for their sick children due to waterborne diseases.
By allowing them to chose water as a priority and giving them the opportunity to participate in the realization of the project, not only does it free up hours in every day to spend on income generated activities but you empower a very important part of society and perhaps start to address the very reason this place is in such a mess in the first place.