Being a foreigner in a place like the Congo can feel a bit like driving through sand when a more comfortable road might suffice. The stops and starts because you don’t understand the language or the culture or just the way things are done can be very frustrating. For me especially, trying to continue reporting and writing in a place where it takes a day to download a 10-megabyte document gives me reason to question whether dealing with the rats and the millipedes and all the other discomforts is really worth it.
But occassionally there are times when everything does come into focus, and the destinations you can reach because of that more difficult road do validate the struggle in some way.
We had the chance this past weekend to go out and visit a project site. Though only about 12-15 km from Lodja’s center, it took us about 45 minutes to get there. In some places the rain had wiped the road out almost completely, and in others we followed the narrow, bumpy strip of dirt through thick brush. The beating the Land Cruiser took always reminds me of our former Peace Corps director in Niger and his observation that these burly four-wheel-drive vehicles, which back home on smooth ribbons of interstate can seem so wasteful, are absolutely necessary in places like this.
We made our first stop in the town center. The infrequency of cars as well as the strangers that came shuffling out ensured we had a big audience for a short meeting to check on how the village’s small business lending groups were doing. Members of this type of group come up with a business idea to propose to the group. If someone’s idea is chosen at the monthly meeting, then that member gets the pooled funds as a loan to jumpstart their enterprise. As they (hopefully) pay back the loans with interest, that pooled fund grows larger in lockstep with the group’s understanding of what makes a good investment and what does not. Plus, the entrepreneur has the opportunity to put a little cash in her (or his) pocket.
From the meeting spot, we traveled another 5 km into the bush. Once the road petered out, we continued on foot through patches of thick forest intersperse throughout high-grass savanna. As fertile as the land seems to be here, it’s amazing that food security is such an issue. Instead of a place where staples have to be coaxed out of the ground, it seems that here the constant battle is keeping the forest from choking food crops out. Everywhere you look plants are growing, often literally on top of each other – palm fronds wither and break off, the cup-like space between where it’s attached to the tree and the trunk seems to form the perfect planter for precocious ferns.
On the fauna front, I counted at least six different types of ants, though I’m no expert. When I got too close in a failed attempt to snap a photo, a few scouts from a particularly furious swarm locked onto my toes in a suicide mission. Unfortunately, hunting has pushed the monkeys and most other mammals deep into the forest to the north.
We stopped at several rice fields along the way to see how a new, faster-maturing variety was faring compared to the traditional variety (well, it seems). Farmers here also cultivate peanuts, cassava and the ever-present pineapple, and at the bottom of a lush valley, we found a community-owned palm oil press.
It was a lovely hike, particularly early on. The previous night’s rain storm left the morning air almost chilly, and it wasn’t until we’d hiked about an hour before the sun started beating down and humidifying the quasi-forest. But even dripping with sweat and slipsliding down hillsides in my flipflops, it was hard not to appreciate the beauty of the forest rolling off into the distance. Nor was it lost on me that this was a trek most farmers made six days a week to their fields, without the benefit of a 5-km headstart in a Land Cruiser.
So even as I struggle to find my footing in this place so far from what I’ve always known, I’m thankful for the opportunity to see places like this and catch small glimpses into the lives of people here.