Into the Heart
This month, I write from our remotest field site, in Pangi, central Congo, final destination in a journey to trace the aid industry from source to sea, from one of Europe’s greatest cities to Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. It has been a slow journey – six months in London working on supply spreadsheets and donning T-shirts to persuade the well-heeled folks away from their hard-earned pennies; to Goma where the boxed medicines transit through vast warehouses; through sleepy Kindu where the convoys return battered and tired from their long adventures to the jungle clinics. From Kindu, the journey to Pangi is a two-day motorbike ride – across the wide River Congo in a dugout canoe, and over 17 small bridges of rusting metal or rotting tree trunks, often too slippery to ride and barely wide enough to walk.
Our function is to cajole the community into providing some construction materials for their new clinic. There are a number of reasons for this – first, it would be time-consuming, dangerous and expensive to transport sand and wood from Kindu, when these materials are locally available in abundance. Secondly, if the community has no involvement in their new health centre, no knowledge of its function or vested interest in its upkeep, then it will become an over-engineered goat shed – ensuring that the construction becomes a collective community project is a useful strategy in ensuring that the health centre takes its place at the heart of a community. And communities might be forgiven for being inactive and skeptical – the Belgians took, Mobutu neglected, aid agencies will leave when their funding stops, and the UN drives through in heavy convoys and breaks their bridges – the villages need to fight for their school or health centre themselves if it is to function for them.
Here, the community were responsive – the lack of activity prior to our trip had been a simple lack of communication, where they simply didn’t know what type of sand we wanted or what size of planks would be hewn from the surrounding forest. Evolving from playful few minutes spent with the chief’s young son, it was the women who proved far more active in organizing activities, who went to find their husbands with saws and spades, and who returned with a delegation of workers to find and transport the materials.
Pangi itself is an odd little town – out base is housed in a dilapidated house on a rolling colonial hillside, an tranquil open space nested in the jungle, with the children climbing the palm trees and playing football. Over the way are the offices of the security services, a two storey house with graffiti and boarded up windows, not dissimilar to the squats I used to see on the way to Cambridge station. Our team at Pangi is a breath of fresh air – they are relatively young and energetic, and work with initiative and enthusiasm. In Pangi they live a tough life, many of them away from family and friends, and they are concerned for the continuity and capacity of the project, which is constantly limited by inadequate support and communications.
One evening, as usual, we sat on the steps looking at sun setting through the bamboo, when we heard a huge explosion from about a kilometre away. Pangi is relatively peaceful now, too far away from anywhere to be of interest to the warmongers, and after talking with our guards, it transpired that this was the work of the Congolese Bomb Disposal squad. I soon learn that these munitions experts are in fact villagers. They had found an old bomb left over from the 1996 conflict, and had decided to dispose of it: the bomb was placed in the middle of a large clump of green bamboo, doused in petrol, and burned.
On the return journey some weeks later, racing the incoming storm through the jungle, we were hailed down twice: once to be offered roasted corn by the family of one of the motorbike drivers, and once by a villager who had picked up a wallet dropped by our construction manager, and wanted to return it. Myself, I often started to dream on the motorbike, and wondered if we could pull in the big name cyclists for a Tour de Congo. As long as they didn’t mind riding 1950s Indian bikes and carrying some palm oil for the market, I reckoned it would work.