August Newsletter: Trip to the DRC

This June I was given the opportunity to visit the Democratic Republic of the Congo for the second time and to be a guide for three members of Grace University Lutheran Church (Barb Thomasson, Tom Mayer, and Randee Edmundson) who were visiting for the first time. A trip like this is too full to do justice with one post, but below I are some of the highlights (with pictures!).

During my first week I spent 3 days in the Chiefdom of Luwhindja exploring the need and potential for electricity in the area, as well as the creative ways in which people from the community have already started responding to that need. Luwhindja has a population of about 90,000 and has no state run electricity service. One can find the occasional generator or solar panel at small businesses or individual homes, but the vast majority of the population does not have electricity.

 
The solar power installers and brothers (notice the Twins jacket, it is a small world)

The solar power installers and brothers (notice the Twins jacket, it is a small world)

 

    I met with two brothers who had started their own small enterprise installing solar panels in homes. They are self-taught and have quickly become experts on sourcing the best materials and installing dependable systems. When I asked them how many installations they had done, they pull out an old notebook and start adding up clients from surrounding villages. (Casiba 10, luwhindja 50 etc.) The total is about 150 in the last few years.

I asked them why people want electricity and most reasons are pretty obvious (lighting, tv and entertainment, charging cell phones), but they also talked about the impact lighting, or lack thereof can affect safety and security. With the instability that comes with 20 years of conflict, rape and sexual violence have become, and continue to be, huge problems. These brothers told me stories of girls walking home at night from a house with electricity where they were studying and being raped on their way. Or young women attracted to bars by the TV inside and then abused by the clientèle. They underlined the important role that electricity can have in prevent these kinds of events.

 
The dam structure that houses the turbines with members of the community use and take care of the dam.

The dam structure that houses the turbines with members of the community use and take care of the dam.

People grinding corn into flour at one of the two hydro-powered mills.

 

I was also really excited to visit a project that Kubisa Muzenende had told me about. He told me that one night, four or five years ago, he saw a light on the side of the road in Luwhindja and made some inquiries to find out where the electricity had come from. He was told that a person with a background in auto-mechanics had decided to use a small waterfall to create his own generator. 

 

The dam with Carlos from LAV for scale.

The hand-dug canal leading from the river. I returned about a week later and they were dredging the canal to keep debris from getting to the turbines.

The hand-dug canal leading from the river. I returned about a week later and they were dredging the canal to keep debris from getting to the turbines.

 

From these few details I could not have imagined the true scale and ingenuity of this project. The site actually has a fairly large dam made of trees and stone with a canal that diverts the water into three large pipes that power two small mills and a generator. The dam, canal, pipes, turbines, mills, and structure that contains it all were all made by hand with the participation of the community and the materials that were available. As an example of this, their powerlines (which bring power as far as 4 km) are steel wire wrapped in electrical tape strung along trees and poles the community erected themselves. 

The dam has provided electricity for up to 50 homes,mostly for lighting and TVs. Seeing this project and the work of the solar-panel-installing brothers confirms my belief that the Congolese people have the solutions to the problems their country faces and the ingenuity to put them in place. However, what is sometimes lacking is the right tools and the right support. How much less electricity would be lost with copper wires instead of steel? Or how many more girls would feel safe studying if each house could pay the roughly $600 to install solar power? What is the most strategic and effective kind of support we could offer to these initiatives?

 
One of the LAV graduates and his sewing machine.

One of the LAV graduates and his sewing machine.

 

The day before Tom, Randee, and Barb arrived, I got to meet individually with 7 of the 10 LAV graduates who received sewing machines in our project with LAV last summer. I have hours of recordingsthat I have to comb through from these interviews, but the universal message was to say thank you to everyone who donated for the sewing machines and to tell them how many other people need the kind of help they received.

 
Walking with two of the sewing machine recipients to their workshop. They work together and have already started training three more women from their community on their machines.

Walking with two of the sewing machine recipients to their workshop. They work together and have already started training three more women from their community on their machines.

 

The words of one woman particularly stuck with me. At the end of each interview I asked if there was anything that they wanted me to tell or ask to people back in the U.S. In response, one woman started to tear up as she rolled up her long sleeve. She showed me a tattoo on her forearm and explained that the militias who kidnapped her and kept her in the forest had done this. She said that tattoo had not been finished and she did not know what it meant. She told me she wanted to know why. I understood this to be a very expansive why. Why would anyone do this, why her, why her country, why do humans do these things.

Barb, Tom, Randee, and I where all able to visit the workshops of some of these students where we (of course) all ordered lots of shirts and dresses. They measured us and wrote the numbers and design notes in well worn notebooks and had everything finished within a few days after we brought them our handpicked fabrics. If you know any of us personally, be sure to ask to see our clothes from the Congo. I will work on getting pictures up on the website soon.

 
Our group meeting with Idjwi Initiative at their office.

Our group meeting with Idjwi Initiative at their office.

 

Later in week we spent two days with partner organization Idjwi Initiative. Idjwi Initiative is the local partner with whom we are working on the long-term project of constructing a health center on Idjwi Island. We have had a relationship with the people of Idjwi Initiative for about 2 years, but on this trip we had our first opportunity to see the organization that these people have built.

It is not easy to navigate the legal landscape of becoming an official NGO organized by the Congolese state, but it is a necessary foundation on which to build our future projects on Idjwi Island. It is also impressive to see the medical, business, and NGO backgrounds of the people on the board of Idjwi Initiative and the depth of the relationships in Bukavu and on Idjwi Island. We are excited to have such capable partners.

 

Our delegation speaking with people of Idjwi Island during our visit

Walking with the community on the land that has been purchased for a future health center on Idjwi Island

 

However, with all due respect to our friends at Idjwi Initiative, I think it is clear that our most important partners are the people of Idjwi Island. They have the best understanding of the challenges they face, and they are the best situated to help address these problems. I was impressed to see how seriously the people of Idjwi Island took the opportunity to advocate for the needs of their community. We were greeted by hundreds as we stepped off the boat and then we all gathered to hear from community leaders. I was especially impressed by one woman who I remember from my last visit. Everywhere we walked, she protectively took Barb's  hand (see the photo above) and when she spoke about the needs of women on Idjwi Island, it was not with naive expectation, but with realistic conviction and maybe a little healthy skepticism about these Americans who had now made their third trip. Everything she said was translated from Mashi, to Swahili, to French, but when she looked at me I could tell she was saying, "these women need this health center, don't forget about us".

How can I sum up such a trip?  You feel the welcome and love of everyone you meet, while always being aware of the privilege you have of returning to the comforts of home after two weeks while these new friends continue to work on the front lines. Your heart swells when you hear of the challenges or loss of a family or individual, and it breaks when you realize that every person has a difficult story to tell. But I have come back with a renewed faith in the resilience, ingenuity, and love of the people of the DRC. And I have faith that with the right tools and support we can help amplify the difference that is being made every day by so many people in the DRC. People that I am proud to call our partners and honored to call my friends.

-Peder Garnaas-Halvorson, Board Chair of Mwendo Congo

 

Our group with the Leaders of LAV

Mwendo Congo on the wall of Lav's Supporters