On Monday it was my first day at office. In this office there
are about 20 other people besides Edith. All of them are local staff. Most of
them are men. They are very nice and yesterday I went on a day trip to the
interior of the country with Edith and two colleagues. We were visiting one of
the agricultural sites in the country where Oxfam has its projects. With
streams and hills and valleys everywhere – this place is extremely beautiful. We
made a long trek up on of the hills to get to the swamps and passed a few gold
mines on the way. We had to wear gigantic rubber boots and once again cross
narrow bridges (horizontal tress) across big streams.
Most of the land here has become barren due to natural
calamities and the conflict, so there is not so much cultivable land anymore.
Along with a local partner, Oxfam came up with a project to exploit the swamps.
They build drains around the swamp that takes all the water away and what
remains is fertile soil where the locals can cultivate crops. There were about
50 women and 70 men working in this particular swamp that we visited. The women
burn the grass and scrape it away while the men dig the ditches to drain the
water. They get paid $3 per day and each group can work only for 14 days after
which they switch the groups so that a new group can be employed. We spoke to
some men and women to see if the requirements of the project are being met and
to know more about their lives. There were some heartbreaking stories but also
some that showed agency and strength.
I met a woman who was 20
years old and she has 6 children. The oldest is 7! She was very happy with her
children and spoke about them with pride.Another woman had lost her husband and
was left to fend for 10 kids by herself. She was chased out of her house by her
family. She said she works hard so that she can educate her children. The
rebels took one man’s wife away and he was left with 8 kids. All these people
have to look for new jobs all the time and are constantly
displaced. Often their kids do not go to school because, well, they
have no money for food most times, so sending the child to school is even more
difficult, plus it doesn’t help that they have to move all the time.
But contrary to popular notions – they were very well informed about the project
and who we were. One of the women gave us a text book definition of Oxfam’s
aims and objectives and said “I know that you pay us.”
The kids were super sweet. Running around everywhere, saying
hello and goodbye! Super curious with bright eyes. When I was walking towards
them, all of sudden 20 of them broke out into a dance! It was like a flash mob
and I loved it. And I tried to get a video of it but that was
unsuccessful. At some point we were getting pictures of all the people and
the scenery I saw a few women, working in the swamps, stop working, fish out
their phones and start taking pictures of us!
This trip shattered a lot of assumptions. The idea of these
‘poor men and women’ as victims was not their only story. The woman who told us
Oxfam’s objectives knew what we do and how that has implications on her life.
She knew what she wanted from us and also at times told us what ‘we wanted to
hear’. The women who took photos of us, turned tables around, no longer was it
a one sided subject relationship but we were now on their phones, weaved into
the stories that they would make up of us, just as we would of them. The men
were hardworking and a few of them did multiple jobs in a day to be able to
fend for their families. And the most surprising and pleasant news of all was
that the men and women were paid the same – for the same work! A lot of us can
take a lesson from that huh?
The ride back was nice, we had a lot of interesting
conversations in the car and I’m always impressed with how similar ‘Congolese society’
is to the ‘Indian society’. I find parallels to almost every norm and tradition
that they talk about.It’s quite interesting. The Congolese people I’m working
with, just like me come from a privileged class of their society and often talk
about the other Congolese people as ‘them’. We are not like them. We are
educated. This reminds me of the defensive tone I take up when people talk
about India as ‘Slumdog millionaire’.
Well, I returned home red with dust and a bit sick with all the
bumpyness but very happy and grateful for that day and later that evening
a dive in the lake made things even better! 🙂
This post was also published on Srushti’s Personal Blog where she is documenting her Adventures in Africa :https://srushtimahamuni.wordpress.com
Srushti is working on SRHR in the Women’s Bodily Integrity team at Oxfam Novib and is currently in DRC investigating/problematising the #menEngage movement as well as researching embodied experiences of NGo workers. She currently studies at the Institute of Social Studies The Hague. To follow her adventures, keep an eye out on the blog!