Republic of the Congo: former refugees producing cassava and fish galore
With ICRC support, people in the department of Pool are successfully reviving their fisheries and agricultural activities after years of stagnation due to the succession of conflicts that has plagued the Congo. Communication delegate Valery Mbaoh tells the story.
My first destination was the Mindouli district, where the ICRC has been supporting groups of farmers and fish farmers since 2003. Joseph Babela, an ICRC consultant and Ministry of Fisheries official, acted as guide. Our first port of call was a site of 12 ponds belonging to a group of fish farmers by the name of Zolo Bantu, which means approximately “Loves people”. What symbolism!
Aghast at the extent of the damage
Gildas Mvoula, the general secretary of the group, was waiting for us there with other members. He was clearly pleased to speak on everyone’s behalf and explain how things had taken a turn for the better after so many distressing events. “When the first civil war broke out in 1997, we all fled across the river to the Democratic Republic of the Congo, leaving behind everything we possessed - our village and our property.”
Once calm had returned, the former refugees returned to Pool and were aghast to see the extent of the damage. “We were like children, unable to assume the slightest family responsibility,” said one of Gildas'companions.
That was when they were contacted by the ICRC consultant in the context of the project to support farmers. “We didn’t know about the Red Cross, and we had no idea that the organization could help us to get our fish-farming activities going again,” Gildas recalled. Reassured by the consultant, they accepted the offer.
“The ICRC provided us with everything we needed to get going again,” said Marcel Zongla, father of seven, “− equipment, training, advice and extension services.” " We were given only 12 parent fish by the ICRC to begin with,” said Gildas, adding rather proudly, " but we now produce about a ton of fish each year.”
The group supplies the Mindouli market, where the local people are keen to buy Zolo Bantu fish due to its quality. Gildas stressed that farming the ponds now guaranteed the group members and their families not only food security but also financial self-reliance, which added to the well-being of the community. “We now have more time to devote to our wives and children,” he said.
The sun was setting, and it was time to find a bed for the night, for we were going to Mpassa Mfouélé the next day to meet another group that was receiving ICRC support for farming activities. A good night’s sleep, and we would be ready to brave the journey.
Women scarred by war
The women who were expecting us in Mpassa Mfouélé were members of a group which the ICRC had been assisting since 2006; they received us in the community plantation. As we exchanged greetings and introduced ourselves I could already see from their faces that the war had profoundly marked the lives of these women. Like all the other villagers, they had found refuge in the Democratic Republic of the Congo during the war.
Rose* was convinced that her home would be looted along with the entire village; her only wish was to find at least her field of cassava intact. “So as soon as I got back to the village I rushed out to see my field. It was completely ruined, and I just burst into tears when I saw it. I simply despaired and wondered what was to become of us.”
That was when her group was contacted by the ICRC with a view to reviving agricultural activities. And her smiling neighbour added, “I don’t know what would have become of me or my family if the Red Cross hadn’t helped us to grow a new field of cassava.”
Many groups throughout Pool can now rely on the ICRC to provide training and advice and to supply tools and seed, and studies are underway on the possibility of introducing cassava seedlings that are more resistant to mosaic disease.
Apart from the ICRC’s actual contribution I was interested in learning about the positive effects the support had had on their lives. “It’s thanks to this field that I can provide for my family,” said Anne*. “And what’s more, the income enables me to contribute towards my children’s teacher’s pay. I’m really delighted.”
She was close to tears. Some of the other women struck up a song to buoy her up, and the whole group sang in unison. After this touching moment I decided to take leave of my hosts, feeling so fortunate to have had the privilege of meeting all these people who refuse to give in to fate.
* assumed names