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Central African Republic: hoes help the displaced survive in the bush

31-07-2007 Feature

Following numerous attacks in north western C.A.R., whole villages were emptied as families fled to the forest. In an effort to assist the most vulnerable, the ICRC has distributed a number of key household items to over 13,000 families, not least of which hoes to work their fields.

  ©ICRC /J. Björgvinsson / v-p-cf-e-00142    
Preparing for the distribution of hoes in Bodoli.    

  ©ICRC /J. Björgvinsson / v-p-cf-e-00144    
Gérad Kembi Nangindo (left) lays out the tools, watched by his wife (seated) and his sister (standing) in their bush refuge.    

  ©ICRC /J. Björgvinsson / v-p-cf-e-00154    
ICRC delegate Michael Dürst watches hoes being made with foreman Ibrahim Al Abid (right) in his forge in Paoua.    

Gérard Kembi Nangindo walked along a forest path one recent afternoon carrying an armful of short-handled iron hoes. Anxious birds called overhead and rain clouds gathered.

“This is where we fled to when our village was attacked,” he said over his shoulder, “but it wasn’t really safe and we could hear shooting, so we moved further away.”

The attack he was referring to was one of many that took place last year along the road from Boguila to Paoua in north western C.A.R. Mr Kembi took his sister and her family with him, as well as his mother and grandmother, great aunt, three cousins and their wives. In the end they settled about two kilometres into the bush, close to their fields.

The path through the forest was lined on either side with waist high grass and sweet smelling plants. Beyond, through the tangled undergrowth, ancient trees pushed skywards, creating a green canopy.

An open space appeared where the trees had been felled and the red earth turned over. Instead of coolness and shade, the sun slanted down on scattered shoots of millet and maize, and a carpet of green groundnut leaves. The tattered thatched roofs and grey tarpaulins of a forest encampment were visible in the distance.

It was to this spot that 24-year-old Mr Kembi was heading. 

The refuge is one of hundreds scattered across the region, sheltering thousands of displaced villagers who have fled the conflict between government troops and armed rebels which is now in its second year.

Mr Kembi had collected the hoes he was carrying from the ICRC in the village of Bodoli earlier that day. They were a welcome addition to the battery of old tools he had been using to keep the forest at bay around his fields.

But it is not only the encroaching undergrowth that the displaced need to watch out for in their makeshift bush shelters. A lack of clean water and adequate food are other major problems. In such precarious conditions, and without ready access to health care, even minor illnesses, cuts and burns can quickly worsen. Children are especially at risk. 

The ICRC has distributed buckets, blankets, tarpaulins, mosquito nets and other household items to some 8,000 families around Paoua and Markounda since last year. Another 5,500 families will receive similar items over the coming weeks. The hoes which Gérard Kembi and over 400 families received in Bodoli are part of the same programme, which will have provided help to tens of thousands of displaced people all across north western C.A.R. by the end of August.

The logistics of the whole operation have been daunting. Heavy items such as blankets and tarpaulins are sent to C.A.R. by plane from Nairobi. Others come by road from neighbouring Cameroon. Locally available items such as soap and aluminium bowls are purchased on the spot. Everything then has to be transported by commercial truck along hundreds of kilometres of unmade, potholed roads from the capital, Bangui.

The 28,000 hoes that are required are being made in Paoua, where the ICRC established an office in April 2006.

The work is being done in a part of the town known as the ‘blacksmiths’ quarter’. The low, clattering forge is run by a foreman, Ibrahim Al Abid, and 23 apprentices. Mr Al Abid learned the trade from his father and took over the business 16 years ago when he retired. The ICRC’s huge order will provide a boost for the local economy, and the forge, which also makes and repairs all kinds of metal ware from spades to wheelbarrows to broken-down cars.

“We are working flat out on this job, “Ibrahim says poking at a coal fire kept red hot by an apprentice punching bellows. “But it is only when I take a day off that I feel tired.”

Although hoes might seem an insignificant item when compared with the enormity of people’s needs in the bush, for those who have lost everything, even a little counts.

While Mr Kembi was in Bodoli for the distribution on 13 July, he showed two visitors his abandoned house. “Everything has been stolen,” he said grimly, standing just inside the entrance to the small, mud brick dwelling. He made a sweeping gesture that took in the dark recesses of the room where a bamboo bookcase and thermos flask were the only furniture. On the wall was a religious tract with the words “Who can be afraid if God is with us?”

Closing the door again, he set off into the forest with his armful of hoes, his visitors following behind. When he reached the encampment, he greeted his wife and sister, who was pounding manioc into flour in a large wooden pestle, laid down the tools, and went off to have a rest after his strenuous day.

The visitors stayed for a while. Then the storm clouds broke and it started to pour. As they set off along the forest path back to Bodoli they could see a naked child holding a hoe in each hand, oblivious to the rain, fascinated by these new playthings. The following day they would be put to better use weeding the groundnut fields.