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food / travel

Idjwi, A Quiet Island Sheltered From Congo's Woes. For Now

Idjwi is a rare example of a preserved ecosystem in the troubled eastern Congolese region. But poverty and crop disease are now putting this tranquil island at risk too.

Sunset on Idjwi Island
Sunset on Idjwi Island
Jean Chrysostome Kijana

IDJWI - Leaving from the city of Bukavu, on the shore of Lake Kivu, a two-hour ride on a small boat lands us on the island of Idjwi.

Near the Congolese border with Rwanda, this feels like a whole new world. Young women accompanied by children offer fruits to the newcomers. “Pineapples, bananas, avocados!"

Besides the fruits, most other things are imported by boat from Bukavu. But around those green mountains, whose biodiversity is endangered by the exploitation of both major companies and small farmers. Still, motorcycle or walking remain the only two means of transport on Idjwi, unless you want to risk a ride by wooden canoe, which are known to frequently capsize.

“There are almost no roads here,” says Karongo Kalaja Kabito, the administrator of territory.

Karongo, however, says this cloistered status is holding back the island’s development: “The schools are made of sticks, and there are no desks," he notes. "There are inadequate sanitary facilities…no electricity…that’s how sad life is around here.”

The island still has many advantages -- and delights. Its range of specialties extends from delicious fruits to the local drink Kasiksi, as well as free-range turkeys. Just a few years ago, Idjwi was considered the bread basket of Bukavu, turning out beans, bananas, tomatoes, soy, manioc flour.

“Unfortunately, entire crops were decimated by the mosaic virus and the bacterial wilt,” says a local agriculture official. Because of these viruses, the manioc and banana plantations have been wiped out.

Coping with hunger

“We are dying of hunger and poverty. Please inform the president, make the state help us,” implores an elderly lady, almost in tears as she sits in front of her tiny cabin surrounded by her three grandchildren with their puffy cheeks and yellowish skin.

“Malnutrition rates are on the rise,” confirms Jean Pierre Mastaki from Tumaini foundation. His organization published a poll in April showing that half of the 250 examined children showed symptoms of severe malnutrition.

Many families that had been living solely off diseased crops are now in dire need. “I no longer have the money to send my kids to school,” says a father of a family who saw his banana plantation succumb to the virus.

Karongo notes that more and more school-age kids have now been forced to turn to fishing. “My dad couldn’t pay for my classes anymore, that’s why I had to quit, back in primary school,” recalls Hamuli, before setting out with two others in a wooden canoe.

The one potentially lucrative source of work and income is the endless amount of sand that once helped build the cities of Bukavu and Goma. Some talk about building a factory for sand transformation (glass industry, windows), others see potential in agricultural production to maximize the return on all the pineapples, coffee, avocados and bananas.

The Idjwi inhabitants have another chance. While the surrounding Kivu region is war-torn, Idjwi remains peaceful. “I’ve never seen war since I was born,” says Egide on his motorcycle.

Karongo is proud of this fact: “One of the biggest perks of my island is the peace and security that reigns.” Paradoxically, neither the investors nor the NGOs -- legion in Bukavu -- seem to show any interest. Only the Catholic and Protestant churches are trying to help the islanders.

But Karongo says ultimately it's up to the local sons and daughters to help their island get back on track. “There is potential in this place," he says. "All we need is initiative and we won't be so secluded any more.”

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