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Syfia International is an association of six independent African press agencies, covering 30 African countries.
Children sit at a reintegration center in Kpandroma in 2009.
Evariste Mahamba

Rwandan And Congolese Youth United Against Stereotypes Of Genocide

Though peace is far secure between the Democratic Republic Of Congo and Rwanda, organized efforts to bring their youth together are multiplying.

GOMA — "The wound will not heal as long as the knife keeps twisting," reads a profession of faith by four young Congolese and Rwandan artists trying to shatter stereotypes between the two neighboring peoples of the Great Lakes region.

Through their group, Simama Africa, they mobilized some 30 young people from both countries for a day of reflection last month at the Protestant Welcome Center in Goma in the eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo.

"We thought is was the right moment to create a dialog between the youth of the two countries to see how to break the mistrust that the commemoration of the Rwandan Genocide of April 1994 risked creating every year," said Fison Muhindo, a young Congolese man and one of group's founders.

The Rwandan Genocide, carried out against the Tutsi people of Rwanda by the ruling Hutu majority, claimed the lives of an estimated 500,000 to one million Rwandans.

"We are all conscious of this sad history," Muhindo said. "But if we continue to reflect on it negatively, we will not know how to build peace between us."

For him, the persistence of the Rwandan Hutu rebel group Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda, or FDLR, and other armed groups of the DRC originates from this unfortunate event.

The conflict in the DRC has already caused more than five million deaths, according to many reports.

Muhindo thinks the young generation needs to get involved in the search for a lasting solution.

We are all conscious of this sad history. But if we continue to reflect on it negatively, we will not know how to build peace between us.

A young Rwandan member suggests creating partnerships and exchanges. Speaking of an attack on Goma in 2012 by the M23 movement, a rebel military group based in eastern areas of the DRC, he recalled that on the eve of the attack, "I was in serious danger at the great barrier (the border crossing between Gisenyi and Goma) when I wanted to come here to Goma.

"I ended up vowing never to set foot here again," he says. "Today I understand that there were misperceptions between the youth of these two countries because some still remembered the images of hatred of 1994, even though we're already in 2017."

The young Rwandan firmly believes that history should not divide an entire people, and during the dialog between the young Congolese and Rwandans, he managed to convince his Congolese counterpart to participate in an activity at a Rwandan cultural center in Gisenyi.

Hilda Vagheni, head of communications at the Central Baptist Church at the Africa Center (CBCA), who also attended the event, thinks that the two countries should adopt policies to soften the language of some slogans, such as "the genocide inflicted on the Tutsis." Repeating this phrase victimizes the youth of that community and creates a sentiment of guilt among young Hutus, she says, thereby hindering the consolidation of peaceful relations between the two neighboring communities.

The Simama Africa initiative took place the day after the 9th Diocesan Youth Day, a day where Christians from all denominations in Rwanda, Burundi and Kenya celebrate with those from the DRC regions of North and South Kivu.

The essential message that emerged from the meeting was, "We are all the same, in the image of Jesus Christ, who is not a member of a tribe. He is here for everyone regardless of race, tribe, community or ethnicity."

Praying at a church in Goma, DRC
Jacques Kikuni Kokonyange

Want To Teach In This Congolese City? Better Get Baptized

There is a religious litmus test for teachers in schools in this eastern stretch of Democratic Republic of Congo.

BENI — During a recent morning mass at a church in this northeast Congolese city, the pastor had a sort of job announcement for his congregants: The local school was looking for a biochemistry teacher and someone who speaks English to look after middle school children. But, he added: "The first condition is to be a fervent Christian and available to fill in for pastoral duties."

Over the past few years, identifying yourself as religious has become the first selection criteria for teachers in many contract schools in this city in the eastern part of the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Math teacher E.K., for instance, had to get baptized in August 2010, shortly before the end of summer vacation. "When I applied for the job, I was advised to change religion if I wanted to improve my chances of getting the job," he says. Together with another colleague who teaches Latin and philosophy, he says a large number of teachers in their school are from church-going families.

Religion, whether it's Catholicism, Protestantism, Islam or Kimbanguism, plays an important role in education in Beni. Three of every four schools are "contract schools' run according to education ministry guidelines.

Kibonge Kambale, who works for the ministry in Beni, says legal representatives from churches name the principals for these contract schools.

At a church in Goma, DRC — Photo: Patrick Meinhardt/ZUMA

These principals, who are often pastors or former religious leaders, in turn recruit teachers.

"Religious leaders demand that principals consider first and foremost the teacher's religion. They say you need to employ people who share your Biblical view," says Jérémie Kasereka, the local head of the national teachers union, who opposes the practice.

A pastor of the Kimbanguist Church, however, finds this system "normal."

"It's difficult to take on a teacher who won't respect the day of Sabbath or any other religious celebration in a contract school that follows the religion's doctrine," says the pastor.

It can indeed be observed that, in some schools, the teachers are asked to fully participate in their Church's religious life. Sometimes, they're even part of the pastor's staff.

church service religion drc worldcrunch

Service at a church in DRC — Photo: Julien Harneis

"Every month in my school, the pastor hands teachers envelopes for them to pay the tithe," says Michel, who teaches in a Protestant school. All teachers take part in the Church meeting on the first and last Friday of every month. They're also required to attend French-language mass on Saturdays.

A psychologist in an NGO that fights for accountability in Beni, Alphonse Kakule, rejects this system, which he says lets religion precede a teacher's competence. He observes that professionals who should be valued in education "flee to other sectors that bring in more money at the end of the month."

The local teacher's union, which fears that children's education would be negatively affected, is urging the government to intervene against these religious requirements.

Time to give a dam
Jacques Kikuni Kokonyange

Electricity And Jobs Help Save Congo’s Wildlife Reserve

MUTWANGA — At the foot of mount Rwenzori, locals erupt in joy when they see their homes lit with electric light bulbs for the first time in their lives. Meanwhile, at the nearby Pic Hotel in Mutwanga, a small village in eastern Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), tourists are finally returning.

Over the past few years, the Congolese Institute for Nature Conservation has helped limit poaching and agricultural exploitation of the DRC​"s Virunga National Park.

"This area belongs only to the park, the people have no right to live or cultivate there," says François Mutamba, the local area manager. "To stop inhabitants from continuing to destroy it, we've given them an ultimatum to leave the area at the end of their last harvest."

Despite the reserve's protected status, thousands of families have grown crops like beans, corn, rice, manioc, and bananas inside the area. Added to the UNESCO World Heritage list in 1979, Virunga National Park in the Congolese province of North Kivu is about to lose its special status due to the extinction of its flagship species including gorillas, hippopotamuses and rare plants.

Poachers and farmers aren't the only ones who are destroying the wildlife reserve.

To save the park, its Belgian director, Emmanuel de Mérode, helped implement development projects aimed at the population living around it.

gorilla silverback virunga drc

Silverback gorilla in Virunga National Park — Photo: Innocent Mburanumwe

"To this end, we've built infrastructure like the Mutwanga and Matebe hydroelectric dams and opened 12 schools in the Rutshuru and Lubero territories," Mérode said last year.

The Congolese Institute for Nature Conservation built the Mutwanga power plant in North Kivu. The Matebe plant, which received help funding from the Howard G. Buffett foundation, supplies a vast part of the nearby city of Goma.

Mérode said that 70 kilometers of roadways had been built to make the Watalinga area more accessible and to boost tourism in the reserve.

Two years ago, a soap factory was set up in Mutwanga, a small village near Beni, to help fight unemployment in the region. In addition to that factory, several workshops to manufacture metal doors opened.

Etienne Mbatanguli, a local, says business has been good since he launched his own workshop, which gets its electricity from the Mutwanga hydroelectric power plant. "I feel liberated now because the cost of energy has gone down significantly," he says. "Only one-fourth of my monthly expenses go into electricity now — a lot less than when I had to use gasoline for fuel."

virunga wildlife drc congo park bukima

Mount Mikeno in Virunga National Park — Photo: Cai Tjeenk Willink

Poachers and farmers aren't the only ones who are destroying the wildlife reserve. There are also rebel groups attacking it. A campaign launched to recruit guards for the park has attracted young locals, who are now calling on their unemployed friends to "join this profession instead of letting themselves be enrolled by armed groups."

"We're hunting the armed groups from all quarters and they're currently suffering a rout," says Lieutenant Mak Azukayi, DRC's armed forces spokesman in Beni.

Reverend Gilbert Kambale, who helps coordinate civil societies in Beni, says that the local population no longer exploits Virunga National Park thanks to local projects. "I appreciate these sort of inclusive projects, which have the advantage of bringing everybody together to protect the park. Because all inhabitants can reap the fruits from these works in their everyday lives."

Men carrying tree trunks in North Kivu, DRC
Matthieu Mokolo

DRC, Environmental Costs Of Congolese Wood Industry

LIPUA LIPUA — He'd been away for some time in Mbandaka, the capital of the northwestern Équateur province along the Congo River. But when Pierrot Mawambe returns to Lipua Lipua, a fisherman camp on an islet 80 kilometers downstream, he was stunned by the void where huge waka trees used to stand. "Timber harvesters cut them down," a local informs him.

In the past, waka trees (a variety of guibourtia) as well as others like the "monsenge" and the "mokese" (pycnanthus angolensis) hadn't been commercialized. But now, traditional harvesters, like Richard Mobembo, have seen a business opportunity, after this new sort of wood was circulating on the market in Kinshasa, the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) capital. "When we see it in Kinshasa, we immediately look for it in the forest when we return to the Équateur region," Mobembo said. "We'll sometimes even cut down any tree that's more than 50 centimeters in diameter, even if we don't know their names or qualities. Only when we put it on the market do we realize what it is, and what it's actually worth."

Despite the restrictive legislation on forest exploitation in the DRC, an attempt to bring down deforestation and to fight against global warming, the wood market is still going strong in the region. Every day, boats belonging to big companies and rafts of small, traditional harvesters travel downstream to Kinshasa.

Rising demand

Waka wood can fetch between $350 and $500 per cubicle meter, mokese up to $140. Others, of lesser quality, like moluku (which sells for just $70 per cubicle meter) still find buyers in construction, packaging and other industrial sectors. Patrick Mowei, a local builder, says the real estate boom and modern architecture with multiple roof lines, which currently are very popular in DRC, are driving up wood demand.

Environmental activists are worried, warning that the razing of new tree varieties represents a real danger for the ecosystems of areas which, until then, had been spared the worst of deforestation. This is compounded by the fact that traditional timber harvesters limit their activity to areas near the rivers, so they can transport the wood more easily on their rafts, even though the legislation bans all timber exploitation less than two kilometers from running water.

"Large parts of the region's forests are disappearing every day," says Bonkanya Mangwele, an environment researcher at the region's University of Mbandaka. "The fact that trees near the streams are being cut down leads to erosions and damages the soil." He warns that entire islets could disappear, causing large quantities of sand to end up in some rivers, which isn't good news for the fight against global warming.

Traditional timber harvesters, eager to play down the impact of their own activity, are instead pointing the finger at industrial exploiters. "Compared to them, we amount to almost nothing," says Richard Mobembo. "It's the big companies that are destroying the environment because they exploit vast surfaces and cut down large quantities of trees. We're happy with the crumbs."

A pregnant woman at a UNICEF camp
Mbimi Haircy

A Congolese Man Gives Midwives A Run For Their Money

DOUMANGA — In this western village in the Republic of Congo, the local health center lacks both material and human resources. As a result, the only male nurse in Doumanga is the one assigned to help women of the village give birth. For Max Banzoulo, it has become a noble mission that he carries out with great pride.

This unusual role includes care that comes well before the date of delivery, such as offering advice to women in order to limit the risks during childbirth. "When a pregnant woman arrives at the clinic for a medical check-up, he takes the time to carefully examine her specific situation," says Marie Ngoyi.

Ngoyi is married, has three children and is one of the women living in Doumanga — a small village of about 1,000 inhabitants — who gave birth with the help of Banzoulou, whom the women affectionately call the town's sage-homme.Literally "wise man," a play on the French word sage-femme, meaning "midwife." French is the country's official language.

Banzoulou graduated from the Jean Joseph Loukabou Paramedical Public School of Pointe-Noire, and is himself a father of three. "He practices a professional, ethical approach," says another mother, Ngouzi Diabizenga. "He‘s kind. His care and smile can heal you — there is no one else like him!"

Electricity cuts

When he began working in this health center in the middle of the Mayombe forest in 2009, Banzoulou decided to work overtime to make up for the lack of medical staff. "As we work in the bush, we have to do everything to compensate for the lack of midwives," he said. "It's hard, but I have to do it, in order to save lives."

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"Midhusband" Max Banzoulo — Photo: adiac

The Doumanga medical center, which was built by locals in 1972, has four rooms: consultation, delivery, examination and care rooms. The facilities are underequipped and everything is in short supply: gloves, aspirin, scales to weigh children. On average, there are about four births a month. "Often, there's no electricity," says Ngouzi Diabizenga. "Our ‘midhusband' sometimes has to make deliveries with a flashlight."

In an effort to offer support last October, Congo"s Ministry of Health assigned two young female trainees to Doumanga from the Paramedical School Jean Joseph Loukabou. Banzoulou started training them right away. Says Sandra Mouaya, one of the trainees, "We now know how to conduct a consultation, prepare a perfusion, make stitches and even help women give birth. We couldn't do it when we first got here."

Eric Makaya, a village resident, wants the government to send female midwives and trained nurses to help women give birth — instead of a man. "It is possible for a man to do it, but a woman for these situations is better."

Don't tell that to all the mothers cared for by Max Banzoulou.

Moringa leaves, Jun. 3, 2002
food / travel
Kouamba Matondo Annette

Congo Farming: Eco-Friendly Fertilizer v. Slash-And-Burn

BRAZZAVILLE — In the area around the Congolese capital of Brazzaville, it's common practice to burn vegetation in fields before planting crops. But this slash-and-burn approach inflicts severe damage to the forests and the soil, not to mention to the health of women, who are the primary farmers in this area.

"The placement of these lands under fallow until they regenerate, forces women to regularly move away from the lands," says Marguerite Homb, president of a non-profit organization called Health and Nature. "They sometimes use too many chemical products at the risk of their own health."

Homb says the women are only doing what they know, but that much of the harm could be avoided with the use of an organic fertilizer called moringa, a plant native to these parts of Africa that has many beneficial properties.

"We've been using it as a fertilizer for our own crops since 2005, and we've never had to change lands," she says. "We cultivate every year on the same parcel. We also make compost with moringa seeds mixed with other substances."

Homb says it could be a "farewell" to pesticides, inappropriate herbicides, polluting chemical fertilizers and slash-and-burn practices in general.

In the district of Madimbu, the training center St. Joseph de Mbouono has also embraced the environmentally friendly moringa. "We use the dead leaves to fertilize the soil," explains center coordinator François Xavier Mifoundou.

Still, some cultivators are hesitant to put the recommendations into practice. "When you ask them to use natural fertilizers, they think it's a waste of time," Mifoundou says. "What they want is to harvest quickly. What matters to them is to quickly make a profit."

Idriss M'Bouka, a geophysics PhD student at Marien Ngouabi University, praises this approach — and encourages women to abandoned slash-and-burn agriculture, which he says deteriorates the soil and ecosystem.

Mifoundou says moringa has other uses too. "To protect crops against insects, we immerse moringa leaves in water for a few days. The liquid we obtain enables us to treat the crops. It's also an incredible feed for chickens."

A Congolese woman carrying a basin full of coal
Jean Thibaut Ngoyi

Congo Charcoal, An Environmental Disaster In The Making

Making charcoal requires cutting down trees and burning them in the ground, destroying in the process not only trees but also the fertility of the land. Farming output is on the decline, and environmentalists are signaling the need for change.

BRAZZAVILLE — In the vicinity of Brazzaville, thousands of woodland hectares have been decimated by charcoal producers over the course of many decades, destroying not only the trees but damaging the land itself. Powerless, farmers are noticing that their crop productivity has fallen dramatically.

François Xavier Mayouya, head of a local charity, has raised the alarm. He says charcoal production in the villages around Brazzaville will have disastrous consequences. To make it, producers cut down trees and burn wood slowly in ground pits, called coal stoves, and extinguish the fires just before the wood turns to ash.

"Several farmers have complained about a decline in their output, unaware that it's because of coal stoves that emit heat in the ground on a more than 20-meter perimeter," he says. "Fire destroys the land. It's no longer possible to plant manioc here."

Idriss Mbouka, a geomorphology specialist, agrees. "The use of coal stoves causes the clearing of the forests and the deterioration of the grounds. The heat emitted by these stoves destroys mineral elements. That's clay, silt — everything that contributes to the cohesion, the richness of the ground."

During the Nov. 29 National Tree Day in Brazzaville, Forest Economy Minister Henri Djombo quoted the UN Food and Agriculture Organization, saying, "About 17,000 hectares of forest are destroyed every year in the Republic of the Congo, because of the clearing caused by slash-and-burn agriculture, the gathering of firewood and the production of charcoal."

No change in 20 years

This concern isn't actually new, which makes the lack of progress more staggering. In 1994, Jean-Pierre Banzouzi, an anthropologist and doctor in social sciences at the Free University of Brussels, wrote a book in which he warned of forest devastation. "The Pool region destroys an average of 125,000 tons of wood every two years," he wrote, amounting to the deforestation of about 3,000 hectares. "The firewood and coal trades alone bring in 7.6 million euros to the region," he continued. "At this rate, if we are not careful, the Pool region could be decimated in the next 50 years and become a desert."

Twenty years have already passed and almost nothing has changed. Yolande Malonga, a farmer from Linzolo, a small village 30 kilometers southwest of Brazzaville, is well aware of the problem. "Of course, the use of coal stoves destroys the forest, but because there's no work in Linzolo, young people survive thanks to this," Malonga says. "If we tell them to stop, we'll have problems with them. We're currently being affected by the consequences, but we can't do anything about it."

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Coal fire in Kashbere, North Kivu, Congo — Photo: MONUSCO/Michael

Marthe Konda, another farmer from Linzolo and a mother of four, has observed the same thing in her crops. "The manioc we plant doesn't grow anymore because of the damage caused by the heat from the coal stoves," she says.

Cooperatives, cultivation, livestock

Some people such as Michel Bienvenu Dianzenza, who has been selling coal for 12 years, are at least aware of the damage they're causing. Like his colleagues, Dianzenza buys forest space from landowners, cuts down the trees, then places them in burn pits in the ground that he covers with soil before setting fire to them. After a week, he comes back to retrieve the coal from the stove and gets ready to sell it.

A father, Dianzenza hopes to change jobs as soon as possible. "I provide for my family this way," he says. "But if I find a job that earns me 75 euros per month, I'll give up charcoal. This occupation not only requires money, but it's also very hard."

According to Emmanuel Vital Makoumbou, head of Linzolo village, this practice wasn't as common in his region before the 1997 war. He's now asking the state to "revive cooperatives, train young people on agricultural and livestock farming techniques, fund them, help them find a way out." Failing that, the youth will keep on thinking producing charcoal is the only way to make a living.

Congolese Women, Freedom Through Literacy
Makoumbou Flore Michèle

Congolese Women, Freedom Through Literacy

BRAZZAVILLE — It was only when she realized she'd handed her husband a letter written by his mistress that Alphonsine decided to act. Facing such heartbreak and humiliation, this 54-year-old housewife and mother of seven, decided to join a basic literacy class in the Congolese capital of Brazzaville.

Like Alphonsine, many illiterate women have started going to school to address such educational shortcomings. Their goals are manifold: to assert themselves, to be more independent in their activities — including business — and to contribute to their children's education. Some of them choose the method called "Alpha Express," taught at the Center Mama Elombé ("Fighting Woman"), in the church Sainte-Marie de Ouenzé. This method promises beginners they will be able to write their names after one month.

This adult literacy center was first opened in 1990, and currently boasts some 685 registered students, 462 of whom are women. It takes them three years to go through primary school, and four years for secondary school. Although it's a public institution, this center doesn't receive any support from the Congolese state. "Although the government promised in 2013 that the UNESCO's Education For All program would be free for everyone, the building as well as the benches and chalk all come from charities or churches," explains Jean Urbain Trankon, a local technical advisor for literacy and re-schooling.

And though most women share the fact that they'd never been to school before, the reactions of their families may be very different. "I registered to fix a handicap that was holding me back. Unfortunately, it's already cost me my marriage," one of the students says.

Maniongui Kombo Gladys, 29 and mother of two, is lucky enough to have her husband's full support. "He said I'd be able to work as a cashier and he registered me for these evening classes," she says. "Now I can already read the doctor's prescription when I come back from the hospital with the children."

For Colette Bikambi, illiteracy was a veritable business cost. "I'm a shopkeeper. So unfortunately, when I wanted to transfer money, I had to ask other people to fill out the forms for me," she says.

French help

Amandine Natacha Miénandi, 17, has just started her first year. "I'd like to be a hairdresser," she explains. "But to succeed, I need to have good basic knowledge of French."

At another literacy center on the other side of Brazzaville, the motivations are also varied. "Old mothers come here to learn how to read the Bible properly," says Louisette Loubaki, the center's director. "We teach them the syllabic method. Classes take place in the evenings, three times a week, for nine months. But electricity shortages are too common, and they often disrupt classes." Still, she says 15 women have learned how to read since opening.

Some of these schools start teaching in the national languages — Kituba and Lingala, for starters. But as learners advance, these are replaced by French, which is also a way to improve the students' oral skills in that national language. It is one more draw for attracting illiterate mothers to go back to school, or go for the very first time.