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On the road May 14th, 2017 by

View to Rwenzori from Beni roundabout copyEven a dangerous, war-torn province may be on the road to economic recovery, as I saw last week when I was driven from Beni to Komanda. The two hour, 120 km journey was part of my on-going involvement with cocoa growing here in North Kivu, DR Congo.

North Kivu has a bad reputation. The British Government map shows the province in blood red and “advises against all travel”. The capital, Goma, is associated with chaos and on-going conflict. North Kivu is at the heart of internecine battles involving countless, shifting factions, watched closely by neighbouring countries with their own interests to safeguard. Beni is a long way from Goma, yet it also has periodic outbursts of violence.

Our journey started and ended peacefully. We passed more motorbikes than cars. The motorcyclists drove cautiously, partly because they were loaded up with people, produce and belongings. Bunches of bananas, bags of leeks, cassava and charcoal – lots of charcoal. A few wore helmets. Traffic is increasing year on year, but it’s all remarkably peaceful compared to the heaving roads of Kenya. We moved smoothly along.

But still we had an early reminder of the dangers of driving. A truck driver had ploughed off the road the previous evening and one person had died. A UN armoured car was parked at the side of the road, one of several that we’d seen on the outskirts of Beni. People walk pass the white UN behemoths, ignoring the blue helmets that protrude from the turrets.

Brasimba adverts on walls copyThe roadside houses had walls made of mud plaster over wooden slats and corrugated roofs. We went through many small towns. There were more shops than I remembered from last year’s journey to Komanda. The local Beni brewery, Brasimba, advertises its various brands of beer by painting buildings in yellows and reds, both bright, optimistic colours. Mobile phone companies do the same all over Africa, a sure-fire way to be noticed. Beer and phones: signs that investment and businesses are growing, part of an increasing prosperity in Beni that is closely linked to cocoa.

We stopped in Oisha at a cocoa depot. Outside, a farmer was carefully tending his cocoa beans, which he had brought a bit too wet to sell. A motorbike was refuelling from a mini-depot, small stands stacked with plastic bottles of petrol. The vendor poured the fuel through a funnel while the passengers remained in place. They looked cramped but soon they were on their way.

Mini-depot and fill motorbike copyWe passed through areas of tall eucalypts, a tree maligned by some ecologists but hugely popular with farmers. The tree grows fast and straight; producing light but strong timber for construction and fences. Oil palm groves flashed by, the seeds crushed in simple presses to produce a viscous, orange cooking oil. More bags of charcoal by the road as we headed north, a sign that were getting close to forested areas. But the most surprising part of the journey so far was that we were on a tarred road, a real luxury in North Kivu: 60 km of smooth highway, courtesy of China – another investment in the future.

Just after Eringeti we stopped at a local government checkpoint marking the boundary with Orientale province. My colleague went to report my presence, clutching my passport. Such checkpoints are of dubious legality, a way to exact tolls and exercise notional authority. Haggling over payments can be protracted, but Patrick returned after 10 minutes: “all he wanted was a bottle of water”.

Shortly afterwards the tarred road ended. There were bumps and lurches but the graded road was well maintained and surprisingly smooth as we made good progress. My mobile phone signal stayed strong throughout the journey. Many more mobile phone masts have been erected in recent years, another tick on my mental list of improvements that makes peoples’ lives easier.

Komanda is an important but nondescript town, strategically positioned at the crossroads of three major roads: Beni to the south, Bunia to the east and Kisangani to the West. All of us gave a little gasp at the brand new hotel in the centre of town, with modern façade, multi-storied and all gleaming blue windows (de rigeur in North Kivu).

Oxygen hotel frontA modern hotel in Komanda? We entered the Oxygen Hotel and looked around. The owner from Butembo had invested a lot: proper beds and en suite bathrooms, a big improvement on the decrepit but serviceable hotel where we stayed last year. Here was another sign of confidence in the future, and in the most unlikely of places. I don’t pretend that one hotel in the back of beyond is a harbinger of economic prosperity, but it is a significant step forward.

Robert Louis Stevenson, the great Scottish writer, said that the journey was as important as the destination. The view from the car paints only a partial picture, yet it is still an important window on other people’s worlds and backs up what I’ve seen in the wider countryside. My journey gave me hope, reinforcing improvements I’ve seen over the last 13 years, powered by a steady increase in cocoa production. Decline and disarray is not inevitable nor irretrievable, especially if the agricultural economy is thriving. There is still violence and civil society struggles to flourish in North Kivu, but there are plenty of people who are optimistically investing in their future.

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