When you work in development and tell your colleagues about an upcoming trip to the DRC you usually get a response that goes something like, ‘It can be a tough place. You’ll be escorted won’t you?’ We do not choose this line of work because it is easy, so being pushed outside our comfort zones, in numerous ways, is an experience we somehow grow to love.
I arrived after some flight delays to find kind colleagues who had insisted on meeting me even though I landed at 3:00 in the morning. We needed to wait until it was closer to daylight to make the trip to the hotel. There had been some political upheaval of late and the roads at nighttime were not safe. At 4:30 we decided to venture to the hotel and encountered three police check-points on the way. By the third I was starting to realise that it was completely dark with no street lights on a large, dirt road and two of the men questioning us had machine guns. While I was still committed to my task, some of my colleagues’ past intimations were starting to hit home.
The next day, refreshed, I ventured to our office and was met by hardworking and welcoming staff. Although very kind, you can feel an intensity in Congolese interactions, in a slight brusque tone when answering questions. You can also sense some unbridled ambition – they are a people used to having to work hard for what they need, and any help you might give in creating connections or opportunities is clearly valuable, so they will pitch for your support.
Fallone Kapalay in the midst of the brick workers
We started our client visits and two kinds of reactions were notable. First, the Congolese have a great sense of humour. We visited a client who produces bricks. The client’s daughter, Falonne Kapalay, though five months pregnant with her first child, drove proceedings. Trucks laden with bricks and dozens of men working hard filling them were following her instructions. They insisted I take photos and didn’t hesitate to play up for the camera. Levity during struggle was welcomed and they were happy to tease each other and me as well.
But humour in the DRC is also used as a shield. Clients would share to a point but their personal circumstances and experiences would not be conveyed easily. Our clients were focused on their businesses; they were pragmatic about explaining how they juggle severe currency devaluations, about their expectations of growth taking time and there being numerous potential set-backs out of their control. They are not patient though, not when driving (imagine traffic jams for hours, on dirt roads, hardly any lights and drivers randomly turning or going the wrong way on a road deliberately! I give thanks my driver Nanu kept me safe throughout with some excellent defensive driving) and not in fulfilling their ambitions. There is a quiet intensity to the Congolese and I only wish I had more time, and better French, to delve deeper.
One of the most exciting experiences (apart from the driving, which was too exciting!) was my confident realisation, for the first time, that a client would absolutely be a success. Serge and his wife Francoise, are small-holder farmers working off a friend’s land that they rent. Serge is 55 and is only getting started, but he has clearly been thinking of what he will do with his farm for his whole life. Serge was a client of Opportunity International’s who has now moved to VisionFund to fulfil his first loan cycle. Serge has diversified his farm to include 600 chickens (up from 100 thanks to his loan), he has around two acres of aubergines that his neighbours were queuing up to buy when we arrived, and he has also installed irrigation and built a fish pond with different kinds of carp.
Serge has created his farm in a way that he will have an income regardless of season. He is adding value to his aubergine sales by washing, packaging and selling them in the market. His wife, Francoise, is his supporter, quietly confident by his side. She helps in all Serge’s plans and the farm’s operation. Without doubt, Francoise ensures that their young son, who is six years old, will be as accomplished as his siblings who are now in university. They are learning to follow in their father’s steps to create a better life in a tough environment.
Serge is my hope for the DRC. With education, hard work and perseverance, Serge is on track for success. I would like to come back and see how his farm has grown in two years. I believe Serge will be a model to his neighbours and an ideal microfinance client. Call it intuition or maybe experience at this point, but I think with prayer Serge will get there.