The hills are alive... Concern in action in the hills of DRC
Apart from some fading roadside signage and the occasional battered Land Cruiser, there’s not much sign of Concern’s presence in Masisi, Democratic Republic of Congo. At least not at first glance.
Concern has been operating in northeast Congo since 1994, and, to get a true idea of the impact of the work that’s been done, you’re going to need your hiking boots, a raincoat, and a bottle of water. Masisi is spectacularly beautiful — with topography similar to neighboring Rwanda with its thousand hills and lush tropical vegetation. But spectacular isn’t always a good thing, especially if you have to live in the middle of it.
As we toil higher, a boy shepherds a stately black cow... "Her name is Concern," he tells our little group, spotting the logo on our shirts. "We got her from you."
This corner of the DRC is a crowded, difficult, and often dangerous place to call home. Both during and after the rainy season, it’s virtually inaccessible by vehicle and many villages can only be reached on foot even at the best of times.
Agricultural land here is at a premium. The soil is fertile, but the plots are small and many cling perilously to the steep hillsides, pitching at angles of up to 45 degrees and sometimes even more. Land is the cause of much of the violence and terror that regularly sweeps through here, as assorted armed groups fight for power and control. A large proportion of what Concern has been doing here in recent years involves people who have been displaced from their homes by these armed groups and forced to abandon their livelihoods and possessions.
A view of Katale, in Masisi territory, DRC. Katale is home to thousands of displaced families whose makeshift shelters cling to the steep slopes. In the distance, tiny farms cover the hillside. Photo: Kieran McConville
Meet the people
But today, all seems peaceful as we walk upwards though the noise and bustle of the weekly market at Mindi, which draws hundreds of people from hillside communities for miles around. Bananas, eggs, oil, chickens, cassava, groundnuts, and assorted vegetables are hauled down here on one set of heads in the morning and hauled back up on others in the afternoon. This is trade in its purest form. And it’s here we start to get a feel for how our donor’s money has been invested.
A grant from Concern allowed Vumiliya to rent extra land and generate more income.
Our guide, Popol Ulua, explains how thousands of extremely poor families have been helped to begin the process of breaking free from poverty, through small cash grants to rent land or start a business, vouchers for seeds, tools, poultry, and livestock. There’s also training in agriculture and business. Of course, Popol is not a particularly objective source — he works for Concern. But then we start to meet people…
Concern the cow grazes a pathway in the hills of Masisi. She is one of many that share the name in these parts. Photo: Kieran McConville
Concern on the hoof
As we toil higher, a boy shepherds a stately black cow along the verge of the narrow path — grazing “the long acre,” as it was once known in Ireland. “Her name is Concern,” he tells our little group, spotting the logo on our shirts. “We got her from you.” Apparently, it’s a pretty ubiquitous name for livestock in these parts.
“I didn't go to school — I want my children to study, so they will be smarter than me and leave the village to become maybe a nurse or a teacher."
Further up the hill we pause in the shade of a community “center,” which is basically a round structure with a thatched roof and no walls. The village is almost empty, but not quite. “Always some people stay here on market days, in case of a raid,” we’re told, reminding us of the perilous nature of this place. One lady tells us she benefitted from Concern’s seeds and tools program, and offers to show us her land, which is several hills away. We decide, though, to take it one hill at a time and continue upwards.
Vumiliya Kabandu weeds her cassava plots near the village of Kweriba in Masisi, DRC. She has been renting land with assistance from Concern. Photo: Kieran McConville
In the village of Kweriba we meet the Kabandu family; their house and compound are well constructed and beautifully kept. Harvested cassava roots are laid out on a wooden platform to dry in the sun and there’s a variety of domestic activities under way. Vumiliya tells us how she received a grant from Concern which allowed her to rent extra land and generate more income, some of which she is spending on her children’s education. “I didn’t go to school — I want my children to study, so they will be smarter than me and leave the village to become maybe a nurse or a teacher,” she says. Just down the road, Vumiliya shows us one of her cassava plots, with the dramatic backdrop of forested hills and storm clouds. Cultivating and tending it is tough work.
Nsil Jeanette sells palm oil at Mindi market in the hills of Masisi, DRC. Photo: Kieran McConville
Racing the approaching rain down the hill, we come back to the marketplace, which is starting to empty out. Counting her day’s takings on the roadside is Nsil Jeanette, who received a cash grant of about $40 from Concern to start a small business. She has been selling rice and palm oil and making a modest profit, most of which goes to school fees. But she admits that life as a single parent is a struggle. “We eat one or two meals a day, mostly bananas and fufu [boiled cassava], depending on the time of year. I work in other people’s fields to bring in some extra money.”
“Concern gave me a goat and she produces three kids twice a year — you should come and see!"
As we climb aboard our dented and muddy Toyota to leave, an older man approaches. “Concern gave me a goat and she produces three kids twice a year – you should come and see!” smiles Mr. Bihango Lukoo Wabaeni. Then he writes down his number, shakes our hands, and strides away. There seem to be a thousand Concern stories up here in these hills and it feels like each one represents a little victory in the big battle against poverty.