Crossings: The journey to peace in DRC

A cross-border trader in Bukavu, DRC carrying chickens for sale. © Carol Allen-Storey/International Alert

Despite the defeat of the M23 rebel group in late 2013 in the east of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), armed groups continue to control large areas, creating insecurity and preying on a defenceless population.

Around two million Congolese citizens have been displaced from their homes in North and South Kivu, and hundreds of thousands more have fled to neighbouring countries.

The government’s inability to effectively govern the vast state has left millions of people without access to the most basic public services.

Despite the troubles, however, life goes on. People are trading with each other across the borders, hoping that one day peace will prevail. This photostory is about these shared hopes.

A cross-border trader in Gisenyi, Rwanda carrying a sack of charcoal for sale. © Carol Allen-Storey/International Alert

In 2012, we studied the dynamics of small-scale cross-border trade in the Great Lakes region, to understand the impact that improving this trade would have on good neighbourly relations, peace and security.

We found that traders are the victims of systematic abuse and harassment at the border, including being forced to pay illegal taxes. Traders are unable to develop their businesses because they are not aware of their rights, lack access to information, are badly organised and have very limited access to markets and capital.

We are therefore providing training to customs officials and traders, lobbying for policy change, producing radio programmes to communicate information, helping traders to join cooperatives, and organising dialogue between traders, border officials and authorities. In some areas, harassment has already dropped by 60%.

Cross-border traders gather in Bukavu, DRC. © Carol Allen-Storey/International Alert

Poor governance and war have had a devastating effect on the local economy in DRC. The popular areas where the majority of the urban population live are shanty towns made of planks and metal sheeting. In such a setting, employment opportunities are rare. Finding basic necessities to provide for a family is a daily struggle, and tens of thousands of petty merchants rely on the border as a primary means for survival.

Dada Dorcas, an egg seller, in Bukavu, DRC. © Carol Allen-Storey/International Alert

Dada Dorcas (above left), 24, left secondary school to work as a cross-border trader when her family could no longer afford her education. She sells eggs for between six and nine Congolese francs at her stall in Nyawera market. Her earnings help her father provide basic food for her 12 siblings.

A Congolese border policeman inspects the passes of a young Rwandan woman and her daughter in Goma, DRC. © Carol Allen-Storey/International Alert

“The border is like a field where everyone harvests, including civil servants,” explains Jerry Shungu, Director of APIBA, a local non-governmental organisation (NGO) that supports women traders. Congolese border agents frequently yell, stop, harangue, push and grab people crossing. “There is a lot of rudeness and harassment at the border,” adds Maman Bahati. “The border agents only want money. You run the risk of facing more problems by refusing to pay.”

Maman Soki, one of the older women transporters, at Petite Barrière in Gisenyi, Rwanda. © Carol Allen-Storey/International Alert

Maman Soki (above) contracted polio when she was just 12, and is now reliant on her tricycle (the local equivalent of a wheelchair) to make her border crossings. “I was completely sad and desperate. It was the people from the association of the disabled who gave me courage.” Maman Soki has been trading for 16 years, and at 32 years old she is one of the older women transporters in Goma. “It is not simple to be a woman in Congo, even less if you are a disabled woman.”

Traders line up to cross the border into Rwanda in Goma, DRC. © Carol Allen-Storey/International Alert

The fighting and tensions that continue to scar the region have a negative impact on small-scale traders, sometimes destroying their trade completely. The provinces of North and South Kivu rely on food supplies from DRC’s neighbouring countries due to the effects of conflict. “The war always robs us of everything,” says Maman Bahati. This interdependence bonds people from different countries, regardless of politics. “We collaborate well with our Rwandan counterparts,” says Furaha, a Congolese tomato seller. “Why aren’t our politicians able to do the same?”

A trader dispenses palm oil ready for sale in Goma, DRC. © Carol Allen-Storey/International Alert

International Alert’s work on cross-border trade helps traders become more confident in demanding that their rights be respected. Today, there is an improved climate of trust at the border, between women traders and border officials, and between women traders from different countries. Traders collaborate more freely with one another, provide each other with credit, and are exhibiting solidarity.

However, taxes and a lack of capital remain issues for these traders. Access to affordable microcredit through group loans to cooperatives could give the traders the capital they need to develop their business. “My biggest problem is capital,” says Dada Dorcas.

Maman Bahati, a Congolese trader, takes time to play with one of her grandchildren in Bukavu, Rwanda. © Carol Allen-Storey/International Alert

Traders are beginning to hope that things can change. Maman Chantal explains: “In the past, if you had a problem, no one would help you. Some of us were even afraid to cross. But the other day a Rwandan trader had an accident in Goma, and the Congolese women took her to the hospital. This never happened before.” Maman Bahati (above) adds: “When you have been clients for a long time, you become sisters. Over there in Rwanda, they say ‘Turikumwe’ – we are one.”

From Goma to Gisenyi, Bukavu to Cyangugu, the common wish of Rwandan and Congolese women and men cross-border traders is that, one day, there will be security and good collaboration between countries in the region and that their trade will be able to lift them and their families out of their poverty.

Find out more

Photos © Carol Allen-Storey/International Alert

This is an abridged version of the photo essay, ‘Crossings: The journey to peace’ (2014).

We are grateful to the following donors for supporting our work with cross-border traders in DRC:

Donor logos: European Union, Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency, Norwegian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, The World Bank