On Monday it was my first day at office. In this office there are about 20 other people besides E. All of them are local staff. Most of them are men. They are very nice and yesterday I went on a day trip to the interior of the country with E and two colleagues. We were visiting one of the agricultural sites in the country where Oxfam has its projects. Its is insanely beautiful! With streams and hills and valleys everywhere. We made a long trek up on of the hills to get to the swamps and passed a few gold mine son the way. We had to wear gigantic rubber boots once again cross narrow bridges (horizontal tress) across big streams! Most of the land here has become barren due to natural calamities and the conflict, so there is not so much cultivable land anymore. Along with a local partner, Oxfam came up with a project to exploit the swamps. They build drains around the swamp that takes all the water away and what remains is fertile soil where the locals can cultivate crops. There were about 50 women and 70 men working in this particular swamp that we visited. The women burn the grass and scrape it away while the men dig the ditches to drain the water. They get paid $3 per day and each group can work only for 14 days after which they switch the groups so that a new group can be employed. We spoke to some men and women to see if the requirements of the project are being met and to know more about their lives. There were some heartbreaking stories but also some that showed agency and strength.
I met a woman who was 20 years old and she has 6 children. The oldest is 7! She was very happy with her children and spoke about them with pride.
Another woman had lost her husband and was left to fend for 10 kids by herself. She was chased out of her house by her family. She said she works hard so that she can educate her children. The rebels took one man’s wife away and he was left with 8 kids. All these people have to look for new jobs all the time and are constantly displaced. Often their kids do not go to school because, well, they have no money for food most times, so sending the child to school is even more difficult, plus it doesn’t help that they have to move all the time.
But contrary to popular notions – they were very well informed about the project and who we were. One of the women gave us a text book definition of Oxfam’s aims and objectives and said “I know that you pay us.”
The kids were super sweet. Running around everywhere, saying hello and goodbye! Super curious with bright eyes! When I was walking towards them, all of sudden 20 of them broke out into a dance! It was like a flash mob! I loved it! And I tried to get a video of it but that was unsuccessful. At some point we were getting pictures of all the people and the scenery I saw a few women, working in the swamps, stop working, fish out their phones and start taking pictures of us!
This trip shattered a lot of assumptions. The idea of these ‘poor men and women’ as victims was not their only story. The woman who told us Oxfam’s objectives knew what we do and how that has implications on her life. She knew what she wanted from us and also at times told us what ‘we wanted to hear’. The women who took photos of us, turned tables around, no longer was it a one sided subject relationship but we were now on their phones, weaved into the stories that they would make up of us, just as we would of them. The men were hardworking and a few of them did multiple jobs in a day to be able to fend for their families. Most of their wives worked here as well. And the most surprising and pleasant news of all was that the men and women were paid the same – for the same work! A lot of us can take a lesson from that huh?
The ride back was nice, we had a lot of interesting conversations in the car and I’m always impressed with how similar ‘Congolese society’ is to the ‘Indian society’. I find parallels to almost every norm and tradition that they talk about.It’s quite interesting actually. The Congolese people I’m working with, just like me come from a privileged class of their society and often talk about the other Congolese people as ‘them’. We are not like them. We are educated. This reminds me of the defensive tone I take up when people talk about India as ‘Slumdog millionaire’.
I returned home red with dust and a bit sick with all the bumpy ness but very happy and grateful for that day and later that evening a dive in the lake made things even better! 🙂