January 9, 2016
GOMA, DEMOCRATIC REPUBLIC OF CONGO — Sifa Nsabimana had just crossed from Rwanda into Democratic Republic of Congo when a border police officer told her to pay a value-added tax of 500 Congolese francs (54 cents).
Nsabimana, a Rwandan who makes a living by selling tomatoes every day in DRC, showed the officer her receipt, proving that she had already paid the tax, which is imposed on all cross-border petty traders. The officer took the receipt, and an argument ensued.
Eventually, Nsabimana, who lives in Gisenyi, says she paid the tax again — another 500 Congolese francs — to ensure that she would be able to do her business in Goma that day.
The cities of Gisenyi and Goma hug either side of the international border that divides Rwanda and DRC. People from both countries trade goods with one another on a daily basis. Traders from Goma bring tarpaulins, fabric and other items to Gisenyi. Rwandan women often take food products, including milk, cabbage, carrots and beans, into DRC.
Cross-border trading provides a survival economy for an estimated 22,000 traders, who are primarily women, and their dependents on both sides of the border, according to a 2010 report by International Alert. Ninety percent of traders pay informal tariffs at the Goma border crossing, the report found, and most of those tariffs are enforced by physical harassment. In fact, 70 percent of cross-border traders from both countries report facing harassment from police or the military, the report states.
There are no export taxes for food leaving Rwanda, but tariffs are steep — 25 percent — for people who import agricultural goods, according to the International Alert report.
That tax advantage, as well as competition between formal and itinerant traders, create tension between women from the two countries. Suspicions between the two groups can run deep.
“Personally, I cannot buy food commodities from Rwanda,” says Ushindi Mastaki, a Congolese shoe seller. “Most of such commodities like meat are spoiled, and those women from Rwanda often sell milk at low price because they know full well that such milk is unfit for consumption, thus exposing us to diarrhea.”
Nsabimana says she has been chased from the Marché Central de Virunga — the Virunga Central Market — by Congolese traders.
Anyone who pays an annual stall rental fee has the right to sell at Virunga Central Market, says market president Faustin Kambale, but no female Rwandan trader has ever asked for a stall in the market when one was available.
Anyone who harasses a trader could face punishment, says Muya Nzengu, a border police official in Goma.
There are problems related to cross-border trade, but Papy Michel, head of the Goma office for the Trade Information Desk of the Common Market for Eastern and Southern Africa (COMESA), says the practice yields huge benefits.
“Despite political wars and conflicts that are waged between Rwanda and DRC, these structures of small-scale traders contribute to socially consolidating peace in both cities as part of peace-building efforts,” he says.
Nsabimana, 39, borrowed 3,300 Rwandan francs ($4.43) in 2009 to start her cross-border trade business after her husband lost his job as a primary school teacher.
Nsabimana often walks to Goma with two other women from her neighborhood. They take plantains, potatoes, onions and other goods to exchange for secondhand clothing, then they resell those clothes in Gisenyi.
“I spend all my days crisscrossing the neighborhoods of Goma from 6 a.m. with my 9-month-old on my back and a basin filled with tomatoes on my head, and I return home around 5:30 p.m. before the border is closed at 6 p.m.,” she says.
The work brings critical income to Nsabimana, her husband and her four children. That income helps her pay her daughter’s school fees, and she’s saved some money in a bank account, she says.
Nsabimana hopes that the tax situation at the border will improve. Right now, she says, various people demand cash, and it’s not always easy to know who she’s required to pay.
Prices should be fixed for taxable foods to avoid illegal tax collection, Nsabimana says.
But even if they’re not, she’ll still cross the border.
“I have no other means to survive,” Nsabimana says.
Ndayaho Sylvestre translated this story from French.
Esther Nsapu translated some interviews from Kinyarwanda.