In Rural DRC, Paved Road Could End Travel Frustrations and Bring Prosperity

 

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During the rainy season in DRC, the road that stretches between Walikale and Goma, which might be a major regional thoroughfare were it maintained, becomes a riverbed, with rainwater flowing swiftly as people attempt to drive. Judith Faida Luuko, GPJ DRC
Democratic Republic of Congo

Walikale is rich in natural resources. But the single route in and out of the remote mining town is a muddy morass – and more river than road in the rainy season.

WALIKALE, DEMOCRATIC REPUBLIC OF CONGO — The sense of adventure is palpable on the road that shoots west out of Goma, the capital of this country’s North Kivu province.

There are mountains in the area of Masisi, a town about 80 kilometers (50 miles) from Goma. Descending them, travelers can feast their eyes on savannah grasslands before reaching a virgin forest.

For most, the destination is Walikale, North Kivu’s largest territory and richest mineral patch. It’s also home to nearly 1 million people who grow crops, raise animals and produce goods.

But despite the region’s incredible natural resources and agricultural offerings, Walikale is extremely difficult to access. The stretch between it and Goma is about 230 kilometers (141 miles). Online mapping tools suggest a travel time of just under seven hours. In reality, the trip can take days (in the case of motorbikes) or weeks (for ordinary cars). Drivers behind the wheels of big trucks report trips that have taken months.

The road, though it could be a major trade route, is not paved and often softens into an enormous stretch of mud. During the rainy season, water flows where driving lanes should be.

Conditions on the road prompt poetically grim words of warning from frequent travelers.

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The road that stretches between Walikale, a mineral-rich area in rural DRC, and Goma, the provincial capital, is unpaved and turns into a mud pit much of the year.

Judith Faida Luuko, GPJ DRC

“Travelling by road to Walikale remains a real ordeal, and all road users are warned they must uproot the weed of impatience in their heart for fear that the road might get the better of them,” says Alain Salumu, a 27-year-old motorbike taxi driver.

But for the many desperate travelers – and those who would travel had they the wherewithal to endure the strain – there is a glimmer of hope: the promise of pavement.

The Congolese government and communities that line the road petitioned MONUSCO, the United Nation’s stabilization mission in the war-ravaged country, to refurbish the motorway to meet modern standards.

The U.N. mission agreed, noting that a paved road would go far to serve the organization’s own agenda.

“The road, once rehabilitated, will allow for greater mobility of our troops and that of the DR Congo army across the region,” says Sy Koumbo Ghali, a MONUSCO spokeswoman.

If all goes according to plan, work will begin in 2018, Ghali says, adding that mining companies that work in the area will help pay for the project. Budget details are confidential at this stage, she says.

Valentin Hangi, a financial advisor to the provincial government, describes a slightly more complicated situation. A handful of local partners will begin work while foreign funding is finalized, he says.

“We’re working directly with our partners to look into ways and means of embarking on quick fixes, pending sustainable solutions,” he says.

Alphamin, a Canadian mining company that has a major tin operation in Bisie, an isolated area near Walikale, was named as a potential funding partner. The company has already built smaller roads for its own purposes that local communities also use. (Read more about Alphamin’s mining work in DRC here.)

If the paving project moves forward, the results could be enormous.

The road between Walikale and Goma is 230 kilometers (141 miles), but the trip can take weeks.

“We don’t have to be a genius to understand that roads are the engine for economic development,” says David Muhimya Bonda, a youth leader in the Walikale area.

Local people expect that travel times on a paved road could max out at a mere 10 hours for a car trip between Walikale and Goma. The benefits of such a fast travel time, they say, could ripple throughout the region, boosting the economy and making life easier across the board.

“Today, living in Walikale is no piece of cake as the cost of living has soared across much of the territory,” says Prince Kihangi Kyamwami, the secretary general of Bureau d’Études, d’Observation et de Coordination pour le Développement de Walikale (BEDEWA), a local organization working to improve Walikale’s business sector and infrastructure.

Basic goods are priced so high that they are out of reach for many of the area’s poorest people.

A salt packet that might cost 32 cents in Goma sells for up to $1.50 in Walikale, he says. A bottle of beer goes for $3 – triple the price tag found in Goma. And a bag of cement? That’s $45, instead of the $13 charged in the provincial capital.

The area is covered with rich soil, but farmers and traders struggle to get their crops to markets.

“I used to sell cabbages, beans and potatoes; but today, all I’m doing is selling secondhand clothes,” says 37-year-old shopkeeper Wivine Machozi. “I couldn’t prevent the rotting of my goods due to delays in transport on the poor roads.”

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The trip between Walikale and Goma can take weeks or more because of the road’s poor conditions, even though the distance is only 230 kilometers (141 miles.)

Judith Faida Luuko, GPJ DRC

In Walikale, the poverty of many local people is jarringly juxtaposed with the area’s natural wealth. Cassiterite, diamonds, gold, bauxite and many other coveted minerals and elements are plentiful here.

Yet so far, only deep-pocketed mining companies can afford the high costs of getting those resources to far-flung markets. Alphamin’s tin mine is widely expected to be profitable once it begins production in 2019.

But local people can’t afford to fly such resources out of the area to buyers, even if they were able to establish safe, locally-owned mining companies.

“Unfortunately, converting the territory’s wealth into people’s well-being is a long way off, and people remain mired in misery,” says Vicard Batundi, 40, a native of Walikale and a local civil society activist.

As they have for generations, many Congolese simply press on.

Machozi says her children won’t eat unless she gets on the road to sell her secondhand clothes. So, dressed, like an athlete, the shopkeeper climbs onto a motorbike taxi to set off.

“Yeah, this is Congo, but what else do you think we can do?” she asks.

Ndayaho Sylvestre, GPJ, translated the article from French.

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