KISANGANI, DEMOCRATIC REPUBLIC OF CONGO — After sending her five children off to school each morning, Mamisa Kalisaya turns her attention to her aubergines.
For six years, she grew bumper crops of the purple vegetable on a vacant lot across town where several hundred women farmed produce to support their families. At age 33, she expertly navigated a 4-kilometer (2.5-mile) round-trip commute, riding a motorcycle taxi several hours per day. Now that local authorities have reclaimed the 37-acre (15-hectare) property for housing needs, her harvest has moved to just outside her front door – with a much smaller yield.
“I have not been working in my large plot for a few months now because it has been taken away from me,” she says, adding that her income has dropped from $50 a week to $10 due to the space limitations of her kitchen garden.
Kalisaya is one of Kisangani’s “market gardeners,” a title used by hundreds of women, typically unmarried or widowed, who cultivate vacant lots and sell produce to support their families.
A population boom has forced authorities in Tshopo province, of which Kisangani is the capital, to reclaim public land for much-needed housing development. The land may have been free, but the true cost has turned out to be high: The loss of livelihoods for about 500 families, combined with loss of an affordable, accessible food supply, has put the region on the verge of a nutritional crisis.
Françoise Mbuyi Mutombo, GPJ DRC
Last year, one eggplant cost 100 Congolese francs (5 cents). Today, it sells for 10 times more – turning the household staple into a luxury item for Tshopo province, where the average monthly income is 60,678 francs (about $31), according to the most recent household survey, conducted by the national statistics office in 2016.
“The population that used to feed itself with its own vegetables, which are cheaper, is beginning to wait for imports from neighboring provinces with a high sale price,” says Francois Lemba, a social worker with Les Amis de Nelson Mandela pour la Défense des Droits Humains, a community organization that has provided agricultural training to market gardeners.
“We market gardeners plant vegetables in our plots not only for our families but also to feed the population,” Kalisaya says. “The authorities should think before chasing us out of the spaces to build houses, particularly of the life of the population because there is an important food crisis in the city.”
Congolese fleeing violent conflicts in other parts of the country have fueled explosive growth in Kisangani, one of DRC’s largest cities. According to United Nations estimates, the city grew from 859,008 people in 2010 to 1.26 million in 2020.
Local authorities say the situation urgently requires more housing construction and note that they give a six-month notice before taking over any fields.
“These spaces have always been for the state,” says Tshopo Interim Governor Maurice Abibu. “These women farmers were cultivating in the meantime – it was not given to them for good – and today the government wants to take their spaces to build the building that will also help the population for dwelling houses since Tshopo commits a problem of overpopulation.”
Market gardeners admit they ignored the warnings, due to their lack of alternatives and hope that officials would either change their plans or make other sites available.
Although they agree that housing is badly needed, they feel strongly that authorities should have tried harder to come up with another solution and must now bear responsibility for any consequences.
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Claudia Lomboto, 36, says she’s struggling to keep her two children in school since losing the plot where she cultivated tomatoes for the past six years. As awareness grows of the wider ripple effects of the public land reclamation, she says, perhaps authorities will make it a priority to help her and the other women get back to work.
“It is my job as a market gardener to plant tomatoes and sell them; that made my children study, buy clothes and eat,” she says. “Now we are left without anything. The state should give us even a little place to work.”
A mother of five, Annie Kuga, 39, used to earn 25,000 francs (about $12.60) on a good day from the sale of the tomatoes, eggplants and spring onions she grew for the past seven years.
All she needs is a small piece of land, she says, or at least an opportunity to work on someone else’s farm.
“I don’t know how to take care of my family since I lost my workspace,” she says. “I don’t have a degree, but I have the strength to work in agriculture, which is my favorite job.”