Our long-time Technical Director, Bob Morikawa and I agreed we had never been on a trip like this one. Combined, we have over forty years of traveling for Plant With Purpose, and quite a few years of trips before that, yet this visit to the Democratic Republic of Congo stood out. It was amazing in every way. I might have thought it was because this was my first trip to the DRC, but Bob had been there four times previously. And it wasn’t just us. Local villagers felt something special was happening as well, saying to one another, “Is this a dream?”
Plant With Purpose has been working in the Kakumba watershed south of Uvira, in South Kivu, since July, offering the transformational Plant With Purpose package: agricultural training, reforestation, savings groups, and Christian outreach focused on empowerment and reconciliation. We have established a total of ten savings groups in four different villages and farmer field schools are working on locally chosen agricultural experiments all over the valley. Fifty thousand trees have been planted and farmer-managed natural regeneration of forest is being taught.
A number of things make Kakumba unique however. The DRC is our first new country program since we refined our watershed approach a few years ago. Focusing on the whole ecological unit has brought together communities that have been linked by conflict as much as geography. Indeed the history of conflict in the region is deeper and more horrible than is easily imagined making reconciliation a key element of our work. Our local partner, with employees and participating pastors from seven different tribes, is a living demonstration of this reconciliation.
A key part of this trip was a multiple day hike from the bottom of the watershed to the top. We would spend the first night at our field office in the town of Gomba near the midpoint, then visit another one of our participating communities before ultimately camping on the edge of the forest at the top of the watershed. As we learned in the baseline study last year, the higher you go in the watershed the poorer and more malnourished people tend to be.
The main “road” linking the top to the bottom is a six-inch wide trail that climbs 6600 feet alongside sheer cliffs and over rocky ledges and until recently, through several unofficial militia checkpoints. When hiking in the US we often curse endless switchbacks, but I quickly grew to miss them, since this road tended toward a much more direct approach.
We had hoped to visit all of our communities with savings groups, and then evaluate ecotourism opportunities in the Kirwa forest, where many of the locals have stories of mountain gorillas. However, it turned out the trip had a far deeper meaning than we had suspected. Community members saw it as a sign of a new day of peace. By the time we reached our campsite in the forest, 46 people were hiking with us, representing six or seven ethnic groups. There were ex-combatants, five village chiefs, government officials, several pastors and four wazungu.
In each community along the way, we were received with joyous welcomes. People would tell us about the changes they were beginning to see through the savings groups and the increased yields from the new farming techniques. Men spontaneously shared how our Biblical teaching on work had inspired them to get out of their houses and begin helping their wives with the farming. “Maybe if we work together we can do something great,” one man told me. And over and over, people remarked on what a miracle it was that such diverse people could sleep in the forest without fear. “Perhaps peace has really come.”