Sunday, December 5, 2010

Encounters with wildlife, Kivu Farming 101 and keeping the faith

The first one is easy; the wildlife has gone away. I'm sure there was a time when the mountains around Lake Kivu were covered with dense tropical forest, but no one here remembers it. Every vestige of the original plant community, and thus potential habitat for wild animals, has been wiped out to make room for crops - cassava, taro, corn, potatoes, beans, bananas, coffee, and the occasional eucalyptus grove - and often on near vertical slopes near the summits of roadless mountains that must take hours to reach.

Native forests remain in some parts of eastern Congo; relatively cheap gorilla viewing is even possible to the northeast of Goma (cheaper than in Rwanda on account of the security risks and treacherous roads on this side of the border, I suppose). But densely populated communities dominate the western shores of Lake Kivu, and a few colorful songbirds, some supersized millipides and the fish on my dinner plate are about all of the wildlife I've seen.

Which brings me to the second topic of the day: Agriculture in the Kivus, or at least the aspects brought up by the esteemed inquisitor Mike Brondi.

Regarding GMOs: I am far from an expert, but from what I have heard, there is a wilt-resistant variety of bananas under development, and it is genetically modified, but it has not yet been approved for distribution. So for the moment, the bananas that Kivu farmers grow, and that our program's beneficiaries propagate, as far as I know, are the descendants of bananas planted during the colonial period and come from unmodified stock. Our organisation does not have an official policy regarding GMOs, since nothing is proven regarding the risk that they pose for humans, but I definitely share the concerns about how corporate interests stand to exploit them for profit at the expense of everyone and everything else.

In terms of what is grown here, again, there is very little "nature" left. Most of the principal crops originated elsewhere - cassava, peanuts, corn and potatoes from the Americas, bananas and taro from Asia. I guess that's true most places, but here what I find shocking is the absolute lack of balance between human needs and the needs of the natural world. There's very little pollution, persay, since the area is so undeveloped, but no one works to protect native species, as far as I have seen. Also, for all of the mountainside cultivation that takes place, there's very little effort to control erosion. The rivers run brown here. But when I point it out, people say, "Oh, that's just the natural color of the water."

Which brings me to my final topic of the day, staying sane in an insane world. As innovative as my project is, there's no guarantee that it will actually change anyone's life for the better. On the days I spend in the field, I encounter many more complaints and pleas for further assistance than I do expressions of gratitude or satisfaction. Personally, I often feel that I have ceded my life (my relationships and the physical activity and independence that I value so much) for a year in order to be here. And yet I am content, for the moment. First, this job is an enormous challenge, and thus an opportunity for growth through perseverance. Then, there is the hope that something I help put into place will in fact have a lasting positive effect, on the food security team members if not for our project benenficiaries in the villages. Finally, there is the continual allure of all that I do not understand - the language, the history, the day-to-day existence, the hidden mountain villages - and these mysteries reveal themselves more and more the longer I stay. I do not consider myself religious at all, but it is perhaps through this search for belonging, for connection, amid the unfamiliar, that I express my faith.


  1. This is a fascinating, educational and beautifully written article, Emily!! You've got a wonderful talent for transporting the reader to your part of the world and allowing one to have a true feeling for what you are experiencing.


  2. You are brilliant, I am so proud, and I miss you dearly. I'm living vicariously through you and relishing every word. Much, much love from California, where the granite still screams your name.



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