The road from Kajiji to Kahemba: a personal reflection on rural community development
During our last visit to Kajiji and Mukedi, I tasked myself to take a closer look at the cell phone enhancer packages that these two hospitals had purchased. They are both well outside the range of the cell towers in nearby towns, so the only means of communication is the two-way radio which is expensive and inconvenient for most of the population. We had great success with the cell phone enhancer in Nyanga so we thought we would try in Mukedi and Kajiji. Unfortunately, it hasn’t been easy. Until recently, we weren’t able to find a location where the enhancer could pick up a signal.
In Kajiji, I suggested that we take a motorbike with the equipment and a battery to test some other locations closer to the cell phone tower. What started out as a mostly technical task ended up being a great (mostly) non-technical experience for me for which I am grateful.
On one of our testing trips, I learned that the owner of the motorbike I was riding with was a young woman who drove all the way from Angola for her fistula operation. Think about that for a moment – bumping around with that condition for days on a motorbike and having to maintain concentration just to hold on, not to mention dealing with the border crossing and dangerous diamond routes. In understand that Kajiji hospital serves many patients from Angola.
I also had lots of time to take in the scenery as we whizzed along as I wasn’t driving. I saw kilometer after kilometer of lush growth and fruit trees all along the 50km stretch we were on. We passed through several small villages with lots of children and adults together. Without stopping, Makupa (the nurse-turned-antenna-installer-and-excellent-driver) yells out the status of our mission to the curious onlookers who asking whether we’ve got a signal yet. I wondered what in the world we were trying to do with this antenna. What good would it do anyway? The basic physical needs of the population aren’t being met, and we’re essentially installing a phone? I began to think that although this phone and internet connection would offer a link to the outside world for some and that would be good, that perhaps there were other more significant benefits of us taking a couple of days to explore the options. I thought that maybe the connection with people along the way was a very good thing for me and perhaps for them too.
We had a flat tire a couple of times. This actually turned out to be a good thing! One time, we were quite close to a village and so Makupa suggested with a smile that I could test the antenna while he fixed the tire. There were several families sitting in the shade under a giant mango tree so we pulled over there. As we assembled the pieces for the antenna and asked someone to climb up the tree to hold the antenna, I sat and observed some of the many small children who were obviously curious about the presence of a white man who couldn’t speak and had appeared out of nowhere. I tried waving to some of them and some came to shake my hand. Another small boy who must have been about 2 years old was terrified of me and hid behind an older friend or family member and peered out from time to time to make sure I wasn’t moving in his direction. The uncle laughed and laughed at the boy for being so timid and then we all started to laugh. We got what seemed to be a very good cell connection but unfortunately our amplifier wasn’t strong enough to send back a signal to the tower (3 watts is the maximum strength for consumer products in North America). So after taking the wheel apart twice and reinforcing the gaping hole in the rear tire, we packed up the antenna pieces and started again on our way to the health center. The other day we had a signal there and we were hopeful to have enough of a signal to make a call.
We arrived a few minutes later at the health center which had been recently painted on the outside. We quickly unpacked the equipment and found a long bamboo pole to attach the antenna to. In a room close to where we test, there is a bare room with a single red maternity bed. Presumably, the woman who came to Kajiji for a fistula operation gave birth on a bed similar to this one and as obstructed labor is purported to be the leading cause of fistula onthis continent it is quite possible that during childbirth she developed her fistula. As we walked to a second location close to the building a large group of barefooted children followed us in anticipation of something, anything happening with this weird man (me) and this even weirder metal box and black cable. Unfortunately, I noticed a lot of hospital waste as we walked: used needles, empty glass vials and paper garbage. I’ve found this to be typical of the hospitals we work at and haven’t understood why the waste isn’t at least thrown into a pit and burnt. This, the apparent lack of sterilization, and the more general disinterest in keeping health centers clean and safe remains a mystery to me. At some point, we decide that the signal here isn’t strong enough to make telephone calls. So we are disappointed as this was the ideal spot (after the hospital) to set up the antenna. But, we try not to think of this as a failure. At least, I’m thinking that it was worth the effort to try.
The other day, I was at the clinic and I saw a wonderful patch of color on the ground. These were beans drying in the sun. These beans are an excellent source of protein and, if I understand correctly, this particular variety of bean was developed over time from missionaries who brought different varieties of beans from Canada in the 60s and 70s. These beans, tomato sauce, garlic and local rice with a little bit of red pepper is one of my favorite Congolese meals.
Our next and final stop for the last day of testing is about seven kilometers away from the clinic. We must first pass over a river on a small canoe with our motorbike. At first it looks like bit risky, but the boat driver expertly and seemingly effortlessly guides us over. This time there are several older men playing cards and enjoying several very small fish that have been smoked over a small fire nearby. By small, I mean 1 cm by 5 cm. The last time we crossed this river, Makoupa said to me that he was afraid of the water. When I asked him for more details, he says he was afraid of the children fishing in the water. I asked him again, “Why are you afraid of the children? Will they come and tip our boat (and your motorbike) into the water? Do you know how to swim?” He says “no, that’s not the problem”. I wait a bit, sensing that he wants to say something further, and ask him again “So why are you afraid? I don’t understand what you mean.” He pauses and then tells “I had a child who was fishing just like that, near the current, and he drowned.” I say that I’m sorry and we are silent for a moment as we look over the quickly moving current.
We climb out of the marshy river area and up over a small hill – probably 100-200 meters high. But this is the hill that was blocking our signal from the clinic, I think. On top of the hill we find the church again and in the heat of the middle of the day, we try once again. This time we know it should work because it worked last time. But the first test renders nothing. I’m beginning to wonder if this will ever work. Then we move a few feet away and try again. This time it works! I make a few calls to test and the signal is good. I’m sweating in the blazing sun without any cover except for my black hat. I quickly take out my computer and plug in a 2G modem to test the Internet. It works, barely – and so this might be a location where the hospital staff can come and send reports and receive written feedback. But at the very least, they’ll save time and fuel by avoiding 40 km more of travel or 120 km if they go all the way to Kahemba and back. When we’re all packed up, we snack on some left-over pancakes and a couple of bananas from breakfast and are satisfied with the fruits of our labor. Makupa seems still optimistic that we can make the antenna work at the clinic. I’m happy he seems to have taken an interest in this project.
As it is so hot, and we have at least 90 minutes of road ahead of us to return to Kajiji, we pack our things up and return to Kajiji. This time the guys at the river refuse to take us back as we have forgotten to bring money. We wait for a while on the canoe while the river guy explains that he will not move until we pay something. Fortunately, I have a banana in my bag which is readily accepted. In fact, the boat owner and Makupa have a hearty laugh over my improvised payment. As I pass over the water, I wish I could dive in take a swim, but alas we have no time nor do I have any extra clothes with me.
On our way home we pass by a little house – actually just a roof with poles. Makupa tells me this where the men drink palm wine. “They are drinking,” he says as we pass by. Palm wine comes directly from a palm nut tree a little like maple water.
I continue to reflect about what we’re doing on our way back. The chances of this antenna actually being set up and maintained are pretty low – even though hundreds of people could make use of it. It is true that it has the potential of connecting a remote part of the world with family and friends and medical supply depots for the hospital. Perhaps I don’t realize how important that is. In any case, I’ve enjoyed this task and getting to know Makupa – who is now confident enough to continue testing on his own.
On our way back, Makupa, who is also a nurse at the Kajiji hospital, recognizes a young woman who waved to him. She was a recent surgical patient at Kajiji hospital and Makupa stops to say hello and asks how she is doing. I’m delighted because she looks healthy and hopeful.
Makupa also points out several spots where there has been a recent motorbike accident in the sand. I am thankful that we did not have accident. Driving on dry sand can be dangerous as the only viable technique requires driving above a certain speed in order to kind of ski your way through.
When we arrived back in Kajiji (no flat tire this time) I learned that the local ANR (the Congolese version of the CIA) had told the hospital that they would have to cough up $300 to have the privilege to set up such an antenna. I couldn’t believe it – I felt myself getting very angry at the injustice of it. How can anything good happen here if the government clobbers every initiative before it even gets off the ground? I have to choose not to do anything or say anything at this time, because I can’t think straight. After our visit in Kajiji came to an end, the fistula patient, now terribly weak and in post-op pain, flew back to Vanga with us and had to wait an extra 40 minutes waiting for the migration police and other airport officials to clear our plane for takeoff even though they had done the same checks just a few hours before. The usually calm and collected MAF pilot returns to the plane clearly frustrated from the egotistical behavior of the airport officials.
Although our trip wasn’t exactly an amazing technical success, I am grateful for the opportunities I had to explore the countryside near Kajiji. I am also now more aware of the difficulties – some technical but I think mostly political and behavioral – that remote communities such as Kajiji face in their efforts to make life better for themselves. After almost a hundred years of paternalistic colonialism and nepotistic Mobutuism, communities like Kajiji struggle to survive and develop their identity in this new era of opportunistic neo-colonialism. I look forward to visiting Kajiji again in June 2011 when we have our next scheduled hospital visit. Maybe this time I’ll go swimming.