Monday, March 05, 2012 posted by Boryana Dzhambazova
It’s around 6 am. The sun is slowly lifting in the sky, a clear sign that Cesarine Maninga has to leave. With one skillful move she straps the 50-kilogram sack of charcoal to her back, tosses the rough rope around her head and hurries out the door of her small shack in Mushekere, a small village at least 15 kilometres from Bukavu, capital of the Congolese province of South Kivu.
Cesarine is heading to the city to sell makala - dry charcoal that locals use for heating and cooking. She will walk the whole way, carrying the heavy load on her back. It’s excruciatingly painful work and she has to make the journey at least twice a week.
“I don’t have a choice. I have to feed my family,” she says with a bitter acceptance in her voice. The huge sack of makala is three times her size. As she balances it on her back she looks much older than her 43 years.
Her husband can offer little help as he is unemployed and the burden of supporting her family of 11 children rests on her shoulders. Literally.
Cesarine is one of the thousands of Congolese women, whose job it is to carry heavy loads of goods. They are a common sight in the streets of Bukavu. But it is not the woman who captures one’s attention but rather the huge bundles that come in all sizes and colours.
In French they are known as les femmes transporteuses are; in Kiswahili they are called babeba mizigo. The job is the same whatever language they speak: women carriers are human pack horses and the job title is as brutally blunt as the job itself.
Due to a number of economic, social and cultural reasons the transporting job, usually done by donkeys or trucks in other countries, in Bukavu is assigned to women. They shuttle goods from the harbor to the market and they act as the home delivery service for well off market shoppers wanting their purchases taken home. They carry everything from cassava, a staple crop in Africa, sugar cane, flour to charcoal, sand and fire wood.
Each woman carries hundreds of kilograms of goods, sometimes even tons per week. There are no meal breaks or Occupational Health and Safety considerations in this job, just more kilometres to walk. At the same time these woman are paid as little as one to two dollars per day, barely enough to buy a measure of flour or rice.
No Place to Be a Woman
Congo is almost the size of Western Europe. The UN estimates its population around 68 million people. Even thoughthe country is rich with natural resources, most of the population lives in extreme poverty. For years the Democratic Republic of Congo was torn apart by war that claimed the lives of estimated four-five million people and left the country in ruins. Respect for the basic human rights of women rates little mention. Although the literacy rate is around 67 per cent of the adult population, many girls don’t go to school at all because their parents struggle to pay the school fees.
The incidence of gender violence is so high that Congo is considered the worst place to be a woman. According to a study published in the American Journal of Public Health last year, 48 Congolese women are raped every hour. For years different militia and rebel groups have used rape as a weapon of war, the cruelest way to destroy local communities.
But sexual abuse is not the only hardship Congolese women face. Poverty, unemployment and financial insecurity have doomed many women to live a life of everyday struggle for survival. Congolese women are often discriminated against and unequally represented in the political institutions.
This is a patriarchal society and it is still a common perception that women’s main responsibility is to get married and have children. As unemployment has escalated, women are increasingly forced to offer their services to transport goods just to keep their families alive.
The number of women carriers drastically increased in the nineties when endless conflict, especially in the Eastern part of the country, resulted in a severe humanitarian crisis. Factories shut down and many people lost their jobs. Even now that the situation in the country is relatively stable, jobs remain scarce.
By 8 am Cesarine is only just approaching the outskirts of Bukavu. It’s a busy market day. Like an expert she weaves her way through the never-ending stream of motor bikes, cars and people flooding the streets in the morning. Barefoot, her feet are sinking in the thick mud covering the streets. Her slight frame bends over under the crushing weight of the makala. Although the sack is almost as big as she is, she moves as gracefully as a ballet dancer on her way to the city centre. But first impressions are deceptive.
Now women are speaking out against a practice they say is more than humiliating. According to them being forced to carrying sacks, bags or baskets that sometimes weigh up to a hundred kilograms is inhumane.
“Women carrying goods is an unusual job. Unfortunately it has become a fashion in DRC, especially here in Bukavu,” says Solange Lwashiga, secretary of the South Kivu Congolese Women Caucus for Peace.
“Women have replaced machines, women have replaced vehicles,” she adds.
Head of the Association of Women Carriers, Esperance Lubondo agrees. “This job is so dehumanizing that I decided to set up the Association so we can improve the condition these women are working in,” she notes.
“It’s like exploitation of women,’ says Stella Yanda who heads up a non-governmental gender organization called Initiatives Alpha. She warns that women suffer double discrimination.
‘For the same amount of goods men are paid better than women. For example, men are paid double than women. Men get 1,000 Congolese franks [around $1] while women can barely make 500 [around $0.5 ]. At the same time men carry goods for a short distance while women carry goods for kilometers,” she says.
Adding to their hardship, carrying jobs are not easy to come by. At Beach Muhanzi, one of the biggest markets in Bukavu, women carriers are waiting idle for hours so they can get a job.
“We carry the sand from boats to the market, we carry around 50kg of sand every day,” says Jeanette Cibalonza who desperately hopes to find a client before nightfall.
“The money I earn is insufficient. I can only buy a plate of corn flour and vegetables with it. It’s a painful job and I have been doing it for 32 years,” complains another woman.
Inevitably, carrying tons of goods for years has devastating repercussions on the bodies and health of women carriers. The result can go from muscle soreness and cramps to sharp back and neck pains to brain damage for those who have the loads secured on their foreheads.
By the time Cesarine gets home she is completely exhausted. She suffers severe headaches and backaches all the time. Once she even broke her arm while carrying her bundle.
“I feel very bad when I carry my sack. Sometimes I carry this bag without eating anything and when I take it off I feel dizzy,” Cesarine admits. She shrugs her shoulders and adds: “I'm used to it and I cannot give it up”.
She lives together with her husband and children in a small shack in a village high in the mountains. As Cesarine is the only bread-winner, the family is struggling to make ends meet.
Little Hope for Better Future
Gender experts urge the government to take some action and adopt proper regulations that can improve the working conditions for women carriers. While she acknowledges that the practice is here to stay for the time being, Solange Lwashiga and Stella Yanda want to see legislative change that would cap the weight of bundles allowed at 50 kilos.
“I don’t see this job disappearing any time soon, unless we have women in decision-making levels who would change the current situation,” says Lwashiga who blames the combination of extreme poverty and the fact that politician ruling the country didn’t do much to improve the standard of living of Congolese people.
The Association of Women Carriers promotes a different approach. It offers women carriers who are members, micro-crediting between $50 to $100 so they can support themselves.
Lwashiga suggests that women should be provided more opportunities to start their own business. “There are women in the DRC who are entrepreneurial. So if you give like $10 dollars to a Congolese woman, I tell you that in a month you’ll find $30,” she says proudly.
For the time being Cesarine’s capacity to exercise her entrepreneurial spirit is limited to wandering around Bukavu, her shoulders sunk under the burden of the sack, until she finds a buyer for the makala. If she fails to sell it, she has to carry the load of makala all the way back to her home.
Today Cesarine got lucky. She has found a customer who wanted the charcoal delivered to his home. She’s going to make around $3. But she has to wait to get paid for at least a couple of days. Until she gets all the money she can’t afford to buy a new load of makala.
Today the mother is returning to her village burdenless, but not careless. She knows there is precious little to eat at home and she has mouths to feed and dinner to prepare. The hardest part of her day is yet to come: creating something out of nothing.