VITSHUMBI, Democratic Republic of Congo — On the face of it, Vitshumbi is a typical contemporary Congolese town: there is no running water, no electricity and no paved roads.
Belgian colonialists put up the only brick buildings more than half a century ago. The local economy has collapsed under the weight of national corruption and neglect.
At first glance, it might seem that Vitshumbi has been stuck in reverse since the end of colonialism. You might think there is little hope here.
But nothing could be further from the truth. Fishermen here are choosing to return to their collective way of doing things and are surviving much the same way they did before colonial times.
Vitshumbi is also protected from the violent chaos afflicting the rest of North Kivu province by the large expanse of Virunga National Park.
The residents of this town have come a long way to get back to this point.
It’s been a tumultuous 60 years for independent Congo. There was the American-assisted assassination of Patrice Lumumba, a leader who represented hope but, to American displeasure, espoused Marxism.
Decades of staggeringly corrupt dictatorship followed under the leopard-skin-fez wearing President Mobutu Sese Seko. There have been only two free elections, the first in 2006.
There has been an armed separatist movement in copper-rich Katanga, and countless smaller local rebellions mostly in the east. There were two multi-year wars that blurred into each other, sucked in regional armies, spewed out refugees and caused the death of millions. Infrastructure has crumbled and life expectancy and average income have fallen.
But in Vitshumbi, a town that clings to a bay on the southern edge of Lake Edward, residents are looking back before all the war, before the colonialists came.
These days, hippos wallow in the shallows and kingfishers perch among the reeds. Old-fashioned dug out canoes beach on the muddy shore. Some have outboard motors, others hand-stitched sails. In their bellies lie neatly folded fishing nets, strings of floats made from cork and torn up flip-flops, and piles of pebbles for weights.
A mile or so along the shore is what’s left of the town’s industrial fish factory, built by the Belgians. The roof of the cold storage warehouse has collapsed. Overgrown prickly pear trees reach through the rusted crossbeams. Hellish marabou storks stand silent sentry on the roof’s exposed ridge. The doors and windows have all rotted away.
It has been nearly two decades since the Vitshumbi Fishing Co-operative last functioned.
Built by the Belgians and taken over by the Congolese state, it fell into disrepair in the mid-1980s when the fishermen got sick of delivering their goods and getting nothing in return. Their money was being stolen, perhaps by local officials, or maybe regional ones, or even the national government. It was never really clear.
So the fishermen went back to doing what they had always done, organizing their own cooperatives to catch, smoke or salt fish, and then selling it locally. It was as if the colonial experiment in industrialization never happened. And in a way it didn’t because it was never really for the local people and it never really meant anything to them.
The Belgians built the infrastructure so they could export Lake Edward’s fish for their own profit, just as they built lakeside villas on Lake Kivu or railway lines that ran from the Katanga copper mines to Kinshasa’s port, barely stopping in the villages along the route.
The town is now healthy, thanks to the fish, and largely protected from incessant violent rebellions by the national park.
But Vitshumbi’s people are not immune to the region’s troubles. Taxes have shot up since rebels annexed a large chunk of territory between the lake and the provincial capital Goma, the main market for Vitshumbi’s fish.
“Business is not good,” said Yalala Sekanabo, the 42-year old head of the town’s women’s fish trading cooperative. “We pay school fees, buy food and build our houses from the fishing business but now we have no profit because the taxes are too high.”
Traders said that the journey to Goma’s markets used to cost $150 in government taxes. But rebel checkpoints have pushed the price up to $370, wiping out their slim profits.
The fishermen know, however, that it could be worse.
“Compared to the people in the countryside we do better. They suffer so much, they are chased from their homes,” said Musafiri Paluku, a 37-year old fishermen who moved to Vitshumbi four years ago in search of a safer, more prosperous life. He has a boat, 50 nets and two assistants.
Today the fishermen sense a new threat, another alien imposition from the West that they fear will change their lives for the worse.
For years they have known there is oil in Lake Edward, occasionally it bubbles to the surface in slicks that last for days at a time. But now, with government backing, a British company is seeking to exploit the oil.