Guest post by B
As part of my official duties, I had the opportunity to visit rural northern Congo in the Likoula Department that borders Cameroon and the Central African Republic (CAR). This was my first trip to northern Congo. I visited the neighboring area in Cameroon a few years ago which was incredibly remote and inaccessible.
Africa is immense in its size. Yes, there are large cities like Kinshasa, Lagos, and Nairobi with millions of people but the rural zones make up the vast majority of the continent. Outside the cities in Congo, cell signals are non-existent. Banks, schools, and government offices are often multiple days walk or motorbike ride away. For scale, check out this map that shows what can fit inside the borders of Africa as a map of where to find Betou.
Betou, in the Republic of Congo (ROC), was incredibly remote. I travelled on a UN plane and stayed in relatively upscale accommodations with running water and generator fed electricity provided by the local timber company. Water and electricity are luxuries in Betou and most people do not have either. I joined members of the UN office in Brazzaville, the Congolese government and other members of the diplomatic community to see first-hand the conditions of the refugee community and local population living in the area. Many of the nearly 30,000 refugees living in the area have fled waves of violence in recent years in the neighboring Central African Republic or Democratic Republic of Congo. Some walked from as far away as Rwanda after the 1994 genocide.
You know you are going on an adventure when you make and unscheduled stop in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) to refuel. We actually stopped in Mbandaka, the site of a May 2018 Ebola outbreak. Since the stop was unscheduled I did not have my passport or DRC visa with me. As a colleague told me, “Hey, DRC! No passport, no visa, no problem!” Normally, crossing the ROC-DRC border is extremely time consuming and often a frustrating process. Not this time!
Betou feels like it is at the end of the earth. There is no visible presence of the Congolese government except for a few military soldiers on six-month rotations. It is hard to find symbols of Congo like flags, government offices, or local officials. The schools and health clinics are funded and run by the UN. The conditions are difficult for the local Congolese as well as the refugee community that lives alongside the locals. Most of the assistance provided to the refugees is used by the local community as well including the schools, health clinics, and small economic livelihood projects like farming, livestock, and artisanal craft shops. Many of the refugees from the Central African Republic have chosen to return home due to the difficulty of living in a place like Betou.
As part of the trip to Betou, we boarded boats and went up the Ubangui River near the border with the Central African Republic. We stopped at the town of Ipkengbele to meet with the head of the village and see some of the UN projects that benefit the local community and refugees. We were greeted by singing children which was a nice treat. The men of the village provided security for our delegation. The security was essentially the men walking in a bubble around us with their hands joined together. Wild!
Betou was three hours over land from the nearest dirt airstrip at Enyelle in the Likoula Province. The drive takes you through heavy forest that is part of the Congo Basin. Major timber concessions have been allotted to various timber companies that are logging larges swaths of the dense woodlands. Our hosts, Likouala Timber, are the only game in town. They provide the electricity, the jobs, and serve as the center of life in Betou. Likoula Timber cuts down the trees and processes them for finished lumber exports, and exports them by road or river for overseas markets. What can’t be processed gets dumped (literally and physically) outside of their factory for re-sale. What can’t be sold ends up being made into charcoal. Outside of Betou huge ovens make charcoal that is loaded onto the timber trucks and send down country for sale.
It’s hard to imagine and explain how remote you feel in a place like this. The roads were muddy from the rain. The heat and humidity was killer, like a mid-August day in Washington. Mobile phone networks were spotty at best and a satellite phone is a much better option. In order to go on a mission like this, work requires that I carry a significant amount of equipment in case of emergency.
The trip was quite the adventure. I’ll likely have to make a return trip in the coming months. At least next time, I’ll know what to expect. It is quite the experience that I’ll get to talk about for a long time.