Exchange of goods and services has never been easy for people who live on the border between Rubavu district in the western parts of Rwanda and the city of Goma in the eastern Democratic Republic of Congo. It is estimated by Rwanda immigration authorities that around 22000 people cross that border every day as they are involved in cross-border trade. .
This exchange had been going on from generations to generations but people who are involved faces tough challenges as they informally trade between these two borders. The large majority are poor people who earn less than two dollars a day. “Abakarani” in local language are people who carry goods on their back, head or using bicycle. They are mostly dominated by women, young men who have to carry heavy bags full of products crossing both borders.
Any observer to this trade would sympathize with these people given their relentless courage. They have to go through tough immigration controls on both side of the border in addition to having to bribe policemen. I happen to be at the border as Rwanda and DRC were celebrating their independence day and could not imagine if really these people are living in the 21st century. Almost everyone I talked to was crying foul on the circumstances in which they are working in.
Domitila Babyiruke is 41 years old and a mother of three. She contracted poliomyelitis when she was young and had been a handicap ever since. She is part of a cooperative of over hundred handicaps who own bicycles that transport goods from both side of the border. Her bicycle has been transformed in a way that it can carry more than half a ton of goods. She told me that she is hopeless as every day brings further complications to their trade.
A look at her bicycle just reveals you how innovative human beings can be when their livelihoods are threatened. She employs three young men who help her to push the huge bicycle packed with all sorts of goods. Sitting on top of her packed bicycle, she told me that poor people involved in cross-border trade have been left to themselves.
Recently a three moths US$ 50 was announced by Congolese authorities for all citizens from Rwanda going to trade in DRC. This measure came to further deteriorate their working conditions and it was a surprise for the Rwandan government. DRC, Burundi and Rwanda are part of The Economic Community of the Great Lakes Countries (ECGLC) which is a sub-regional organization with multiple vocations created by the signing of the Agreement of Gisenyi in Rwanda on September 20, 1976.
One of the aims of this community was to promote the trade and the traffic of persons and their possessions between member states. Surprisingly DRC authorities ignored its mandate in this community and announced a visa fees to vulnerable people who are already working in “stone ages” conditions. This measure not only harms people from Rwanda but also Congolese citizens living in Goma who buy almost everything from Rwanda.
I engaged a group of women from both sides of the border as they were busy carrying heavy bags on their back and heads. They told me that they are facing excessive taxes that they most of the time pay without any receipt. “On the Rwanda side everything is well organized but as you cross to Goma that is where things become so complicated”, confided Florence a 23 years old Congolese woman. They questioned how DRC authorities think cross-border traders will be getting visas fees when they earn less than 2 dollars a day with huge families responsibilities.
Theoneste Ndagijimana a 43 years old citizen from Rubavu district in Rwanda pointed out to me how most of goods flow from Rubavu district to Goma. As a result of a long conflict that has plagued the Eastern parts of DRC, its citizens don`t cultivate as they fear armed groups. Women who used to till their lands can no longer go to their farms for fear of being raped. This is one of the reasons why they resolve to source almost everything from Rwanda.
“If Rwanda takes the same decision as DRC, where citizens from Goma would be sourcing goods they need on a daily basis”? Questioned a group of men and women I was engaging in a discussion. Theoneste said that Rwanda and DRC governments should sit together and discuss so that their citizens can freely exchange goods and services they need. Citizens from both side of the border exchange agriculture produce, milks, groceries, sugar, oils, water among many other products. Banking, education, transport, healthcare among other services are also exchanged.
Cross-borders traders have also to pay bribes and suffer harassment. Women and men I talked to revealed me that they have to bribe policemen more than 50% of their meagre income. This situation is worse on the other side of DRC`s border where I observed policemen harassing women carrying goods and small infants. They forcefully ask for bribes and most of the time confiscates goods of people who fail to do so. These goods disappear and traders have to bear losses every time they cross the border.
In spite of huge potentiality that cross-border trade provide to DRC and Rwanda, respective governments haven`t unfortunately created favorable working conditions to their cross-borders traders. Although a glimpse of hope is still far away, there is a hope that a day will come when trade will flow from both side in a conditions that are respectful to human beings.
Africa is home to all and artificial borders that had been erected since colonial times are only there to harm social and economic development of the continent. It is therefore high time for these borders to be lifted up so that Africans can exchange goods and services as it had always been before colonialism.