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Inside the Green Rope

DR Congo, January 23, 2009

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  <span class="field-credit">
    Roger Burks/Mercy Corps  </span>
    Women wait behind the green rope for their turn to be called to collect firewood. Photo: Roger Burks/Mercy Corps
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  <span class="field-credit">
    Roger Burks/Mercy Corps  </span>
    Furaha Maombi, 32, stands amidst the firewood she is helping distribute to camp residents. Photo: Roger Burks/Mercy Corps
  • 
  <span class="field-credit">
    Roger Burks/Mercy Corps  </span>
    Mercy Corps field assistant Mamy Muvughe (right) calls out names to step inside the green rope to come collect their firewood ration. Photo: Roger Burks/Mercy Corps
  • 
  <span class="field-credit">
    Roger Burks/Mercy Corps  </span>
    Camp residents stand next to their assigned piles of firewood after their names are called. Photo: Roger Burks/Mercy Corps

It's firewood distribution day here in Buhimba Camp. Hundreds of women, most of whom are elderly, have lined up to wait their turn. A green rope goes up along the perimeter of the wood yard where the distribution will take place.

About a dozen people — camp residents hired by Mercy Corps to help out with the distribution — are busy taking wood from a huge pile and arranging it into parcels of two or three logs. They are meticulous about this task, making sure that one parcel doesn't look significantly bigger than the others. After all, these are the wood rations that will last each displaced family for the next few days, and fairness is paramount.

Furaha Maombi, 32 years old and the mother of five young children, is among those helping Mercy Corps in today's distribution. She fled a rebel attack on her village and, with her family in tow, walked more than a day to get here. That was more than a year ago. Since then, nearly all the trees have been cut from the once-forested hillsides that surround the camp — tinder for the stoves of more than 13,000 people.

One of the reasons for providing wood to the residents of Buhimba and camps like it is to keep families from harvesting wood from nearby Virunga National Park, habitat for some of the world's only surviving mountain gorillas. Mercy Corps brought this wood from a town south of here on Lake Kivu. It was chopped and collected from sustainable wood sources such as acacia and eucalyptus plantations, taken by boat across the lake, then trucked a short distance to the camp. 

Provision of firewood is a short-term solution to a precarious situation. Not only does the status quo threaten Virunga National Park, but when women travel long distances to get wood, they often fall prey to rape and other violence along the way. These distributions, combined with wood-efficient cookstoves and tree nurseries for reforestation, protect both women and the environment.

At 10 a.m., the distribution begins. Mamy Muvughe, a Mercy Corps field assistant for this camp, begins calling out names. "Maria Konga ... Mohinda Kasheka ... Nira Kabanga," she shouts. Then a young man yells out each name again to make sure it's heard.

When their name is called, each woman bends under the green rope and enters the wood yard. The first three women walk with canes. They come and stand by the small piles of wood — which average 15 pounds — that they will take home.

After all 10 names for the first group of women have been called, they simultaneously stoop, pick up their firewood, tie it on their backs or place it on their heads, and then exit back under the green rope.

The next group is called. One especially elderly woman tries to pick up her pile before the others. Furaha asks her to wait. A bit of an argument ensues, but the old woman's friends calm her down. There must be order and procedures, but also dignity and respect — and that's not easy in a situation like this.

As this group bends to pick up their firewood, an old woman with a very crooked back is having trouble. Furaha rushes to help the woman, then proceeds to carry it all the way home for her.

The spaces that have been emptied are now being filled with new stacks of firewood. In all, 500 families will be served today. That amounts to more than 7,500 pounds of wood. And there's another distribution scheduled for Monday.

Furaha and the others who helped today will receive $30. She has been chosen by a camp committee based on need; the ones selected were especially poor when they arrived here or can't find work. In another 10 days, her rotation will be over and more camp residents will fill those jobs for a chance to earn precious income.

Four hours after it began, the distribution is over. The green rope comes down and the area clears of crowds. 

Soon, there's the distinct — and very African — scent of cookfires. And despite the daily hells of life in eastern Congo, for a moment it smells like home.