… though impoverished and utterly remote with no school and no health care.
In 2007 the TL2/Lukuru project made its first landing at Obenge and soon it became our first base camp along the Lomami.
About Obenge: it first appeared on maps in the early 1920s.
The Belgians had plans to develop all the Lomami north of BeneKamba, and were not deterred by an exploratory medical study that stated: “Above the mouth of the river Elipa, there is a fourth tribe (along the Lomami). It is a wretched population living in very small villages in what is mainly uninhabited forest.”
From: J. Schwetz 1930 “Deux voyages d’études Medicales et Paramedicales dans le Bas Lomami.”
The colonial history of Obenge is still visible in the forest as vestiges of a rubber plantation. The rubber trees (Hevea) were planted by the Lomami and Lualaba Company as it tried to push its holdings further south, upstream along the Lomami. Colonial enterprise abandoned wild rubber and started planting rubber plantations in the latter 1920s. Perhaps the Hevea trees at Obenge were planted in the 1930s. But it was a long reach to generate enough revenue to justify such a remote site. Obenge did not prosper. Perhaps just the distance? Or perhaps because south of Elipa, the river becomes too shallow for reliable year round access? Or is it because the European plantation manager committed suicide?
Whatever the reason, the plantation was no longer tended. Forest ineluctably grew over and through the plantings. Most of the Mbole workers left more than a generation ago moving back west, but a small nucleus of people that had come from the east, parents to the present day population stayed. Was it love for the land? Lack of opportunity elsewhere?
The Obenge we found was small. Our census in 2012 showed 39 families who could claim to be 2nd or 3rd generation and that lived and farmed in Obenge.
We found out soon, Obenge was not only small, it was also deeply divided. As from the time of Cain and Abel, the strongest antipathies are within a family.
Guillaume Kapere was the chief we found in place. He was replaced by his cousin, Marie Longbembengembe; who was appointed by the territorial administration in Opala soon after our arrival. Kapere used his allegiance to the TL2/Lukuru project to mark his legitimacy as leader; Longbembengembe used her relations with an infamous elephant poacher as her basis of power.
How did the people of Obenge survive after the plantations of the mid-20th century and before we came in the early 21st century? True, the village could grow food in the good soil; it could hunt and fish for protein, but how could the villagers get money for salt, medicine, and clothes? Or for marriage, settling disputes, and sending their children to school elsewhere?
Answer: bushmeat. At least for the last decade and a half, bushmeat is the cash staple. Along with the 39 families there were close to the same number of rotating bushmeat buyers. They paddled up from Opala with salt, baubles, clothes, and medicines, and they traded directly for bushmeat. The exchange rate was in favor of the merchant; the hunter was often left in debt. The debt was to be paid in future bushmeat.
Another potential source of revenue: The forest near Obenge has the main remnant elephants of the middle-Lomami. They are concentrated in the nearby basin of the Tutu, tributary to the Lomami. When we first came, however, large scale elephant hunting seemed mainly a thing of the past.
There were plenty of elephant bones scattered on the forest floor, but the main poachers were in jail. The infamous Colonel Thoms and the coldly vicious Major Ranger. They were both from ethnic groups further south in Maniema and Sankuru Provinces, the Balanga and the Djonga.
Obenge village seemed ready to rid itself of this recent past. The chief participated in the arrest of another elephant poacher soon after we arrived. He too was from the Balanga, coming from the south.
It was a good time to make a park. Bushmeat traders are usually not criminal; elephant poachers, on the other hand, with military weapons and often with connections high in the army, can be boldly criminal; they act untouchable.
But for the park, Obenge’s very existence was a problem. A National Park cannot have any permanent habitations within its borders. Obenge would be illegal, though only a remote speck, in bend after bend of unbroken green along the Lomami and barely visible even in a low-flying plane where horizon-to-horizon is forest – still, Obenge would be illegal. And would its existence in the park serve as a cover for poachers from far as well as near?
The easiest solution – even though the nearest village to Obenge is more than 70 river km downstream, about 40 km as the crow flies- was just to redefine the park borders so that Obenge was sitting on the edge and outside, but keep the Tutu River and other areas of major elephant population on the inside.
ICCN (the parks service) will accompany the park proposal through the National government. We discussed how to draw the borders with them, the administrative authorities of Opala and traditional authorities. The sector chiefs objected. John’s modified map would exclude the sectors of Walengola Babira and Mituku Bamoya. The chiefs insisted that their sectors had extensive uninhabited forest on the east bank of the Lomami. Why should they be excluded from the park because of a single small village?
They wanted the contours below:
Could Obenge give up bushmeat and become an agricultural enclave? The TL2 project tried an experiment with cabbage, beans, green peppers, eggplant.. They grew well on Obenge’s raised beds. There was a huge crop. But where was the market? Where could the vegetables arrive without rotting first? If there was no market, gardens provided no substitute for the easily transported smoked bushmeat.
With our outboard motor a dugout can get to Opala in two days, but already the cost of fuel surpasses the selling price of the vegetables carried. And Opala is not a good market. It is a small town surrounded by good agricultural land, vast fields of rice. Could Obenge get its produce to the much larger market of Kisangani? Not and make any money, it was another three and a half days by motorized dugout.
Here is a comparison of 2016 prices for more durable garden produce versus forest produce from the market in Kisangani, price in dollars per kilo:
At a traditional ceremony within the village of Obenge, chief Longbembengembe and her elders agreed to the park in general.
At a later ceremony amongst the Lengola and Mituku the chief of Obenge agreed to move out of the park – with conditions:
Help moving, help building, help clearing the forest, help with food until their first gardens produce rice and manioc. And they want better social conditions: a school and a dispensary.
Our TL2/Lukuru project certainly did not have the money for this. We turned to the bilateral and multilateral donors who said that they would have funds for the Lomami Park: World Bank (through their PrePan program), GIZ (german aid), GFA (a consultancy group representing the conservation initiative of KfW – the german development bank — in DR Congo).
The chief Marie Longbembengembe is chief of a groupement (geographic area including a few to many villages). Her request is that the new Obenge remains in the same groupement even if north of the park. Then she and her people would still have their own forest to hunt in and they would be guests of no one.
So what help could the big funders give? None of them could actually help with the physical move, that would go against policy. But World Bank (PrePan project) said that it could help with a preliminary study to determine costs and then help once the village had moved. GIZ said it could finance a development project, but not the relocation of a village. KfW said basically the same thing, they had to avoid the criticism that they participated in “forcing” people out of the park. World Bank, however, would make a study of what building a new village would cost. Our interpretation was that there was money for all except the original move out of the village. Things stalled.
Should the TL2/Lukuru project help with the first step? It would involve not just fuel to move all the families and their possessions by dugout, but much more: temporary housing, putting in gardens… But worse: what if we could help with these first steps and then no one was there to help with the second and third steps? We waited for the study by World Bank.
In the meantime –late 2011- there was a seismic change for the elephants and a realignment of alliances in Obenge village. Ranger had finished his two-year prison term for poaching and was back in the forest. Thoms had escaped from a life prison sentence for massive rape and torture after little more than a year’s incarceration. He was back in the forest. At first we did not suspect the importance of these two events.
Thoms came to Obenge. It became general knowledge that he took the chief as his concubine. Did he? It is true that he stayed in her tiny house and called our team leaders to her house where he told them they could go about their business, but he would go about his. His business was killing elephants.
About this time two army deserters joined the ranks of Thoms’s band. Though unknown to us, the news had moved to the top ranks of the Army. Because of who these deserters were, their association with Thoms was considered a national threat, a rebel army in the forest. Two hundred military marched on Obenge.
February 2013: Two hundred military arriving on the banks of the Lomami across from Obenge was another seismic change. Thoms band dispersed. There were numerous arrests; in shoot outs boys from Obenge, aligned with Thoms, were killed; military were killed by Thoms gang. The military used our Obenge-based team as guides.
**** a graphic and disturbing photo follows ****
Escaping alive was not enough for Thoms. He was not about to leave Obenge in peace with its new military corps. He circled around. Vavis, Guillaume Kapere’s son, explained what happened:
“Thoms lived in the outer gardens for two days, fed by the chief Longbembengembe herself. Then the chief called on the men of the village to go chop down a tree to make a dugout. Her cousin, Kapere knew where a good tree was. She told them to do it on Friday even though the usual community work day is Saturday.
When far from the village and close to the tree, Thoms and his men stepped out from the forest with their guns on the men. The others were forbidden to move, Thoms walked away with Kapere.
It was 6 days later, a lone fisherman smelled decay close to the shore, further upstream. He stepped into the forest, followed the odor until he found the maggot covered remnants of Kapere. He had been tied to a tree, whipped to death and then the lashings were cut and he fell to the ground.”
The military arrested Chief Longbembengembe and sent her to Kisangani. Complicity.
But still there was no peace. There were attempts on the life of Alacho, who served as chief in the absence of both Kapere and Longbembengembe. The villagers no longer felt safe; husband and wife could no longer walk out alone to work in their garden. Each family began to build a raft to flee.
Alacho told Bofenda, the TL2 camp leader “We agreed to move. Where are you now when we need you?”
The village dispersed. Many went downstream to Opala, others towards the Lualaba River, to Bimbi or even Muchaliko, others to relatives in Kisangani.
It was tempting to think of this as a solution, a tragic solution, to the problem of Obenge, the village in the park.
What’s more, the elephants, at least in the core Tutu area were probably better protected than for the previous two years. Thoms was on the run without the stability he needed to organize poaching missions.
But this was no real solution.
For one thing: the bandits were not permanently incapacitated. Far from Obenge to the northwest of the Park, Ranger’s band burned our camp at Lohumonoko and tortured the three men who were in camp.
They then burned three villages along the Lomami River.
For another thing: Most of the people of Obenge were in Opala where they had neither land nor houses. It was when visiting Opala in 2014 that we saw the penury of Obenge’s displaced.
“Find us some forest, a home of our own. We are afraid to return and yet you do not help.”
In November 2014, TL2 project decided that it had to at least start the first steps with all the concerned administrations: the province, the territory, the sector and, of course the village itself. Willy Mekombo, our program manager, brought everyone to a meeting in Kisangani including the chief Longbembengembe who was now freed from prison. The villagers announced their choice of site, Bangaliwa, a village abandoned at the beginning of the 21st century in the last years of the rebellion.
The displaced villagers, with TL2/Lukuru staff, and representatives of all the authorities took off for Bangaliwa that December, seven km due north of the park limit.
The chief surrounded by her people held a traditional tambiko, a ceremony to bless the new site. It was also to honor the ancestors’ graves that they would leave in Obenge.
Willy returned to Kinshasa confident that the move was off to a good start.
Alas, sorting out support from the bi-lateral and multi-lateral donors still seemed impossible. GIZ did the simplest thing: “We can buy materials,” they said. They put roofing metal, mattresses and a chain saw in a container in Kisangani, 30,000 dollars worth. A good start. But the materials still sit in the container waiting for a go ahead from the other big donors or ICCN. Obenge waited.
Finally, months later, the chief and a handful of people paddled back up to the original village site of Obenge. Chief Longbembengembe said they had to start their rice gardens.
“We will not continue to live off the charity of others.”
At the original village, the Obenge forest is already cleared, planting easy. A TL2/Lukuru team is still based at the Obenge site along with a remnant of the 2013 military contingent. The chief knew they would help in case of need.
This was a disaster: Recalcitrant settlers return to settle in the middle of the soon-to-be Lomami National Park. It looked like the park would lose all the progress made. And what would happen to them once the park was declared? For the sake of the people of Obenge as well as the park, we could not wait any longer.
In December 2015, Willy started a second mission with Simeon Dino. Dino has been with the TL2 project since 2007 and knows well all the original citizens of Obenge. The TL2 project bought an initial quantity of roof metal, nails, machetes, shovels and a chainsaw. Dino chose, Louison Bakatunga, who has worked beside many of Obenge’s villagers in the forest for years. He would be Chief of Operations on site at Bangaliwa, or, now, Obenge 2.
Half a year later, it is still only the TL2/Lukuru project on site. But progress is being made….
16ha have been cleared, 13 of the workers are from Obenge. A house has been built for the chief and she is planting a garden….
Still the challenges are enormous… With our limited means will we be able to convince the whole village to relocate at Bangaliwa – and not return to Obenge 1?
The new Obenge2 has many advantages. It is near three other villages. Together they are a large enough population to warrant an elementary school and a medical dispensary. And it is closer to Opala, the nearest market, and there is a forest trail that leads to Ubundu. Already a first group of Obenge citizens is putting in their rice and manioc gardens….