Lomami’s Wild West

From the earliest colonial era through the present, Balanga West has always been too far away to matter.

in a Balanga West classroom
A classroom as it now is in Balanga West.

Balanga West is the one hole in the map of our own inventories of 2007-2009. Not because we thought the Balanga West forest was unimportant, it was just too hard to get there.

TL2_block_coverage_in 2008
When we mapped the density of our walked-inventory coverage over the Lomami forest, a hole remained in the Balanga West zone.

Our supplies came from nearest big towns of Kindu and Opala. Balanga West is the most isolated zone– the farthest point from both north and south.

C. Current supply routes and colonial plans
The area of Balanga West is far from both of our supply routes. It’s southern town of Bene Kamba dates from the 19th century. The yellow dotted lines mark the foot paths that the Belgians intended to turn into roads, but independance interrupted operations.

It was the Arabs, before the Belgian colony, who penetrated Balanga West. Elephants were then numerous west of the Lomami.

A. grainy picture of ivory caravan
A 19th century photograph of an ivory caravan in the Belgian Congo.

In the 19th century their supply lines carried ivory east to Zanzibar. Long foot caravans wound through the forests, stopping at the rest point, Bene Kamba, a village that still exists in Balanga West.

B. 1894 map of TL2 region
The village of Bene Kamba on a section of an 1894 map which showed the Congo Free State. The approximate locations of Opala and Kindu are shown although they did not then exist.

Chef Bene Kamba
The chief of Bene Kamba in his village as it is today — not so different from a 120 years ago.

Later, in the first half of the 20th century, the Belgians multiplied rubber and palm oil plantations throughout the most arable of the colonial lands. Balanga West had good soil for agriculture, but how to get anything to market? The obvious route would be the Lomami River except it is not a waterway for commercial cargo. Its long meanders double fuel consumption and at low water there are sand bars and rapids to negotiate.

1943_Belgian Congo transportation map
This 1943 map indicates that the Lomami was not a commercial transport river.

Roads were the other option. Roads from the Lomami to the Lualaba/Congo. The Belgians were working on these, but with independence in 1960 the engineers and wages left (yellow dotted lines on map above).

The roads leave much to be desired
Even roads on the east side of the Lomami are now in poor shape; most are only used by bicycles and motorbikes.

Balanga West became more and more isolated. People left to settle nearer towns. Only the most attached to the land remained.

salt for last resident à Kandolo
This old man is the last resident in the village of Kandolo in Balanga West. Olivier of TL2 is here leaving him with some salt.

The schools were no longer funded, there was no phone coverage, no medical care and there was no market where the people from Balanga West could sell goods and earn cash.

school and students in Yalombe
Children still study although no state money comes into the school and teachers are only paid – in kind – by parents.

Our first contact with people from Balanga West was on the foot path connecting west to east. People from Balanga West carried out huge packs of bushmeat to sell in the east.

carrying bushmeat load from west to east
This Mulanga youth is carrying bushmeat from Balanga West (Kakongo) to the road head in Balanga East.

This was their only source of income. In 2008 we sent a socio economic team to evaluate the situation.

Dino's tent in Balang West village
One of our team’s tents at the end of this Balanga West village.

The Balanga West reputation was this: violent, stubborn, proud. Unfortunately isolation can lead to easy delusion, particularly when there is someone with charisma and a good reason to want to mislead his neighbors.

Col Thoms, prison escapee, murderer, rapist and elephant poacher, is a mulanga from Balanga West. After escaping from the high-security prison, Ossio, he moved to the remaining elephant forest, north of Balanga West, in the territory of the Mbole.

Spy glasses were used to take this video as Thoms refused any cameras during his discussion with the governor’s representatives. He agreed to no longer fight.

He was chased back to Balanga West not for the poaching, rape, torture and murder he committed among the Mbole, but rather because he interrupted commercial traffic on the Lualaba/Congo choking commerce in Kindu. Thoms returned to his home forest and wasted no time exciting the Balanga youth into a militia. He hid amongst them.

three young men from Balanga West
Youth of Balanga West…

His message to the most gullible of the youth was “The Congolese State and TL2-Lukuru will bring the Park here. They want the Park to grow. They will chase us from our forest. It is our duty to destroy them.” Magic would protect them. Grigri would deflect the bullets.

2. blood on the ground
Blood on the ground after a shoot-out between military and Thoms’s militia.

What followed was bloodshed. Thoms set a trap for our dugout, but we had prior knowledge and the dugout was filled with military.

Military head toward Balanga West after village attack
Military in dugouts head downriver towards Balanga West.

The number dead will never be known. 2016 was a hard year: Thoms militia attacked our camp Katopa. The buildings and 40 houses in the adjacent village were burned to the ground. It was only because of one brave woman that we escaped a massacre. In Kakongo, there was rape and pillage. In August 2016, through the efforts of our project, ICCN and the government, a truce was established.

Dancing their surrender
Our camp in Bafundo was used for the ceremony when 136 of Thoms’s militia crossed to the east to turn in their weapons and surrender.

One hundred and thirty-six militia fighters walked out from Balanga West. They laid down 23 army rifles with chargers and bullets. They met with the general of the 33rd regiment. They danced. Thoms did not come. He knew he was a wanted man.

rifles turned in
Their rifles and chargers were turned in, at our camp, at night.

The first trip into Balanga West after the cessation of hostilities included a strong government delegation. They spoke with Thoms, they said the park would not grow, they said the Balanga West peoples could hunt in their own forests.

5. Machozi donne noms des animaux en Kilanga
Machozi, Thoms’s sister, now helps Olivier with outreach in Balanga West.

Our steps are still tentative but positive. We work with Thoms’s sister, Machozi. Others in his family have reached out including those that were leaders in the militias.

Younger brother Thoms, Pharaon, gives gift of bananas
Thoms’s brother, Pharaon, gives Olivier a gift of bananas.

Our goal: to bring the Balanga to manage their own forest. Create a community-controlled protected area, one that will help the communities to refuse outside hunters who now set 100s of traps at a time.

Aid for school children_Ngombe village
Representatives of the parents accept school materials for their children.

But the Balanga are still very cautious. They are not all convinced that we don’t want to expand the park and move them out. Why else would we be there? It is critical to show good intentions.

Balanga West welcomes the “jeton” system. It gives them the possibility to legally take their bushmeat across the park without being accused of hunting in the park.

projet jeton Kakongo
Bushmeat is identified and counted, then the person carrying it is given a voucher, or “jeton”, that he will present when the meat is again counted on the east side of the park.

But how do we show a true sense of collaboration, a readiness to bring Balanga West into the larger society. The Balanga West kept their elementary school running despite great odds. If we can help them build real school buildings and get the school re-registered with the state – it would be a true collaboration.

the 6th grade at Yalombe
Sixth grade class in Yalombe, Balanga West.

It would be done with the help of the parents and chiefs. Someone has already generously proposed 20,000 dollars to build a proper elementary school in Yalombe, Balanga West if we can raise the matching funds. We estimate the total cost to be 36,000 for 6 classrooms and a director’s office. This includes moving metal roofing first by bicycle, then dugout and then head-loading it to Yalombe.

If you can contribute to the match that is needed please use paypal in the right sidebar OR write to lukuru@gmail.com to learn where to send a check or other payment methods.

By building a strong and self-managed buffer zone in Balanga West, we strengthen the park. Please join us!


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