One thing is for certain: the women of Inga are self-sufficient. They grow avocados, oranges, bananas, cassava, nuts and beans. They harvest medicinal plants to tend to their sick. Nearly everything they consume comes from their own land.
These women work hard to make ends meet; their husbands are unemployed and agriculture has become their only source of income. They have been abandoned by the Congolese government and starved of essential services, including water, energy, schools, hospitals and roads. Yet these women have been able to survive for decades because of the river and forest.
And though their industriousness is impressive, they have been waiting for decades for promised electricity and jobs that would make their lives easier.
These women live near the Inga Falls, rapids on the Lower Congo River in the Democratic Republic of Congo. In the 1970s and ‘80s, the Congolese government built two large dams, Inga 1 and 2, to harness power from the river. The government promised the dams would bring jobs and electricity to villages in the dam’s vicinity. More than four decades later, neither has materialized.
“They give jobs to people from far away, not to our husbands and children,” says a woman. Though the mothers spend a lot of money to send their children to school, the children end up joining their mothers in the field.
Electricity access has proven elusive as well. To this day, the villages of Kilengo, Lundu, Lubwaku and Mvuzi 3 have no electricity, even though they fall within a 20-kilometer radius of Inga 1 and 2 dams. Some women have lived all their lives without ever bringing a light bulb into their homes. They use firewood and charcoal to cook, and candles to light their homes.
None of the villages has running water. At Camp Kinshasa, a former workers camp that is now inhabited by a mix of displaced people from Inga 1 and 2, former project workers and their children, girls must queue for hours to fill their buckets with water from the only tap located in the village, which serves over 10,000 inhabitants.
Despite these challenges, the resourceful women of Inga have carved out lives and livelihoods for themselves. But now they’re facing a new threat.
Though Inga 1 and 2 were spectacular failures, DRC has set its sights on a new project on the Congo River: Grand Inga. The Congolese government plans to try and exploit the river’s potential yet again by building the world’s largest proposed hydropower plant. The first phase of the project, Inga 3, will send power thousands of kilometers away while yet again bypassing the people at Inga. My organization’s economic analysis of the project shows that it will likely plunge DRC deeper into debt, while doing nothing to help ordinary people.
It may, however, throw ordinary people, including the women of Inga, out of their homes. In 2014, the World Bank estimated that the dam will displace nearly 10,000 people if built — women, men and children whose livelihoods entirely depend on the river, land and forest.
We met with women from Kilengo, Lundu, Mvuzi 3 and Camp Kinshasa, all villages that would be affected by Inga 3. They told us that life is not easy in Inga, but at least families can make a living. “Here we have fruit trees. If we move elsewhere, where would we get money to buy fruits for our children?” says Ngimbi, a woman from Mvuzi 3. Another woman described caring for a paralyzed family member; she wondered how the family could move this person if they were relocated.
The women all described facing the same challenges: no electricity and uncertainty about what the future holds. Each woman had a story to tell. “Where would we go? At least here we can farm, sell our products, and use the money to send our children to school,” says a woman from Kilengo.
It pains me to think of what will happen to them if they are relocated. The population of this camp has grown over the years; some long-time residents have been waiting for compensation for the effects of Inga 1 or 2 for over 50 years. They don’t deserve another setback. “No to Inga 3, first we want to reap the benefits from Inga 1 and 2,” the women told me.
Their struggle is not only about access to energy — they are also fighting a corrupt and unjust system. It is a system that places them at the bottom: They are the last to receive energy or any other benefits from development projects. Why should the DRC government send energy miles away while the people whose livelihoods have been destroyed to make way for the largest energy plants in the country live in the dark?
I believe that development should begin at the bottom — a “trickle up” effect. Many infrastructure projects occur in rural areas, where people are poor and vulnerable. And DRC, despite being resource-rich, is one of the poorest countries in the world. History proves that these projects leave affected communities worse off, trapped in a cycle of poverty. What if Inga could benefit the Congolese women first, the women who work hard to send their children to school?
Energy access is a human right, whether one lives at Inga or at Kanyabayonga in Eastern DRC. It is also our right to fight a system that we believe will not bring development to our nation, but continue to extract our resources for the benefit of others.
Is it right to sacrifice the lives of women, children and men to provide power for the few elites? Or should we rethink this model of development? Let’s say no to Inga 3, and yes to energy that will light up Kilengo, Lundu, Mvuzi 3 and many other villages across the DRC.
Ange Asanzi is International Rivers’ Africa Program Associate. Born in DRC, she now lives and works in Pretoria, South Africa.