Cesarine Maninga carrying a load of charcoal,
which she sells at a local market in
Bukavu, Democratic Republic of Congo.
Years of war — when men were off at
battle, killed or returned to find no work
— gave eastern Congo its legions of female
bearers. ‘‘I don’t have a choice,’’
Ms. Maninga said, bitter resignation in
her voice. ‘‘I have to feed my family.’’
It’s around 6 in the morning and the sun is slowly rising, a clear sign that Cesarine Maninga must leave. In one practiced movement, she straps a 50-kilogram sack of charcoal to her back, tosses the rough rope around her head and trudges off toward Bukavu, capital of South Kivu province in eastern Democratic Republic of Congo. Ms. Maninga, 43, is just one of hundreds of women who ply this trade each day, lugging loads of up to 100 kilograms, or 220 pounds. On this morning, she hopes to sell makala — dry charcoal used for heating and cooking. She will walk almost 10 kilometers, or about six miles, with the heavy load, a trek she makes at least twice a week. ‘‘I don’t have a choice,’’ she said, bitter
resignation in her voice. ‘‘I have to feed my family’’ — 11 children, and an unemployed husband. Women like Ms. Maninga are a common sight on the streets of Bukavu, striking not for their looks but for the outsize burdens they carry. In French, they are les femmes transporteuses; in Kiswahili, they are called babeba mizigo. Whatever the language, the job is the same: Female carriers are human pack horses. Several international surveys haverated Democratic Republic of Congo as the world’s worst place to be a woman. Often, these studies focus on gender violence. According to a study published in the American Journal of Public Health last year, 48 Congolese women are raped every hour. For years, various militia and rebel groups have used rape as a weapon to destroy communities. Across eastern Congo during these years of war, women have acquired an added burden, that of bearing heavy loads. Horses, donkeys and trucks are too expensive, residents say. The roads, if any, are so bad that the few miles between Ms. Maninga’s mountain shack and Bukavu are nearly impassable, except on foot.
In the city, the bearers shuttle goods between the lakeside harbor and the market; they also act as home delivery service for well-off shoppers. They carry everything from cassava and bananas, sugar cane or flour to charcoal, sand and firewood. Each woman carries hundreds of kilograms of goods per week. There are no meal breaks or health and safety considerations — just more miles to walk for as little as one to two dollars a day, barely enough for a measure of flour or rice. In this region, where war in the 1990s decimated industry and agriculture, food is mostly transported from elsewhere, and thus relatively expensive. And it was the years of war — when men were off at battle, were killed or returned to find no work — that gave eastern Congo its legions of female bearers. In this patriarchal society, women are
traditionally in charge of caring for the family. In the war years, when an estimated four million to five million peopledied in bloodshed and because of disease and starvation, many men were gone. Even after those men who survived had
returned, women continued to shoulder their loads so their families could eat. Few women here are educated. Although the literacy rate is around 67 per cent of the adult population, according to Unesco, many girls don’t go to school at all because their parents struggle to pay the school fees. Women are poorly represented in political institutions.
In Bukavu, that is slowly changing.
Ms. Maninga may not know it, as she weaves expertly though the early morning flood of motorbikes, cars and people, her slight frame bent under the weight of the sack of makala. Although her bare feet sink in thick mud, she moves with
grace; when she talks, one has the impression that bearing her load is of no more consequence than carrying a
purse for a Parisian. Female activists are less accepting. ‘‘Women carrying goods is an unusual job,’’ said Solange Lwashiga, executive secretary of a local nongovernmental group the South Kivu Congolese Women Caucus for Peace. ‘‘Unfortunately, it has become a fashion in D.R.C., especially here in Bukavu. Women have replaced machines. Women have replaced vehicles.’’ Esperance Lubondo, who owns boats that transport goods into Bukavu’s harbor, tired of seeing women crowding in to unload her vessels. ‘‘This job is so dehumanizing,’’ she said, that she decided to establish an Association of Women Carriers to improve conditions. Working from a small room at the market, Ms. Lubondo is ready to assist female bearers who seek her help. Herassociation, funded by donors and tiny contributions from members, offers
women members microloans between $50 and $100 so they can abandon the bearing business, at least for a while,
and in the best case build up another way to make a meager living. Ms. Lwashiga is clear that women should be given more opportunities to start their own business. ‘‘There are women in the D.R.C. who are entrepreneurial,’’ she insisted. ‘‘So if you give like $10 to a Congolese woman, I tell you that in a month, you’ll find $30.’’ Stella Yanda, who heads up a nongovernmental group called Initiatives Alpha, noted that this would also help end what she sees as double discrimination. ‘‘For the same amount of goods, men are paid better than women,’’ she said, getting 1,000 Congolese francs, or about $1, while women barely make 500 francs. Ms. Yanda and Ms. Lwashiga also want to see legislative change that would cap the weight of bundles allowed at 50 kilograms. Carrying jobs are not easy to get. At Beach Muhanzi, one of Bukavu’s biggest markets, female carriers wait idle for hours. ‘‘We carry the sand from boats to the market,’’ said Jeanette Cibalonza as she waited to find a client. ‘‘We carry around 50 kilos of sand every day.’’ Nearby, another woman who declined to give her name said she had been carrying for 32 painful years. Her earnings are just enough for a daily plate of corn flour and vegetables, she said. Carrying heavy loads inevitably has repercussions on the women’s health — from muscle soreness and cramps to sharp back and neck pains or even brain damage from ropes tied around theforehead that share the weight of the heavy sacks. Ms. Maninga returns home exhausted. She complains of constant headaches and backaches; she once broke her arm carrying a bundle. ‘‘Sometimes I carry this bag without
eating anything, and when I take it off I feel dizzy,’’ she said. Then she shrugged. ‘‘I’m used to it, and I cannot stop.’’
Ms. Lwashiga agrees. ‘‘I don’t see this job disappearing any time soon, unless we have women in decision-making levels who would change the current situation,’’ she said. On this day, Ms. Maninga got lucky. A customer wanted the charcoal, and healso wanted the load delivered to his home. Ms. Maninga will earn around $3 but must wait four or five days to get
paid. Until she has the whole sum, she cannot buy a new load to sell. When she fails to sell her burden, she has to carry it all the way back to her shack in the mountains around Bukavu. Today, she has no load but is not carefree. There is little to eat at home, and she has mouths to feed. The hardest part of her day is yet to come: Creating something out of almost nothing.
‘‘Women carrying goods is an unusual
job. Unfortunately, it has become a fashion
in D.R.C., especially here in Bukavu.
Women have replaced machines. Women
have replaced vehicles.’’