When the push for survival is a full-time job

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Times Staff Writer

Every day is a fight for pennies.

At sunrise, Adolphe Mulinowa is out hauling 10-gallon cans of sand at a construction site. It takes him an hour to earn 5 cents. Then he hustles to a roadside with a few plastic bottles of pink gasoline, which he hawks alongside dozens of other street vendors.

“Patron! Boss man! Gas! Gas! Gas!” Mulinowa barks as a battered Peugeot shudders past, kicking a spray of loose rocks at his face.

The car does not stop. Mulinowa, a short man in his mid-30s with sad, reddened eyes, squats down again beside his bottles. It is a scene repeated many times in the four hours it takes to sell them. Mulinowa pockets an additional 40 cents. Then, as the sun goes down, he heads to his evening job hawking used shoes and live chickens. A few more pennies.


After a 12-hour day, he returns home to his wife and six children with his earnings: about 70 cents and a bag of cornmeal swinging from his hand.

“We beat the belly pains today,” he says in a tired mumble. “Tomorrow, more hard work.”

Up and down the teeming streets of Goma, there is no real work as it is known in the West. There is only what everyone here calls se debrouiller — French for getting by, or eking a living out of nothing.

Decades of war and disease, followed by a volcanic eruption that entombed nearly half the city beneath a rough crust of lava, have reduced work to a mishmash of odd jobs and scheming. Civil servants survive on bribes. A lawyer moonlights by making pastries. A single mother of four turns to prostitution in her living room, decorated with pictures of Jesus and Mary.

They are among the poorest people on Earth, surviving on less than a dollar a day.

In the United States, an individual who makes less than $9,310 a year is considered poor. The World Bank sets its poverty line at $730 a year — $2 a day. Half of sub-Saharan Africa’s 600 million people live on about 65 cents a day — less than what an American might spend on a cup of coffee.

It is never enough. In Goma, near the heart of Africa, an average family of seven spends about $63 a month, two-thirds of it on food. With every dollar, they make a choice among competing needs — food, rent, clothes, school and medicine.

Sometimes it is a matter of life and death.

Two years ago, Mulinowa’s little boy, Dieudonne, or “God’s gift,” came down with a fever, cold sweats and shakes. Mulinowa knew that it was malaria.

He took the 3-year-old to a muganga — Swahili for traditional healer — who sprinkled him with water, squeezed the pulp from some herbs into his mouth and sent him home. Two days later, the boy was dead. Mulinowa knows that with 20 cents for medicine to fight the fever and chills, he might have saved his son’s life. But he didn’t have the money.


Neither did the families of three other children in the neighborhood who died about the same time.

“I do not want this to happen to my Annissette,” Mulinowa says of his 2-year-old daughter. “That’s why we work from dawn to dusk.”

In some ways, the Mulinowas are better off than many Congolese. The family’s wooden house, resting on an old lava flow, has a tin roof and some wooden furniture. The walls recently were whitewashed with paint from an aid agency. Their neighbors live in mud huts or houses fashioned from rusting galvanized sheets.

In a town of debrouillards, Mulinowa has learned to exploit tiny advantages. He has figured out that, because Goma has dozens of gasoline vendors, his chances are better two miles away at the Rwanda-Congo border. There, drivers have to slow down and are more likely to notice him.

His family also improves its odds by spreading out during the day, hoping that at least one member will earn enough to buy food.

If Mulinowa doesn’t sell enough gas, shoes or chickens, then perhaps his son, 18-year-old Ivan, will have better luck making deliveries with his homemade wooden scooter, called a chukudu. For a few cents per trip, Ivan ferries goods through a bazaar of vendors hawking their wares, grilling lake fish on smoky coals and blasting the guitar rhythms of soukous stars such as Kanda Bongo Man. Sometimes the merchants also give him small bags of flour or vegetables.


If Mulinowa and his son fail, then daughter Bernadette, 15, might be able to bring in some money selling used clothes, canned sardines or other goods for neighborhood merchants.

The fallback is Mulinowa’s wife, Faith, who struggles to feed her family of eight when a 50-pound sack of manioc flour costs $24; a sack of beans, $17; and a dozen salted fish, $7. Occasionally she receives produce from relatives in outlying villages that she can sell for extra money.

“When you work hard, good things happen to you,” Faith Mulinowa says. “That’s why we make it.”


Goma, on the eastern edge of Congo, is controlled by rebels fighting the central government hundreds of miles away in Kinshasa, the capital. One aid group estimates that at least 3.3 million people have died in the country’s violence and chaos since 1998.

But even a society living on the edge needs civil servants. Men with government seals, such as Pancrace Rwiyereka, a grandfatherly former schoolteacher who runs Goma’s Division of Work, engage in their own version of se debrouiller.

They don’t bring home an actual salary, but the majority still show up for work every day. A government job gives them the opportunity to demand money from businesses and members of the public. Their official jobs are a charade.


“Bribes are the answer,” said a mid-level government employee in the finance department. “Why do you think we would never give up our jobs or strike to get our salaries?”

Authorities require entrepreneurs importing goods to obtain stamps from at least six agencies: the main customs office, an immigration office, a health agency, a separate health office that certifies goods for consumption, the governor’s tax revenue office and a provincial office that collects money from truckers for nonexistent road rehabilitation.

Bureaucrats typically sell the stamps to the businesses at a reduced rate and then pocket the money. If a supervising officer discovers that the appropriate taxes haven’t been paid, he too is paid off.

Bribes in Goma range from about $5 for a birth certificate to about $100 for an import license. But workers have to share the take with colleagues and superiors. So on many days they go home with less than $1. The system ensures that a single bribe will feed several families for a day.

Civil servants say they are merely finding a way to get paid for their services. That’s the way it is here: Ordinary people always have had to scramble to survive. The only ones who have ever gotten rich are the leaders and those with connections.

In the 19th century, King Leopold of Belgium treated the Congo colony as his personal possession. And the late dictator Mobutu Sese Seko, who took power in 1965 — five years after Congo won independence from Belgium — plundered an estimated $8 billion from the treasury during his three-decade rule. In a famous speech, he openly acknowledged the role of corruption.


“Everything is for sale, everything is bought in our country,” he said. “And in this trade, holding any slice of public power constitutes a veritable exchange instrument, convertible into illicit acquisition of money or other goods.”

Or, in the words of a government accountant: “Everyone has to look out for themselves. If you fail, you die.”

So each workday, 61-year-old Rwiyereka dons a brown jacket over a secondhand Izod shirt, grabs his briefcase and heads for a sparse office at the Division of Work. The beige walls have been stained by tropical rains that pound through the leaky tin ceiling.

Rwiyereka has jammed his desk next to a window so he can catch a narrow shaft of sunlight. Several months ago, looters stripped the electrical cables from the building.

From the window, he sees lush jungle and fertile, black land that once made this area the breadbasket of Central Africa. The hills are rich in fine hardwoods and minerals, including coltan, which is used to make computer chips in Asia and cellular phones in Finland.

Despite this natural wealth, some Goma residents believe that the gods have cast them into hell. When it rains, lava still cooling after the eruption of Mt. Nyiragongo in January 2002 emits clouds of steam that envelope the city. The pungent smell of sulfur sometimes wafts in through Rwiyereka’s window. Often, the bowels of the volcano rumble, forcing methane gas to bubble up in nearby Lake Kivu.


At his desk, Rwiyereka points to two stacks of letters from workers. He says that those who want him to investigate grievances have to bring in their own paper so his unpaid secretary can pound out an official response on his manual typewriter.

Rwiyereka chuckles when a visitor asks whether he and the 27 staffers in his office take bribes.

“I try to tell them that is not allowed,” he says. “But they have mouths to feed. They and I know that having a job that doesn’t pay is better than having no job at all.”


There was a time when people thought that there was a way out. In a country where the vast majority of the people are illiterate, a college education would put one among the elite.

But Diane Kavuo has learned the hard way that even with a diploma, she needs se debrouiller.

Her father, who owned a small trucking business, poured most of the family’s earnings into educating the brightest of his 11 children. It seemed like a ticket out of endless need.

Kavuo, like many people in Goma, speaks five languages — English and French, and three African languages: Swahili, Lingala and Kinande. She also has a law degree. But the chaos of Congo’s civil war shattered her plan, and today the 28-year-old lawyer helps the family by selling fritters in the market.


Months go by without Kavuo earning a penny in fees from her legal cases, most of which involve unpaid loans of perhaps $100. Sometimes, lawyers groups pay her way to attend human rights conferences across Africa, where she highlights the plight of child soldiers and of women who have been raped by militiamen.

Kavuo spends her per diem money on handbags, lotions and cosmetics, which she brings back to Goma and gives to hawkers to sell. She uses her profit to buy sugar, flour and baking powder for the fritters.

A $50 investment returns $65. Almost half the fritters are given away to street children. But in Goma, the $15 profit can sustain a large family for several days.

Kavuo says she dreams of a day when Congo is a stable and prosperous country.

“Light is going to come,” she says. “It’s been dark too long.”

Until then, another Goma resident, 37-year-old Mama Rose, also will have to struggle to feed her four young children.

Four years ago, militiamen robbed and killed her husband. Like Adolphe Mulinowa, he did odd jobs. But he had been his family’s sole breadwinner.

For several months, Mama Rose worked menial jobs and tried hawking goods on the street. But she found herself relying mainly on neighborhood men who befriended her and brought her small baskets of food.


For that, they expected — and received — some intimacy.

Many women in Goma rely on such relationships to feed their families. But Mama Rose had another idea. Why pretend that she was befriending the men for their company? Why not admit to herself that it had become a job and start charging money?

“Every truth is not good to say,” says Mama Rose, her radiant smile exposing her capped gold tooth. “But let us face it. In Goma, everything has a price. And I don’t want to sell myself short.”

In some months, Mama Rose earns less than $25, mainly in her small living room decked out with pictures of Jesus and Mary. Stuffed toys lie on her single wood-framed bed.

In a good month, when she works the better-off U.N. soldiers who are monitoring the conflict in Congo, she can earn up to $75.

Mama Rose has persuaded other prostitutes to organize. They recently confronted the regional governor, who had declared that 80% of Goma’s sex workers were infected with HIV or had AIDS.

Mama Rose acknowledges that AIDS is a big problem, but denies that the infection rate is that high. Yet many of her friends have died of the disease, leaving their young children to fend for themselves and starting a new generation on the cycle of poverty.


“We’re not bad people,” she says, dusting some breadcrumbs from images of the Virgin Mary printed on her dress. “This is how we have to live. This is how we put some food in our stomachs.”