People who had fled the violence in the province of Tanganyika returned to their land in 2019 and 2021. Since their return, they had been trying to get back to their normal way of life, including growing tuber crops to feed their children and the rest of the family. Then came a heavy blow – a blight known as mosaic disease appeared, causing considerable damage to their crops.
Safi Asani sits under a mango tree, not far from her hut, peeling a pile of thin, dry cassava tubers. They were pulled up before they were fully grown to prevent them from rotting. “A neighbour gave them to me; we help each other out here. I’m going to grind them to make flour, which I will use to prepare fufu for our meal today,” she says.
Some of Safi’s and her co-wife’s children stand around her watching while others play a little way off. Hundreds of families that had fled because of inter-community violence returned to their land in Kilasi and some other neighbouring villages in the northern part of Tanganyika in two waves in 2019 and in 2021.
Since their return, most of the families have seen their new cassava crops affected by mosaic virus, a plant disease that causes leaf discoloration and root rot.
“We use cassava leaves as vegetables, and we also grind tubers into a flour used to make cassava paste, which is the basic ingredient for our daily meals; but this disease has caused a lot of damage to our crops!” laments village chief Abdala Kisimba.
Struggling to ensure a sufficient and balanced diet
In Tanganyika, there are various household profiles: families displaced by violence, those returning to their land after fleeing and those that stayed put. Whatever their profile, they have all seen their livelihoods disrupted by bad harvests and inter-community violence. They are struggling just to give their children a meal every day.
In Kilasi, there are no hens clucking or goats bleating in people’s yards. Children’s laughter and birdsong are the only sounds that break the village’s silence. The distance of the village from bodies of water means that fish rarely features in their diet. The same goes for meat; Kilasi villagers are afraid to venture too far into the bush to hunt in case they encounter armed men, and they still do not have the means to raise livestock.
“In Tanganyika, agricultural activities are the main source of household income. When people cannot farm their land or hunt, their already difficult living conditions get even worse,” explains Maya El Hage, head of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) subdelegation in Kalemie.
In these circumstances, humanitarian aid is sometimes the only chance people have to start farming again so that they can provide for their families and ensure they have enough food to eat.
Developing green fingers
In 2020 and 2022, following the return of families that had fled the violence, the ICRC delivered emergency aid to 4,000 households (food and cooking utensils).
To help them resume crop production and vegetable growing, each of these families also received farming implements and groundnut, maize and bean seeds.
“We gave them a different variety of cassava called sawa sawa, which is resistant to mosaic disease,” explains Joseph Mateso, an ICRC agronomist. “It is also a short-duration variety; it reaches full maturity in 12 months, unlike traditional varieties which require two to three years.”
The aid delivered by the ICRC also included hundreds of metres of cassava cuttings to be used for plant propagation. The ICRC will buy them back and redistribute them to other struggling families. Agricultural advisers from three village associations received training to ensure that the propagation process is carried out properly.
Abdala Kisimba is president of one of these associations. Standing just a few metres from the huts, he looks out over the new one-hectare cassava field and proudly surveys the young cassava plants swaying in the wind. The new plants are barely a metre tall, but their leaves are already a vibrant green. Abdala is delighted because he knows that cassava mosaic disease causes a yellow mottling or mosaic pattern on the leaves.
“There are no yellow leaves; that’s a good sign! We are holding back on picking the leaves because we have been taught that we must not remove them during the cutting propagation phase,” he remarks.
In the future, the agricultural advisers will also have the job of explaining different farming techniques to the members of communities in the area to ensure that all the seeds they have been given produce good yields. With this resumption of farming activities, the families that have returned to Kilasi are hoping for good cereal and vegetable harvests that will lift them out of food insecurity.
Between January and September 2022, the ICRC provided aid in the form of food, cash assistance, vouchers, household items and agricultural support to around 740,000 people in the Democratic Republic of the Congo.