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Cyril Brandt

BLOG - My long journey to research

24 June 2016

Cyril Brandt is studying towards a PhD in International Development Studies at the University of Amsterdam. Here he describes his time doing fieldwork in the Democratic Republic of Congo

I set out to conduct interviews in Mitwaba, about 300 - 400 km north of Lubumbashi, the capital of Katanga, one of Congo's richest provinces, where I have been based for the past few months. Lubumbashi has been almost spared of violent conflict, while other parts of the province have been in a state of perpetual crisis for nearly twenty years. In those regions, attacks on schools and teachers are a frequent occurrence. My research is interested in reasons why schools and teachers are attacked and harassed, and how they adapt to these circumstances and continuously attempt to deliver education.

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A view of Lubumbashi, with the city's iconic sysmbol, black mountain of the Gecamines

Lubumbashi is linked to the other industrial centers through an impeccable, asphalted street that allows trucks to easily transport their goods. After 120 km, the paved road towards Mitwaba turn into a clay-road in relatively good condition, and soon after into one full of potholes, mud and water. The remaining 150-200 km until arrival in Mitwaba can take several days, depending on your vehicle.

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 A range rover is essential when travelling, and they make for popular pictures with the locals

I accompany two members of an NGO, and after several hours of travel, our Land Cruiser gets stuck in the mud and the water, unable to move the car even for a centimeter. As we wait for help, a group of soldiers moves towards us. I assume their battalion has been replaced in Mitwaba, due to the soldiers' behavior towards the civilian population. Not having been paid for months, they were now returning to Lubumbashi by foot, drinking and harassing the population along the way.

Our car still isn't moving and I feel trapped. The soldiers are coming closer. "Is my data safe?" I wonder. Most of my writing is backed up, but I am concerned about my laptop and camera, not least because of the sensitivity of the data. This is the moment I realize how much I have started to think like a researcher.

Luckily, before the soldiers get to us, a truck stops and the driver proceeds to pull us out of our mud hole. We thank him and our journey continues. After a total of thirty hours we are still far from Mitwaba. Night is close when we run into an enormous rendez-vous - an accumulation of trucks and cars stuck in the mud, unable to continue driving - we decide to spend the night in the car.

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Our so-called rendez-vous (and some mud issues)

Finally, after 45 hours of travelling, we arrive in Mitwaba. I speak to teachers that had to leave their villages due to armed attacks and resettled in the surrounding populated centers.

Usually, displaced teachers from the same school try to settle in the same location in order to re-open it there. In fact, even if the physical building is destroyed during an attack, the school as an institution survives. Teachers still receive their salaries during those times.

Constrained by visible material shortcomings, teachers try to make the best of the circumstances. This school taught me a valuable lesson. People are never simply refugees, or internally displaced persons. They keep their character, and identity, and hopes and desires. The principal's office in this particular school is right next to the stones being used in the classroom. It is so colorful, and wallpapers were brought along when teachers fled the village. To me, this leaves a stark impression that armed attacks are indeed violent interruptions of people's everyday lives, but they do not completely change people's behavior. Even in humanitarian settings, people stay people, they stay human, with everything that might imply.

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A displaced classroom (top) and the principal's office

I ask the displaced teachers in Mitwaba whether they intend to return to their villages soon in order to reopen schools, as was usually the case. Some tell me that they will, others say that this time around they are too afraid to return. I decide to return at a later point to see how the situation has developed.

A year passes and planning my trip back to Mitwaba, I seek the help of the NGO. It turns out that spending the night in the Land Cruiser had a positive side effect. On the phone, one employee first tells me that "the car is full, sorry". I insist and he passes me on to his colleague, who happens to remember me from that previous trip.

"It's you!", he states. "There will be no problem. We have suffered together on that road. We have spent a night in a car together. I will personally make sure that you have a place in the car. Departure is Sunday, five am"

Arriving in Mitwaba for the second time, I soon realize that all of the teachers in the region have returned home. The government has declared the area as "pacified", but it cannot be considered entirely safe yet. I decide to visit their villages and follow up on the conversations we had the year before.

The next day I hire a guide and take to the road with a motorbike. On the first day we manage to visit all eleven schools on one particular road, the furthest school being 80 km away. Our last stop of the day is a school that I am especially keen to visit as it is located in the hotspot of the former conflict.

One year ago, one of the teachers shared with me a very personal experience: he had been publicly flogged by members of the militia for being a teacher. I am anxious to meet him again. However, after a long day on the road I am exhausted, and due to an unlucky misunderstanding I do not immediately recognize him - I knew him as a primary school teacher and he was presented to me as a teacher of the secondary school. In fact, he worked for both schools, which is nothing uncommon. We start off on the wrong foot and he does not seem excited to meet me. "I told you the story last time; do you want me to repeat it? I didn't have a choice but to return; that is why I am here." I feel embarrassed, unable to get across that I was looking forward to meeting him again after the conversation we had one year ago. Confused, I forget to ask some of the questions still on my mind. We spend some time in the village, get on our motorbike and leave, eager to return to Mitwaba before nightfall.

On the following morning we set out to visit more schools. The furthest one is located 105 km up north and we plan to have an overnight stay at the compound of an international NGO, in the epicenter of the conflict. Visiting one half of the schools on the way there and the other half on the way back. When we arrive at the NGO compound in the evening I feel completely nauseous. At first I think this is due to the corned beef sandwich I have eaten on the road. I go to bed early, hoping I will feel better in the morning. I wake up in the middle of the night, hallucinating, shivering. Malaria.  I feel awful. But we have to continue on to the second leg of our trip and return to Mitwaba. So again we take to the road, and visit the rest of the schools. The teachers and principals seem excited to see me again, positively surprised that I express genuine interest in their situation.

Mitwaba and the surrounding area were just a few of the many places I visited during the course of my research. Doing research in such settings is not an easy matter, if only for the infrastructural challenges. However, it's worth the extra effort and time spent traveling. These interviews and encounters were enormously valuable for the explorations of my research questions, and for me as a person. I am currently busy writing up my insights into different articles. One relevant question remains: will I eventually, in the near or distant future, be able to make these insights I gained useful for all the people I talked to, or will they be of mere academic and personal interest?  

Cyril Brandt won Education Development Trust's Tim Morris Award in 2016 and used the bursary to fund his fieldwork in the Democratic Republic of Congo