#MoroccoIsAmazing: Where getting lost is finding yourself … and what you really want

The Morrocans have a beautiful way of doing and selling things. Every product display is a work of art. It seemed like nothing was spared to make them appealing to the eyes.

“And if travel is like love, it is, in the end, mostly because it’s a heightened state of awareness, in which we are mindful, receptive, in dimmed by familiarity and ready to be transformed. That is why the best trips, like the best love affairs, never really end.” ― Pico Iyer

As I packed a small suitcase for my Morocco trip, I resolved not to shop but to have more time to enjoy without thinking of things to carry. The cabin bag is perfect for moving at airports. Easy. No waiting time at the baggage carousel. Every time I travel, this is my goal – no checked-in bag! How wonderful to get out of the plane, queue at the immigration and out to the waiting car. I wish!

How do you say “no” to all these and just enjoy the feast? I did. What I am impressed of the shopkeepers here is they can urge you to buy but they aren’t offended when you don’t. I love that kind of respect. Not all, but most.

I met the same mom and daughter team from Argentina who were traveling from Buenos Aires to Barcelona to Cairo then Marrakesh for a month. One carry-on bag each, less hassle. “We washed and re-used and made sure we carried the lightest clothes we have”, Adriana said. Imagine if they traveled in 3 countries with a lot of heavy bags? That can be a nightmare!

On my first day getting into the souk in this small alley, I was already giddy with excitement on what will I find out. I was honestly not disappointed.

I learned well that the best way to travel in Europe is light and easy. Just lugging bags in the train’s overhead bin had been tough for me. Never again. If it is winter time, nobody will even appreciate (including yourself) what you are wearing. All you need is a comfortably warm jacket and a nice neck warmer. If you have other ideas to solve this, let me know.

Going through the shops are convenient, all of them competing not just with an array of things to sell but also on how they creatively display them.

Going through the labyrinth of souks (traditional markets) in Marrakesh was both fun and mind-boggling. The way between shops are small and often, you compete with a very languidly moving crowd, a motorbike doing deliveries and even horses in intersections. Watch your back! This did not faze me, however, as I found it so amusing in most times when a tourist shrieks and shouts after a close brush with a cart pushed by a harried worker.

I was brought to a carpet shop by my guide who insisted there is no pressure for me to buy. Of course I know they wanted me to. After a lot of explaining I don’t need one, we parted ways. Handwoven carpets can sell from US$500 and up. They’re the best buys when in Morocco. You can also arrange to have them shipped.

Most shops open between 9:00-10:00 in the morning and closes at around 6:00-7:00pm except on Fridays when most of the shop owners go for worship. There are few money changers in the big souk but one can always go to the Jemaa El-Afna Square where you can find Bureau de Change and even withdraw money from the ATM machine. I found it easier to do this in the morning when people are still few. It becomes busier by mid-day and all the way to sunset.

Too many choices! Traditional herbs, tea leaves and different kinds of oils are aplenty. Check out where to buy authentic ones before you decide. Your hotel staff can always help advise where to go.

Marrakesh is not a place for people in a hurry. It is best enjoyed slowly, taking time to look at every incredible doorway, a line of ceramic pots in a riot of colors, a rhapsody of tea leaves and oils. Morroco, in general, is best planned like you have all the time in the world to soak even in every small detail of life. Its history is rich and reading about it before you arrive adds to the excitement. It is like meeting a friend after a long time.

A friendly grandma showed us how they prepare and extract oils from the nuts. A painstaking process that Moroccans are happy to do making their oils, especially the argan oil, among the most-sought after.

“Fill your life with adventures, not things. Have stories to tell not stuff to show.” – Anonymous

#MoroccoisAmazing: Goats on trees, how argan oil is made, the beautiful culture and camel ride to the Sahara

The Sahara Desert experience was one of my best unforgettable adventures. The sunrise was amazing! There is indeed no limit to God’s fantastic creation. Below is our desert camp accommodation.

“I believe that Marrakech ought to be earned as a destination. The journey is the preparation for the experience. Reaching it too fast derides it, makes it a little less easy to understand.” – Tahir Shah, In Arabian Nights: A Caravan of Moroccan Dreams

I learned something new on this trip: When it is your birthday treat to yourself, it better be different. My 16 years on the road made that a tough challenge. What will I do? Where will I go? What kind of adventure can I still do without me buckling on my knees? In the end, I called the travel agent and booked Morocco. Deciding too long has cost me an additional US$400 more for my ticket, so I closed my eyes and confirmed. I told myself this better be worth it. It was, and more!

Check-outBohol, Philippines

The palm tree is an icon in Morocco! Do you know that there is an estimated 5 million palm trees in the country, many of them are 150 years old. Their role in everyday life cannot be understated – they provide shades and prevent soil erosion, among many other uses. This view was from the verandah of my room in Hotel Racine.

I did four stages for my 8-day trip: 1) Walking tour in Marrakech – ½ day, 2) Ourika Valley – 1 day, 3) Essaouira – 1 day and 4) Sahara Desert – 2 days/1 night.

I intentionally reserved 2 days for myself exploring the city and going to Jardin de Majorelle, where Yves Saint Laurent’s ashes were enshrined. The famous garden had been said to be his refuge after leaving the fashion world before his death. Wow, imagine walking in the same steps where the fashion icon had frequented.

European Holidays: Berlin, Germany

The villa inside Jardin de Majorelle designed by French architect Paul Sinor inside the garden created by French artist Jacques Majorelle. It is also where the ashes of fashion icon Yves Saint Laurent was enshrined.

Surprisingly, hotels and riads (or townhouse with courtyard) are aplenty and amazingly designed. They are also affordable! My first 5 days were spent in Hotel Racine in Gueliz, the location is a 10-minute walk to the city center. It is clean, rooms are spacious and staff were very friendly.

My last 2 days I have to move to a riad right in the center because the hotel was fully booked. They were friendly enough to keep my luggage while I went to the Sahara. In every city I visit, I always book for a walking tour to get familiar with the landmarks. After that I prefer to be on my own. I prefer my holidays at my own pace, no rushing and early morning trips except for special ones I wanted to do.

Marrakech’s big square is a mish-mash of colors, bright and muted, but all a feast in the eyes. It was a pain not to buy anything. So tempting! But this time, I am determined to just enjoy the experience.

Tip #1: When you are taking a walking tour, make sure you agree with your guide where to go, what you want to see. If not, you can end up being taken around shops and being cajoled to buy things from carpets, argan and olive oils and all sorts of silver jewelries.

The Ourika Valley tour gave us a glimpsed of the snow-capped Atlas Mountains and the valley’s famous landmarks, the waterfalls and couscous lunch by the river. The view along the way are these open-air ceramics and trinkets shops.

Tip #2: Marrakech is easy to explore and generally safe. Just be careful with your things as you do in many other countries you visit. The Moroccans are very friendly and will always go out of their way to help you, even the taxi drivers and hotel staff.

Needing a mind-boost? On your way to Essaouira, the van will stop at these hilarious trees filled with argan-eating goats. I have never laughed to loud with my fellow tourists. These goats are in the serious business of balancing and eating on top of the tree, unmindful of the gawking tourists!

Tip #3: Do your research what you want to see before you leave home. I sat with 2 girls on holiday who have no idea where to go and what are Morocco’s important sites and landmarks. It is such a waste visiting the country and will never know what are the beautiful stories behind them.

The streets of Essaouira is a labyrinth of these amazing doorways, old colorful walls. This harbor city faces the Mediterranean Sea, a long coastline and beautiful port.

Tip #4: The best thing of traveling alone is you get to appreciate solitude more, and have more time to enjoy the sights. Even in a group try to find time for peace and quiet. That’s what holidays are supposed to be for.

Inside the luxe desert camp in the Sahara. The tour is an amazing experience!

Watch up next: The fun Marrakech maze!

I do not know what to do next: Pregnant with our second child, my wife got diagnosed with cancer

By Mario Taguinod Talosig, currently an OFW in Oman

Jhungien and Mario on her healthier times. This young couple has big dreams and are working their way to achieve them. Until cancer came and challenged their journey. “The first time I was told, I was devastated and unable to speak”, Mario said.

The date June 10, 2018 would be one of the most unforgettable dates in my life. It was the day my wife Jhungien Bernardino Talosig was diagnosed with Acute Myeloid Leukemia (AML), in short – cancer. Nobody will be able to explain that feeling when you hear that a loved one is afflicted with one of the most dreaded of diseases.

What made it even tougher was that Jhungien was pregnant. Our first child Marien Yzabhelle is already seven years old and her pregnancy was an answered prayer. We were excited and thankful. However, she began feeling weak with persistent fever and cough. As she had gone through a tough experience for our first child, we thought it was just normal.

When her blood test showed too low beyond normal, we were referred to a hematologist in Adventist Hospital in Santiago City, Isabela in the Philippines. After the initial tests were done, the hematologist privately talked to me about my wife’s condition. “Acute myeloid leukemia or AML is a type of cancer that affects the blood and bone marrow. It is also one of the most common types among adults but rarely diagnosed in people under 40.”

What made things and decisions even more difficult was that she was pregnant of our long-awaited second baby. The baby we had been waiting for seven years after our first-born Marien.

Hearing this, I did not know what to say. I asked God why Jhungien. When I was trying to research on her having low platelets and hemoglobin, I even avoided even thinking of cancer.

I was advised not to inform her until the result of the Bone Marrow Aspiration & Biopsy (BMA) was released. We stayed in the hospital for one week until we decided to move to Manila upon the doctor’s recommendation. We never wanted to go to Manila since we are not familiar with the place. We also have few relatives to call for support.

We were then admitted to University of Santo Thomas Hospital’s Clinical Division. The doctors, thankfully, did not charge us with professional fees, but the medicines and laboratory fees were expensive. We stayed for more than a week. We were almost running out of funds.

Jhungien went through the ordeal with a positive spirit, helping rally her family even as they share her pain.

The daily blood checks were done. The platelets and red blood cell transfusion were required. From there, we were advised that she has to undergo chemotherapy as soon as possible. Knowing she was pregnant made us hesitant, as we feared it would have an adverse impact on the baby.

It was a difficult decision to do. We went home to our sister’s house in Maite, Hermosa Bataan to reflect on our emotional, physical and most especially, spiritual condition. We also tried to assess our financial capacity to go through the medical requirements.

Her blood levels were consistently monitored and in the process, she was admitted twice in Bataan Peninsula Medical Center. Due to frequent blood transfusion, Jhungien and I finally decided for her to undergo the chemotherapy.

A meeting was set with the doctors in UST and they instructed us about the preparations. They also organized another meeting with the hospital ethics committee since she wasby then 10 weeks pregnant. We waited for another week and she went through another transfusion of platelets and red blood cell.

AML is rare in her age but is thankfully treatable. All Jhngien needs is your kindness and generosity to be able to continue the treatment.

The cancer cells were found very aggressive in her case and lowered the blood cells count rapidly in few days. We met with the ethics committee and agreed that we have to wait for another week until she entered the second trimester for a greater chance of our baby’s survival to the effect of chemotheraphy.

We are now financially drained – to the last drop. More treatment processes need to be done. It was hard but I told her I need to go back to work in Oman. It was a very emotional decision to make but I have to be strong for my family. Without work, how can I sustain the required treatment for her? On July 9, 2018, I flew back to Oman.

As soon as I opened my phone upon landing, I received the news that she was admitted in the hospital for severe abdominal pain and blood spotting.

The ultrasound test revealed that we ultimately lost our baby and Jhungien has to undergo dilation and curettage procedure. We definitely lost an angel. Looking at the positive side, this brought us new hope that this time the chemotherapy can proceed with ease.

Jhungien recovered well from miscarriage. We decided to proceed with the induction phase of the chemotherapy. On July 23, 2018 she went through a series of medical tests and was cleared to receive the first dose of chemo medicines from July 30 and finished on August 5, 2018. It was her 34th birthday. She is very strong more than all of us combined, always confident she will overcome whatever side effects the chemotherapy will have.

Even for the initial medical assessments, tests and treatment, Jhungien and Mario have to sell whatever property they have invested on to pay for the bills. “We are now financially drained. There are times I do not know what to think,” Mario said helplessly.

Her immune system was down. Antibiotics were administered to fight infections and doses of morphine for pain relief. The blood counts are still low that is why frequent transfusion of apheresis platelets and red blood cell packs were required almost daily.

As soon as she recovers from the induction phase, they will proceed with the consolidation phase, which will have five cycles. Each cycle will be for three days of chemotherapy requiring her to stay in the hospital to recover before proceeding with the succeeding cycles.

Every cycle requires at least Php300,000. We have already exhausted all our savings, taken salary advances, took loans from relatives and sold most of the valuable properties we worked hard for together to be able raise what we need for the medical bills. I made her feel assured that these materials things are not important.

Her recovery is our priority. We know her case has very high chances of getting treated. This process will take at least one year depending on how fast she will recover after each cycle. At this time, we need not only for financial support but also for your prayers. It will be a long, painful journey. With your help we can continue to fight and eventually win this battle.

Mario reflects how this journey taught them about humility to ask for support because they have reached the end of the rope. Both of them also held on to their faith in God above all.

She was the one who tells me all the time to be strong and to pray always. Yes, we both believe this too shall pass. She reminds me to seek God in our hearts and we will find peace. Jhugien’s strength in faith brings positive energy to all of us. She firmly believes everything that happens for a reason and we should hold on to our faith.

This ongoing, and very painful, challenge for my family taught me humility and courage. I have always worked hard and did my best to be a responsible person and family man. Humility because I have to go beyond my own capacity for Jhungien’s sake and courage because this is what it will take for us to rise through this.

It is not easy to ask for help. But I am reminded by Matthew 7:7 – “Ask and you will receive; search and you will find; knock and the door will be opened for you.”

For Jhungien I can do it all.

Jhungien and Mario with daughter Marien.

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For those who want to help Jhugien and Mario, you may contact them at this email: M.Talosig@omn.tcmbranch.com or call her sister Jelly Bernardino Malsi at # +63 9565860437

For donations, please deposit at Jhugien’s account: Jhungien B. Talosig

  • BPI Savings Account #1239199131, Swift Code for international transfers is BOPIPHMM (Cauayan City, Isabela, Philippines
  • Banco De Oro Account #003420038806, Swift Code for international transfers BNORPHMM (Cauayan City, Isabela, Philippines

Note: Please do not give to any one asking in behalf of Jhungien or our family except on these contacts and accounts. We thank you for the prayers and the support.

About the author

Mario Talosig works as a materials control assistant in an engineering, procurement and construction company. He is based in Sohar, Oman.

Not a usual Christmas story: The Iron Man from China finally says “Yes”

My dad was born during the most difficult years in China including the Second World War.

Guest Blogger: Echo Chow

I was the only one in the family who dared to pose dad “silly” questions. And he was delighted to get an audience who’s willing to listen to his repeated accounts.

Like many people in his generation, my dad Chow Loi Yum was born on 1924 in Jie Yang City of Guangdong Province in China. It was at a time where everyone had to struggle for survival.  Whenever I showed him stories about famine and civil wars in Africa, he didn’t express much shock and sympathy like my friends normally did. 

Instead, he cited me loads of examples in his old days, such as “You couldn’t even find tree bark to fill your stomach”, or how they lived in deep fear because of the brutal killings and bombings by the Japanese army during the Second World War, etc.

He managed the delivery of most of his children. Where did he learn the skill? He used to work in the piggery of a wealthy family where he helped deliver piglets.

Isn’t wisdom found among the aged?

Although dad attended school for only nine months, his knowledge was far beyond my understanding.  All of my siblings, except my oldest sister and I, were delivered by dad with his own hands.  “I used to work for a wealthy family. I fed pigs and delivered piglets. Piglets and human babies are similar. The skill is just the same,” dad said.

“Your brother didn’t cry when he was born. So I spanked him,” dad said explaining it’s kind of life-saving techniques he learnt from the village elders before he got married.

The traditional wisdom is that if the newborn doesn’t cry, it’s probable his or her throat is stuck with something else. If it’s not handled properly and immediately, the baby will suffocate and die shortly. 

This sounds scientific. But traditional belief sometimes also has its superstitious side. It was said that in order to bring blessings to offsprings, parents have to bury the placenta of the newborn under a tree. 

Dad was unfortunately detained by a policeman who mistook him a murderer for he was holding a bag tainted with blood. Dad was released only after the police confirmed mom just gave birth to a baby delivered at home.

We couldn’t help laughing when hearing such memoirs.  But these happy moments were rare.  Dad’s life was full of bitterness.  He lost his parents at the age of 15, and was then adopted by a widow.  He married my mom Lee Sin Ching through an arranged marriage.  As life was too difficult, he came to Hong Kong alone to earn a living to feed the family. 

Several years later, mom also came and 8 of their 9 children, including me the youngest, were born and settled here.

For when he is weak, then…

As father, dad was the very strict and stubborn type who got irritated easily.  Working restlessly as a coolie to make ends meet, dad was too tired to talk to his children, not to mention arranging family outings.  “Freedom” was almost non-exist as dad had a very strong sense to protect (or over-protect) his children, especially daughters. 

Though a traditional Chiuchow family values boys more than girls, on the matter of religion, dad was equal. I recalled how he scolded my brother who went to church, “Ask your Heavenly Father to give you food and pay you school fees! Don’t ask me for money!”

It was understandable because the people of dad’s generation had been told (or probably brainwashed) that all missionaries came with a political purpose to colonize China. He was such a hardline opponent of Christianity that I never imagined this iron man will eventually confess to Jesus Christ.

I think dad’s heart was softened when he realized that his physical and mental conditions deteriorated drastically as he aged.  His stance on Christianity was not as hard as before.  Evidence was his responses toward the same question he asked me in three occasions.

Echo with her Dad. The youngest of 9 siblings, she learned a lot from her father’s conventional wisdom.

Like Peter, I was questioned three times

On the Christmas Eve of 2008, I didn’t know why I felt uncomfortable when dad worshipped our ancestors with idol rituals. “Dad, don’t burn incense stick anymore.  It’s harmful to your eyes,” I used such an excuse hoping not to offend him. “Are you believing in Jesus Christ?” Dad suddenly asked.  “No, not yet,” I stuttered but felt uneasy at heart.  And this was the night I made my confession to Jesus (see A journey of faith: the day I met my best guide in Jerusalem).

The dilemma is that, Christians also respect our ancestors, but we’d remember them with prayers but not the idol rituals that local customs perform.  But it’s not easy to persuade the elderly at this point.

A few months later, dad raised the same question again when I was watching a Christian TV program.  I admitted. He didn’t say a word.

The third time occurred when I was hiding in my room fearing that dad would ask me to worship mom on her death anniversary day.  Again, dad kept silent for a while when I said yes. “Jesus doesn’t like his followers to worship ancestors. Let me do this on behalf of you.” 

What?! I couldn’t believe my ears but it did come from dad’s mouth. It’s certainly a miracle!  I did nothing and the most difficult part was fixed!  Total relief.

I was luckier than the Apostle Peter who denied Jesus three times in an era of religious persecutions. I was given 3 chances to confirm my belief in a comparatively freer environment.  Witnessing dad’s attitude change but not knowing what to do then, however, I truly believe there’s an invisible hand guiding me and others to open dad’s heart steps by steps.

Actually I couldn’t recall starting from when, I felt like I should hug and chat with dad more. “You seem to love and care for your parent more after becoming a Christian,” dad told me one day.  I was not aware of this at that time, but when looking back from now, I think it’s God who taught me how to love, and passed His love to dad through me. 

She never imagined that one day her father would embrace Christianity.

Coincidence or plan?

One day, I asked dad if he wanted to go to church presuming that he would reject. “Yes, but I want a church who preaches in Chiuchow dialect.”  To my surprise, dad gave me a specific answer.  But I had no idea where to find such a church.

Some weeks later, I accidentally discovered an invitation poster on the notice board of the building I lived in. I didn’t even know the church which fulfilled dad’s requirement had been set up for over 20 years, and it located just in the opposite road of my home! But then the challenge came – dad always fell asleep during the Sunday service.  Did he hear anything? What could I do?

Strangers or angels?

Fortunately a stranger I met on the street by chance had offered great help.  He was the pastor of the church mentioned.  He spoke dad’s dialect, and served the elderly.  He told me he would visit dad soon. I only realized later that he not only visited dad but also gave dad one-to-one teachings every week.  In one afternoon of 2013, he sent me a whatsapp message saying that dad had accepted Jesus Christ as savior. 

Dad was baptized at the age of 89. He died one year later.

I am sure the last few years were dad’s happiest time in life.  Apart from using me as a passage to convey love to dad,  God also used dad to help me understand the heart of a father.  I used to think that God is too great and too abstract. I couldn’t use human language to praise a perfect God.  But when one day I thanked dad for what he has done for the family, his sparkling eyes and sweet smiles reminded me this would be the exact response from our Heavenly Father when we praise Him with our genuine heart.

God is eternal but our earthly father isn’t.  So I lived every moment like the last moment with dad.  I intentionally conducted video interviews and took farewell photos for him, for I wanted to capture the very happy moments in my very last memory about him. I had offered dad the best of my everything when he was alive. I have no regrets in the rest of my life. Still, I miss him a lot but I am sure he’s in good hands. 

We will meet again when the time comes.

“Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved—you and your household.” (Acts 16:31)

A celebration with family and friends after his baptism. At 89, he embraced Christianity.

Echo is a graduate of Intercultural Studies and Public History and is now a communicator in an organization based in Hong Kong pursuing poverty alleviation. She loves traveling but often gets lost even in her own hometown. She is a curious life adventurer keen on learning new things and meeting people.

Siquijor Diaries: Lilibeth’s pan bisaya and why her bakeshop is a hit

By the time I met her in Siquijor, Lilibeth is already famous.

She was featured in GMA’s Byahe ni Drew, a travel show, in an Asian magazine, countless travel blogs and soon according to her on Kris Aquino’s social media channel. The last time Kris was supposed to come, a brewing storm prevented the trip to the frustration of her fans who crowded at Lilibeth’s bakeshop excited to see her.

My guide and pedicab driver Warren Omalza asked if I want to try a pan bisaya that’s been frequented by many tourists. Quite belatedly. By the time he mentioned, we were already past the bread shop. Good move we were already hungry so we decided to go back.

Every day is a busy day but its touching Lilibeth is generous with her time to curious customers like me.

The bakeshop in Barangay Binoongan (or widely known as Talingting), a part of Enrique Villanueva municipality is modest, nothing unusual from the small shops that dot the roadsides of Siquijor, even the whole country. But it changes when you meet the woman who made it possible.

It is made of bamboo and wood with some wooden tables and chairs thrown in for those who want to sit down and eat snacks or lunch.

The presidential son Baste Duterte sat on same tables with his friends. He promised to go back.

Lilibeth Viernes Alce, 49, has been baking for four years after a local micro-finance Paglaum trained her and provided support for her to start her own small business.

A mother of three (one died a baby), she established the business to send her youngest child to school. Her eldest stopped studying because she is sickly and is happier helping her in the shop.

Today, Lilibeth’s bakeshop consumes two sacks of flour for the rising demand which is even higher on holidays, during town fiestas and at summertime. Customers would often buy in dozens for pasalubong to families and friends.

I ate her freshly baked salvaro, cheese bread and bucayo torta and was blown away. Soft, delicious and tasted just like how your grandma can do it at home. There are more mouth-watering choices: ensaymada, tinalay, pan de leche and mongo bread.

As we talked, Lilibeth was preparing mounds of newly-prepared doughs ready to be baked inside her makeshift oven made of stone. It looked like a busy day as more bread are taken out and put in the display shelves.

“It is best eaten hot coming straight from the oven”, Lilibeth quips with a smile.

Baking is a passion. Lilibeth’s joy can be tasted in the bread she bakes with her family.

It was not very hard to figure out why her bakeshop is a hit. Lilibeth’s passion and love for what she does can be tasted in every bread she bakes. Her eyes light up as she talks about baking, the appreciation of her customers and the attention her bakeshop was getting.

She dreams of making the business bigger and build a house for her family. Lilibeth says, “Our house had been there even before I was born so it must be over 50 years old. My mother is also sick and I want to make sure she is provided with the medicines she need.

Tourists and local visitors are fast helping her make this happen, even her own fellow islanders who advise tourists not to miss the bake shop. Everyone loves someone who wins over poverty. One social media post got shared and the rest is history.

Simple and unpretentious, this bakeshop symbolized the hardworking spirit of the islanders like Lilibeth.

I am proud to have met and talked to Lilibeth. She is a shining example to all women that hardwork pays and nothing is impossible if you aim high for it.

From fighting to farming: The rise of the Kivu coffee

By Dede Monfiston

Sifa and her children. Kivu coffee has given her renewed hope that the children can go to school and have a better life.

When I landed in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), the first question that came to my mind was, “How can a country be so rich in natural resources but its people so poor?” Many of those who dared visit or work in the country would likely ask that, too. DRC’s natural beauty is amazing but the endless armed conflict that has gripped the country has taken a toll to its people and resources.

My first trip to DRC was in 2012 when I managed a new development program in northwestern Congo which is close to the Central African Republic (CAR). I felt overwhelmed by both the challenges and the potentials. Are the people even aware of the vast opportunities around them? How can an outsider like me help? Is background and experience in non-profit organizations enough? The answers to questions in my head were not that promising.

When my assignment ended after nearly two years, I went home. My next posting sent me to Iraq but Congo kept haunting me. After a year in Iraq, I decided to find a way back to Congo. I got lucky – another organization hired me and my work focused on agriculture and roads infrastructure in eastern Congo.

During the first three months, my interest in building something that would help the Congolese people for long term deepened. Agribusiness always kept me interested but I did not know how, where and with whom to start. Then one day, a guy came to my office exploring support for former combatants. I found it truly interesting and promising. I started talking about the project with the decision makers in my organization exploring ways to help. It never went anywhere, unfortunately. It was quite a suspense on my part as my contract was also nearing its end.

Fresh hopes. A woman works at the coffee plantation with her child. The project enabled families to look at the future with bright promise for their children.

While at home early in the morning, our security guard handled me a business card from the cooperative guy asking to meet me. Curious, I decided to pay him a visit. He expressed his alarm that I will soon leave. He said, “Dèdè we don’t want you to leave. We need you and we want to offer you an opportunity mutually beneficial for you and for us.” The guy turned out to be Gilbert Makelele, the president of the coffee growers cooperative. It answered my question how to start.

After my contract, I went back home to spend some quality time with my family as I figured out potential business concepts. With my family’s blessings and support, I came back to DRC to support the coffee cooperative.

This time I have a lengthy chance to visit the coffee fields, talk to the cooperative members and learn the basics of the green beans business operations. I got introduced as a partner and business development strategist. It was both exciting and daunting. I have to do my job so I won’t let this people down. I need to get them connected to buyers around the world and enjoy the fruits of their hard work.

The cooperative is composed of more than 5,000 members under Gilbert Makele’s lead as president. More than a third of the members are women, with many of them coming from the Congolese Army and other armed rebel groups who have decided that they have enough of the fighting and want to focus on raising their children well.

Starting anew. Coffee-growing has allowed women combatants to shift to a new journey with their families.

The Groupement d’Intérêt Economique Coopérative des Planteurs et Négociant du Café du Kivu (GIE CPNCK) was created in 2012 by a group of young entrepreneurs with strong social responsibility and eager to help sow peace in the beautiful region of Kivu. Operating in the greater region which includes the Masisi, the south and the north Kivu, the cooperative today has more than 5,000 members composed of farmers, women, widows and former combatants.

One of them was Kitumani, 35, who lived in Idiwi Island. She spent five years in the army and describes the experience as horrible. Her expression said it all. An orphan at 12, Kitumani said she had a very difficult life. She got married at 23 and have five children. Now she is a coffee farmer and a breeder. She told me, “I learned to endure and how to survive life’s tough challenges.”

Sifa’s husband died in the Lake Kivu bringing green beans coffee illegally to Rwanda. The trip through the river is always dangerous and most of the people use rickety boats. To be able to earn for her family, she decided to join the cooperative and work properly to avoid the risks that led to her husband’s death.

Apilline Katambara Pendeza is the president of the Widows Association of the Idjwi Island. Her husband was also among those who braved the risks in the Lake Kivu. Apilline has her own coffee plantation and decided to join the cooperative to market her coffee. She hopes that, “With coffee growing, we can aspire for a better life for our children”.

The community now works together towards achieving quality life for their families.

When his father died and nobody can send him to school, 30-year old Koko joined the Congolese Army. His once-normal life was turned upside down. When an opportunity to leave came, Koko seized it and now works as a driver in the cooperative. Married for 11 years now, Koko is the president of the Ex-Combatants Association.

With the mission of being the catalyst for an innovative change, the cooperative aims to see the coffee growers freely in a fair, prosperous and environmentally friendly rural world. It has set objectives to improve the quality and quantity of the coffee production of its members; search for a niche market for its specialty coffee and improve the living conditions of its member and their communities.

It has always striven to implement its vision of a more just future reflected in the culture of its deep values: transparency and accountability; quality work and autonomy of coffee growers; respect for human dignity and protection of the environment.

Gilbert Makelele is bringing coffee growers and workers together to put Kivu coffee in the world map.

Since 2013, the GIE CPNCK set up the program “Peace Around Coffee and Cocoa in the Kivu” to assist the ex-combatants and their leaders, commonly called “warlords,” and to contribute to the stabilization of the Masisi area through agricultural socio-economic activities, coffee and cocoa combined with vegetable and livestock.

It was decided to start these activities in the red zone. These ex-combatants, determined to change their way of life, struggle to survive from the meager products of their fields and small livestock while waiting for their first harvest of coffee this year. The big challenge is to harvest the cherries, process it and have the coffee green bean ready for export. Some basic equipment is needed. We then need to find a market for the green bean since the local market is very limited.

There are many existing coffee cooperatives in Congo and Gilbert and colleagues are hard at work of creating the confederation of the cooperatives. The cooperative was created on 2012 and restructured in 2014. It dreams for the Kivu coffee to one day be sought by millions of coffee drinkers around the world. You can help make it happen. It will encourage more combatants to lead a life of peace with their families, bring stability in their communities and their beautiful country.

Note: The Democratic Republic of the Congo, also known as DR Congo, DRC, DROC, Congo-Kinshasa or simply the Congo, is a country located in Central Africa. The DRC borders the Central African Republic and South Sudan to the north; Uganda, Rwanda, Burundi and Tanzania to the east; Zambia and Angola to the south; the Republic of the Congo to the west and the Atlantic Ocean to the southwest. It is the second-largest country in Africa by area and eleventh largest in the world. With a population of over 80 million, the Democratic Republic of the Congo is the most populated officially Francophone country, the fourth most-populated nation in Africa and the eighteenth most populated country in the world. – Wikipedia

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About the blogger: Dede is a happy family man who is a seasoned humanitarian experienced in development and emergency work. His quest to make a difference through projects such as health, water sanitation and hygiene, livelihoods and economic development took him to Africa, the Middle East and the Caribbean regions. Besides a degree in Animal Sciences and Agribusiness, he has a Master’s Degree in International Management from Thunderbird School of Global Management. He speaks fluent English, French and Spanish.
Contact email: dedemf@global.t-bird.edu