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By Robyn Hutchinson

Lotumbe is one of 23 remote villages in the Equateur Province of Congo. Four of us made the  300-km journey to the village by canoe up the Congo River in March.

We were representing HandUp Congo, an organization promoting sustainable development in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). Our team included ICA Australia members Lucy Hobgood-Brown and Robyn Hutchinson, and colleagues Jacky Gendre and Sue Bromhead. Lucy and Jacky are Rotarians and the trip was sponsored by the Rotary Australia World Community Service (RAWCS).

100 years of networking
Lucy’s family has worked in the mainly Christian nation for more than 100 years through the Disciples of Christ in Congo ( denomination. Her grandparents and parents helped establish the church’s missional outreach in Equateur in the early 1900s and the Congo Protestant University (UPC), a leading institution (see and, more than 50 years ago.

Lucy, in collaboration with her sister Anne Zolnor and friend Betsy Brill, founded HandUp Congo (  Since 2004, it has made various trips to the capital, Kinshasa, Goma in North Kivu province, Mbandaka, capital of Equateur, and Lotumbe, one of 23 remote “posts”  the church serves.

The purpose of our visit to DRC was to help the Disciples of Christ Church in Congo (CDCC) and its 800,000-strong community move towards self-reliance and sustainability. The church has made huge strides in this task and the HandUp Congo team, supported by Rotary, aims to help find partners that can build on its initiatives.

Networking in Kinshasa

After a brief stopover in Johannesburg, we flew to Kinshasa to work with UPC colleagues and students, Rotary and Lions clubs, and visit various projects. 

At UPC, we introduced ToP, (Technology of Participation) processes during a workshop on sustainable community development with English-speaking students and young business professionals – all future leaders in Congo!

Another highlight was a visit to a Presbyterian-run backstreet clinic, where one of Lucy’s childhood friends now serves as a nursing advisor. Ruthie Schaad works with Congolese health-care professionals to transform access to public health for women and children, with minimal facilities and equipment.

Next, we flew to Mbandaka to join CDCC’s leadership for brief discussions and planning. The event was graciously hosted by the multi-lingual President of the Church, Rev Eliki Bonanga, and his wife.

River journey

The next morning, at 6.30 am on March 6, we began our long-awaited 300-km trip up the mighty Congo River and its tributaries to Lotumbe. Sent off with a song and a prayer, the pirogue, a small canoe-like boat, floated off with six church and community leaders and four Aussies! No, we weren’t rowing - that would have taken us more than seven days. Instead, we splurged by renting motors, including a spare, to save time.  We ran into a sand bar or two along the way. Everyone had to get out and push to get us back into the deep water channel. What amazing skippers we had!

We pulled into Lotumbe more than 18 hours later while it was still dark to the taps of a welcome message from the famous “talking drums of Congo” and the sound of wonderful African singing and prayers from the river bank.
After several days and following a huge, violent and spectacular storm, the 10 of us began the return trip - this time on a glassy black river and cool weather. The journey, thanks to the currents, took “only” 12 hours.  In Mbandaka, we debriefed the CDCC leadership team and travelled on to Kinshasa for more networking and strategic meetings. We returned to Sydney after another networking stop in Johannesburg.

Stand up, Lotumbe
The theme of our visit was UPC’s slogan: “Education that builds a nation”. We introduced ICA’s participatory processes to university students, young business executives and the community; and saw classrooms of mud bricks that had been rebuilt countless times after tornado or other violent weather. We t oured two CDCC hospitals in Bolenge and Lotumbe with the pragmatic and resourceful local medical coordinators and rural health zone doctors and celebrated Lotumbe’s new hospital latrines, made possible by Australia’s Pink Umbrella Foundation. We shopped in Lotumbe’s community store, a HandUp Congo and CNEC Partners International initiative with a grassroots NGO. We saw two-year-olds born in local hospitals supported by Australian benefactors and enjoyed placing donated shoes on their feet. We held stimulating conversations with community representatives about the next steps in building a resilient Lotumbe.

In Lotumbe, we focused on discerning the community’s priorities. This process began with visits and conversations and was followed by a “Wall of Wonder” exercise celebrating Lotumbe’s history, its current situation and what the community envisioned for the future. At the conclusion, the community gave their “wall” a name – “Stand Up Lotumbe” - and created the following song in its Lingala language.

Debout, Lotumbe (Stand up, Lotumbe)
Lotumbe telema (Stand up, Lotumbe)
Lotumbe telema (Stand up, Lotumbe)
Tokende liboso (Let’s go forward)

This session was followed by afternoon focus groups led by local leaders, with everyone clearly embracing the language and art of participation. 

Four groups – children, youth, women and men – had the assignment of articulating “What is working well in Lotumbe? What do we want to improve? What can you/we do? What new or different roles are needed? Next steps?” as well as to create a song about their plans.  The plenary session was marked by a wealth of ideas, will and joyful songs and dancing.

Proposals included women establishing or expanding their own crop plots; removing or rebuilding a cyclone-wrecked school building that is symbolically blocking the future; the possible production, implementation and distribution of sample Days for Girls washable feminine hygiene kits ( and birthing kits ( Both projects have the potential to be income generating activities. Central to village life is the church, which provides many social services that Congo’s weak government does not. At a lively four-hour celebration,  CDCC’s Vice-President, Reverend Mputu Yonganga, delivered a passionate sermon based on the Biblical story of the “feeding of the 5,000” and the need for self-help. He challenged all to work with the given resources and to be part of the solution, not the problem. The Australian team presented gifts to the community. These included soccer balls, health-care equipment - and a computer and printer.  To enthusiastic whistles and shouts, Lotumbe’s supervising pastor, Rev. Boyaba, announced:  “Lotumbe is now connected to the world! We are not forgotten!”  The computer will be powered by the hospital’s generator. Among its uses - reports to donors and other partners can now be downloaded onto memory sticks and sent by pirogue to Mbandaka, from where they can be e-mailed.

The renewed Lotumbe Community Development Team was presented to the massive congregation and challenged to be transparent and work hard for every sector of the community.  

The choirs were spectacular and world class!   What a resource and marvelous tool for helping tell Congo’s stories.

Following the church celebration, strategic planning with the “new” Lotumbe development committee continued. Plans were made for next steps and strategies that the local community could work on, with support and capacity building to be facilitated by a skilled Congolese community development worker based in the provincial capital, but who has committed to visiting Lotumbe two times per year.

Challenges for Lotumbe

The challenges facing sustainable community development in Lotumbe are enormous: a remote location accessible only by pirogue compounded  by high petrol prices; lack of road or river barge infrastructure; lack of electricity,  Internet or phone towers – the link to the world is via two-way shortwave radio twice a day; limited visitor accommodation so volunteers have no place to stay without inconveniencing local leaders; working with the most basic of equipment; irregular and minimal wages for teachers; poor access to nutritious crops and animal husbandry.

However, Lotumbe leaders hold the vision and have started strategic planning and networking with 10 of the 22 other remote villages. Following HandUp Congo team’s visit, they agreed to add Lotumbe to the pilot program list, which will lead to further up skilling, networking and replication.

The HandUp Congo/RAWCS team visit achieved several things. It secured community input into identifying its needs and priorities. It reinvigorated the local development committee and made it more inclusive. It helped the community move towards a stronger and more effective reporting and accountability process with international donors.  It secured a commitment to factor in local hands-on involvement when submitting and implementing new community-designed projects. It explored the possibility of the community making and selling washable feminine hygiene kits and birthing kits.  It also looked at how the talented Lotumbe choirs could be “taken to the world”.

Next steps

Following its latest visit, Handup Congo identified the following as priorities:

  • Continue working with all partners to ensure capacity building and up-skilling of local leaders. The train-the-trainer model could be used in many skill arenas, including participatory community development processes; income generation; IT training and support; health and education support; and effective land-use. 
  • Continue to source big and small partners to collaborate with the leadership in Mbandaka and the villagers of Lotumbe as part of the 23 “post” network, as well as with UPC.

If readers are aware of partners who may be interested in sustainable community development in DRC, please contact Handup Congo (

Robyn Hutchinson is a member of ICA Australia.

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