“The trains are running again. We have peace,” says Didier, the station master at Mindouli, in the Republic of Congo’s southern region of Pool.
But a glance at the weeds growing on the line connecting the capital Brazzaville and the port city of Pointe-Noire shows that traffic — to put it gently — is not huge.
Outside the station, a war-battered relic of French colonial times, a few plucky hawkers have set up stalls in the hope of snaring a little cash.
More than two years after a brutal civil conflict in Pool, the second in 20 years, was settled, Congo’s key agricultural region remains deeply depressed.
The so-called Pool War erupted in April 2016, pitting the forces of President Denis Sassou Nguesso against the troops of Frederic Bintsamou, a Protestant clergyman and leader of a rebel group called the Ninjas.
A ceasefire ended the conflict in December 2017 — but it took until November 2018 for traffic to resume on the Congo-Ocean Railway.
Even today, there are no passenger trains and a new Chinese-built highway siphons off much of the meagre trade.
“On average, we have five trains a day,” says Didier. “Before, we used to have three times as many.”
The track is old, the rolling stock decrepit and out of the first seven months of this year, workers went unpaid for four, employees say.
The state’s coffers are empty.
The government, run by Sassou Nguesso for 35 years, has debts of $9.5 billion, nearly a third of which is owed to state enterprises and private firms.
In July, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) gave Congo a three-year loan of nearly $450 million after revenues from oil, the country’s main currency earner, crashed.
Congo, with a population of 4.6 million, has a poverty rate of 43 percent, according to the UN Development Programme (UNDP).
The country ranks a lowly 135th out of 188 nations rated in terms of human development, and life expectancy is a mere 62.9 years, compared to 80.9 years in the EU.
– Abandoned ‘Garden’ –
The name of the Pool department derives from Stanley Pool, which the 19th-century European colonialist Henry Stanley named after himself.
It comes from a lake-like broadening of the mighty Congo River in its lower reaches.
The region controls the corridor to the Atlantic coast from the capital Brazzaville, which sits on the opposite bank of the Congo from Kinshasa, the capital of the vast Democratic Republic of Congo.
Pool’s nickname is the “Garden of Congo” — for decades, its rich soil, plentiful rainful and tropical warmth brought forth cheap and plentiful corn, manioc, millet, peanuts, pork and farmed fish.
Today, though, the region of plenty bears the imprint of want in a country burdened by debt.
A cement factory which opened on the outskirts of Mindouli in January 2018 and provides several hundred jobs, seems to be one of the rare causes for optimism.
But, says Diamond Cement manager Clement Mawuli Ahialey, a Togolese, times are hard. The plant has a capacity of 700,000 tonnes a year, but produces just 4,000 tonnes a month.
The plant’s opening was delayed by several years as a result of the Pool War — by which time the price of cement had crashed.
“When I arrived in Congo in 2009, a tonne of cement sold for 200,000 CFA francs ($341, 304 euros). Today, it’s 40,000. We’re selling at a loss,” he said.
– Aid appeal –
The Congo government, the UN and 16 humanitarian organisations last month put out the begging bowl for $23.7 million (21.19 million euros) to help 138,000 distressed people in Pool for the next six months.
A June 2017 survey found that more than half of families in Pool were living in food insecurity — among children in displaced families, more than one in six is acutely malnourished.
In Mindouli, the World Food Programme is working with a Congolese partner to restore fish farms.
Three ponds, each measuring about 50 metres (yards) by 50 metres, are already filled with water and awaiting their fish.
At a fourth pond, dozens of workers, hired on a basis of 1,500 CFA francs ($2.5 / 2.25 euros) per day, clear out weeds from the dried-up bed.