Pandemic derails trade for Congo's disabled border couriers

Djaffar Al Katanty
·2-min read

By Djaffar Al Katanty

GOMA, Democratic Republic of Congo (Reuters) - Perched on a super-sized tricycle laden with sacks of mangoes, disabled courier Claude Kalwira scooted over the short stretch of no-man's-land between Rwanda and the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Due to his disability, Kalwira has a permit to shuttle some goods in and out of Congo tax-free, but an eight-month border closure last year caused by the coronavirus meant he and 200 fellow couriers saw business dry up.

While borders reopened on Nov. 5, a new testing requirement means the 30-year-old's cart, a hodgepodge of steel tubing and butchered motorcycle parts, is now one of only a few dozen plying the route between the twin cities of Rubavu and Goma.

"This border is vital for us," said Kalwira, who lost his right arm in a car accident when he was young.

In a country with few opportunities for people living with disabilities, Kalwira's trade exists thanks to a decades-old quirk in customs law.

Sending goods via the custom-made carts is cheaper than hiring a truck, so demand bounced back once travel resumed across the busy crossing.

But most have not been able to benefit.

The authorities now require the couriers to take regular COVID-19 tests, which at $40 per swab is a prohibitive cost for many who earn less than $20 per day.

Rwanda gives free tests to Kalwira and around 60 of his colleagues, but the remaining 140 couriers must pay their own way.

Hoping for a break, the out-of-work couriers have been gathering on their hybrid bikes on the Congolese side of the border.

Father-of-six Dieu Merci Kahasha called on the Congolese government to step in.

"If Rwanda can help the Congolese people by giving them free tests, our government should also ... so that we too can find food for our families."

(Reporting by Djaffar Al Katanty; Writing by Hereward Holland; Editing by Giles Elgood)