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In War-Torn Congo, Going Wireless to Reach Home

Fiston Disundi, an ex-soldier, receives cash in a transaction recorded on the teller's cellphone. The payment aims to get fighters to turn in their guns.
Fiston Disundi, an ex-soldier, receives cash in a transaction recorded on the teller's cellphone. The payment aims to get fighters to turn in their guns. (Kevin Sullivan - Twp)

When Iyombe wants to make a deposit to his account, he can go to one of more than 100 "cash points" set up across the country. Most are small booths with a person sitting inside with a cellphone and a cash box, known here as "human teller machines." Iyombe gives cash to the clerk, who sends a text message to Celpay noting the deposit. Iyombe then receives a text message confirmation that the money has been credited to his account.

Lazarus Muchenje, chief executive of Celpay, said his company is trying to capitalize on the Congolese embrace of cellphone technology: "We are using the credibility of the cellphone network." Celpay is owned by FirstRand Banking Group, a major South African financial institution.

At a busy gas station in Kinshasa, manager Tharcisse Tshimanga said he gets six or eight customers a day paying with their phones.

"People trust this," he said. "It's made everything easier."

Tool of Corruption, Peace

Cellphones have also created a new kind of corruption in a country rife with it: People here tell of government officials demanding bribes in the form of airtime transferred to their cellphones. Local officials said they believe armed rebel groups use cellphones and texts to coordinate their operations in the country's eastern provinces, where they fight regularly with 17,000 U.N. peacekeepers, the largest U.N. force in the world.

But the technology is also being used to create peace, as with a program to disarm more than 150,000 men and women who fought in Congo's gruesome war.

One recent morning in downtown Kinshasa, Fiston Disundi walked up to a little white Celpay cash point booth and handed over his government ID.

The woman in the booth entered his ID number into her cellphone and sent a text message to Celpay's computer database. Ten seconds later the response came back. Disundi, 27, was a former soldier who had turned in his AK-47 rifle in January. That meant he was entitled to a monthly $25 cash payment, which she promptly handed over to him.

The World Bank, Britain, France and other big donors have put up $200 million for the year-old program, designed to turn Congo's warriors into wage earners. So far more than 75,000 people have handed over their guns in exchange for job training and a cash incentive: an initial $110 payment, followed by monthly $25 payments for a year.

Initially, clerks using thick account books with handwritten entries were having trouble making the thousands of payments efficiently. So, in February the program contracted with Celpay to modernize the process.

Disundi said when he received his first two $25 payments, he waited nearly six hours in long lines while clerks dug through record books to find his details. But when he went to the Celpay booth recently, the transaction took less than a minute. The system also confirmed that Disundi was where he was supposed to be: Ex-combatants must agree to stay in their home regions rather than gathering with others in hotspots.

Sitting in the shade in the intense morning heat, Disundi, a thin man with a scruffy beard, said he'd been carrying a gun since 1997, when his parents were killed by a mortar shell that fell on their house. "I saw so many terrible things," he said. "I felt nothing anymore. I was just waiting to die."

He said he's relieved not to be carrying a weapon. He wants to become a mechanic so he can support his two children.

"I don't want them to go through what I've been through," he said.

He has no job and almost no money. But he has a cellphone, which rang over and over as he talked.

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