Deployment Diary 1: Trouble in Paradise
By Aaron Brent, Senior Humanitarian Team Leader, CARE International
The Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) has always been fascinating to me. Looking at a map of the world, one will notice a massive green space in the middle of the African continent. It really does look like the heart of the continent, much like a friendly storekeeper once described to me:
“The DRC is a paradise; it’s a country that possesses unimaginable mineral resources, millions of a hectares of fertile land, vast rivers and water systems and a diverse and resilient people”
… But paradise is far from how most people would describe the country. Fate has not chosen an easy path for DRC’s citizens.
Since the mid-1990s, the DRC has juggled conflict, war and crisis. Fast forward to 2017 and the people of DRC find themselves in a complex situation with over 3.8 million people displaced throughout the country and conflicts raging in the Kasai Region, the Kivus and Tanganyika. Each of these areas is markedly different and the reasons for the conflict in each area vary. The consequences however, remain the same. Civilians caught up in this conflict lose everything: their homes, their livelihoods, their dignity and far too often their lives.
Though this scene is all too familiar for many citizens, they tell me that nowadays something seems different. Things are even more urgent this time with the latest conflict erupting in Kasai, an area as large as Germany. A young teacher, Sady*, only about 30 years old, shared her experience with me. “The fighting and the killing have never been seen before in Kasai. Even my grandparents cannot recall any time like this. This really affected people in the town, and even the students in my class still talk about the incidents and are scared by it. It may take a long time for people to return to their normal lives. But we are hopeful.”
Lending a hand “bien sapé”
I recently touched down in the town of Mbuji Mayi, Kasai Oriental Province, with the CARE DRC team, after a series of travel mishaps (that’s another story — stay tuned). They form a dynamic group: David works as CARE emergency coordinator, Rose as CARE’s gender expert and then we have Dr. Martin, CARE’s Sexual Reproductive and Maternal Health specialist in the DRC. David is a seasoned aid worker and tells stories of the most amazing experiences and close calls he has had over the years, he gets louder and louder as he tells his stories, reliving the experience and drawing you in. Rose is quieter and calmer, a mother of seven children and fantastically dedicated to her job. Dr Martin somehow manages to combine the visage of a professor with the presence and clothing of a hipster. In Congolese French, we say someone is “bien sapé” — well dressed. Martin is always bien sapé.
All three of them are Congolese. Each one of them in turn can tell you endless stories of the conflicts they have lived through in the past 20 years and what they have had to do to keep their family safe and survive. Despite this, they are still in the DRC and work tirelessly daily with CARE to improve the lives of their fellow citizens. I worked in the DRC in 2003 and 2004 and what I always remember is how resilient the Congolese people are. No matter what they have been through, done or seen to survive, they are always able to smile, laugh and lend a hand to their community. David, Rose, and Martin are no exceptions to this rule.
Can we make a difference?
Once settled in my hotel room, I think about everything I have seen since arriving in the DRC. I think about all the work we have to do. About my own safe and comfortable house back in France. I wonder if people from my hometown would think about the same things I do if they came and saw the situation for themselves.
I begin to think about Rose’s work on sexual and reproductive health and gender based violence activities earlier this week — how relevant it all is. She skilfully conducts training sessions for community health focal points. As part of the overall health system in the DRC the community focal points are located throughout the country in the most remote villages and work mainly as volunteers. They help point people in the right direction when they need medical care and encourage community members to go to health centres. For this reason they are a critical part of the programme we are putting in place. Survivors of rape may not even know they have the option to get treatment and care that may save their lives and help them recover if not for these volunteers.
During such sessions Rose creates a trusting environment so that participants can share stories of sexual violence that have occurred in their villages. Almost all of them can relate to incidents that have occurred in the last few months and it is clear there are huge needs. Rose also spends some time with people to understand and challenge the traditional gender roles in these communities. Though Congolese herself, she comes from a different region, where traditions and customs are different so these sessions present the opportunity for her to learn and adapt our activities to best fit within distinct community structures.
Looking towards the future, the team also plans to contribute towards tackling the issue of food security. People’s fields were burned or pillaged when they fled and now they have missed to plant for one or two agricultural seasons and may miss another and there is already widespread moderate and acute malnutrition in this region.
We also plan to help the most vulnerable with cash grants that will allow them to attend to their immediate foods needs for their families and buy the seeds and tools they need for another harvest. Using experience CARE has in the rest of the DRC, we will also help them establish small village saving and loans associations which will build their resilience and help them get through the hard times.
Plans are also being developed to address water related issues. We will do this through initiatives such as provision of water points like a boreholes with hand pumps that are located close to villages so women and girls don’t have to walk unimaginable distances to fetch water. This will also be safer for them as they won’t have walk long distances and face the danger of abuse or rape by armed groups. We hope to accompany all this by building latrines and hygiene promotion that will further cut down on disease and help alleviate malnutrition in the process. Yet we are extremely short on funds. The DRC conflict happens outside of the news agenda and we receive very little donations to get our activities up and running.
My mind unconsciously pans over all the faces I have encountered since my time here began. It is only inspiring to see colleagues like Martin, Rose and David wake up each day with unwavering drive to serve their communities. Reflecting on conversations I have had, I pause on the last conversation I had with Sady, whose poignant but simple message begins to echo through these memories:
“In order to get water, I must walk about two and a half hours down to the river to collect water and carry it back to my house. Having easier access to water would make my life so much better…Just tell people in the rest of the world how much we are suffering here so they will know.”
I hope the world will begin to hear those voices.
*Name changed to protect identity
CARE has been present in the DRC since 1994, working to assist the most vulnerable members of Congolese society eradicate poverty and reduce their vulnerability to social injustice. Our target groups include poor and vulnerable women, adolescent girls and boys as well as displaced and returning populations.