Heading off hunger in the other Congo
It’s mid afternoon in Kimouanda, the Republic of the Congo. Underneath a spreading mango tree, Marie is busy preparing a dish of cassava and greens over an open fire. It will be her family’s only meal that day. Marie’s home is just over the river, but it might as well be a world away because it’s too dangerous for her to go back.
Back in June, she and her five children left home as fighting erupted in the middle of the night. They fled to the nearest town with what they could carry. With nine other families, Marie and her children now sleep in an abandoned brick church building, and get their drinking water from the river.
From time to time, a neighbour will let her work in their fields for the day, and pay her in-kind. Her daughters have started informal petty trade — anything to earn income, however modest. But making ends meet is difficult for Marie and her family because there are over 900 displaced people in Kimouanda and only 500 hosts. Getting by has been very difficult. “I’m hungry. We are hungry,” she says, “Do you understand?”
Stories like Marie’s are all too common in the verdant Pool region of the Republic of the Congo, where fighting began after the 2016 election. Over the past year, without attracting much media attention, thousands of people have had to leave their homes, and now survive with very limited assistance.
As of May, the government estimated that over 80,000 people had been displaced — significant numbers for a country of 4.5 million. The displaced are having a hard time meeting their most basic needs, and a June assessment showed that half of them are food insecure. Children are the most at risk: acute malnutrition affects more than 15 percent, a level that is above the emergency threshold of the World Health Organization.
Often confused with neighbouring the Democratic Republic of the Congo, the Republic of the Congo is an oil-exporting country that achieved middle income country status in 2012 thanks to natural resource exports. Unfortunately, depressed oil prices over the past three years have drained government coffers, and Congo now needs support from the international community to assist thousands of people in need.
The Pool has historically been one of Congo’s breadbaskets, supplying Brazzaville and other cities with fresh produce such as cassava, beans, bananas and rice. Over the past year, insecurity has taken a toll on food production. Farmers in the most affected areas find themselves unable to cultivate their fields for fear of armed men, and are growing backyard gardens for their own subsistence instead. Unsafe roads have dampened trade, and reduced production has caused food prices to rise in some areas.
In July, the Government and the UN rang the alarm, launching a US$24 million humanitarian appeal to address urgent humanitarian needs for 138,000 people affected by the Pool crisis. Thankfully, the UN’s Central Emergency Response Fund and USAID have provided the resources to kick off the response.
At WFP, our team in Nkayi is providing assistance to people from the Pool who have fled to the security of the neighboring district of Bouenza. Mobile money transfers allow displaced people to buy basic foods at any of a dozen shops in the area.
People receive a mobile money top-up each month. With the transfers, people buy rice, spaghetti, tomatoes, oil, sugar and salted fish. Buying food from a shop means they are receiving assistance with dignity, and it gives people a sense of normalcy.
Because displaced people have been living with very limited assistance, this help is especially welcome. “Coming to a strange city as a displaced person is not easy,” Christine, one of our beneficiaries, told us. “With this food, some of our concerns are alleviated.”
WFP is increasing its plans, in order to reach 70,000 people in the coming months. In addition to our mobile money, we are providing food rations in the more remote areas. And we plan to emphasize prevention and to treat malnutrition, by providing women and children at risk with specialized foods, and by working with others who provide medical care.
Above all, people like Marie and Christine are hoping for security to return, so that they can go back home and rebuild their lives. Until then, food assistance will help ensure they and their children have the minimum to get by.