Visiting conflict affected communities in North Kivu, DRC (Feburary 2014)

We got back safely from a wonderful, insightful trip to the rural areas of North Kivu today (Eastern DRC) a few days ago. Thanks to your prayers, we did not get attacked by bandits on the dodgy bit of the road (in the national park) and everything went well overall.

Our local partner BOAD went with us on the trip and I got to sit in the vehicle with them, which was fun as I got to know them better. The driver, J., was a great laugh as was A., the finance officer for BOAD—it was also nice to have some bonding time with her as we also shared our accommodation at the convent together—more about that later. We had a long and bumpy journey—Kanyabayonga is only about 150km away but the roads are not tarmacked and very bumpy and dusty, so a journey that could take two hours on a Western type road can take anything from 4 hours here, depending on traffic, punctures or holds up at any toll stations or check points.

As usual the road trip itself was fascinating—I love watching the world go by, seeing people head off to the market with babies or fruit on their backs. We headed out of Goma on the airport side of the town which is close to the volcano and that whole area is built on volcanic rock —as a result, people in that part of Goma cannot use the usual building methods of wood held together with mud, so they build wooden houses instead. In general people here tend to like using wood for things which means there is a lot of deforestation as people use it for firewood, building and wooden bikes, among others. That said what to do when wood is the only thing you can afford?

The drive to Kayabanyonga pretty much takes you North from Goma , and you are initially close to the border with Rwanda (very close, in fact I can see Rwanda and there gas extraction plants on the lake from my new hotel here in Goma) and then Uganda. It also takes you through the national park where one is supposed to be able to see elephants, gorillas and other animals. That whole area and Kayabanyonga is under DRC government control so you see a whole combination of police, military, military training and national park guards along the way. I was struck by just how many military officials hang around alone or in pairs only, especially in the national park—they are practically there as a deterrent as there is not much they could do really if they got attacked by a big group of people. The soldiers seem to have no transport whatsoever—so you see them riding on motorbikes, in cars and on trucks with civilians. Not great as they practically make civilians a target if they do get attacked but apparently there is no provision whatsoever for military transportation so they have no choice. Compare that to the big MONUSCO trucks driving backwards and forwards on the roads—big lorries full of soldiers in blue helmets, who seem to just patrol backwards and forwards on the main roads……Since the MONUSCO, together with the Armed Forces of DRC (FARDC) managed to drive out one of the rebel groups, the M23, there has been talk of a possible attack against the FDLR (rebel group made up of ex-Rwandan forces who fled from Rwanda after the genocide as they were Hutus and had persecuted the Tutsi), but no one seems to know if and when this may happen.

Kanyabayonga is in the hills so a little cooler and it is a very pretty green, lush area, with mud houses dotted all along the hills. We had our first meeting the afternoon we arrived at Bulindi health centre. The aim of that was to speak to the nurse and counsellor there to see how they had found the part of the project which focused on giving medical and psychological support to women who have been victims of sexual and gender based violence. Local community groups have a role to play in identifying and referring women who have been raped to the health centres so that they can receive post exposure prophylaxis (PEP) and counselling from the counsellor there, Micheline. She is actually also part of the community groups and used to work as a volunteer. Now, through the project, she receives a small stipend of USD 50 per month but that will stop once the project ends on the 28th, and she will then return to working as a volunteer. In her words, “the project found us working and we will continue to work when it ends”. She also asked the donor to consider doing something for the victims after the project ends, stating that “if you do something for them you are doing it for me”. She is obviously very committed to the women she works with, and covers long distances to visit them in their homes. It was touching.

Bulindi Counsellor Micheline at Bulindi explains her passion for her work

The problem with any kind of health service in DRC is that health centres do not have the budget to provide any services for free. At the moment “sustainability” in any kind of health service provision means that one NGO stops working and another steps in with new funding…..which is actually not very sustainable. There is a huge need for advocacy for this to change-after all, it is ultimately the Congolese government’s responsibility to provide healthcare to its citizens, but all that is a long way off. This is also why so many people in the communities prefer to go to traditional healers rather than seek official health care for even basic medical services such as antenatal care.

The following day we had a big field day and visited Bulindi, Iyobora, Butalongola and Kilambo communities. The ECHO representative wanted to visit project activities so we spent the day walking around in the few fields that still had crops on them ( a lot of them have been harvested), notably cabbages, peppers and beans. The project basically gave the beneficiaries ( who are either newly displaced people, displaced people who have returned home or host families whose resources have been under pressure due to the large influx of displaced people or returnees) food assistance but also helped them buy seeds and tools to set up agricultural activities again, so that they can grow their own crops, eat some of them (and have a healthier diet) and sell others, and also build up a stock of quality seeds so that they can sow again when the seasons starts and continue their activities. They also received training on farming techniques, and I spoke to one man, Adolphe, in Bulindi community, who told me that he had grown cabbages before but they had also been small—now, with better skills and techniques, he can grow nice big cabbages. That said, each cabbage only sells for half a dollar on the local market —-compare that rate with the annual primary school fee of USD 25 or the secondary fee of USD 60 and you understand why so many people here cannot afford to send their children to school or pay for healthcare. None of these two services are free in the DRC.

Bulindi Adolphe with his cabbage

In every village, everywhere we stopped, children appeared from nowhere shouting “Muzungu” (white person) and then followed me round wherever I went. There were little girls with their siblings on their backs, wiggley ones, 3-4 years of age, some of them in rags, and older children. They followed me around giggling, smiling and fascinated by the camera, so I obliged them and took zillions of photos of them to show them and give them a laugh.

Butalongola they followed me wherever I went

It was so sweet all the little ones scrambling around me to see the screen on my camera. It broke my heart as well though: there were so many malnourished little kiddie winks there–the fat little bellies and other signs apparently include whitening of the hair and scalp infections. In Iyobora particularly, a lot of kids and adults had respiratory infections—lots of small children, even babies, coughing away on their mothers’ backs. The water there is really bad quality –just drops of water from a tiny, contaminated water source. There was also clearly a lot of poverty—many of the kids were in rags or very old, torn clothing and they were all keen to get hold of our empty water bottles. It breaks my heart and all I can do is cry out to God to have mercy on DRC.

Kilambo kids who waited with us 2 jpg

I was struck by how hard people were working. Both men and women were in the fields but so, so many women and children were beavering away, carrying water (often heavy jerry cans full), extremely heavy loads of agricultural produce (which they carry on their backs in big sacks with a kind of rope round the head)—many women have babies on their backs on top of that or have tied them to their front with a big piece of material. One of the beneficiaries we spoke to had a 1.5 month old baby daughter strapped on her back as she worked away in her field in Bulindi—and that in the scorching heat. She was such a beautiful young mother—and had the most wonderful smile.

Bulindi female beneficiary working her field with her 2 month old baby

We also visited some of the beneficiaries’ homes to see the stocks of seeds that they had built up: beans, maize and others. The sad thing is that many of the beneficiaries may ultimately be forced to eat what they have saved for the next planting season as they will run out of food; the other possibility is that armed groups operating in the area come and steal their stock or food supplies. This has already happened in one village. If it wasn’t for this kind of thing and the sexual violence, neither the presence of armed groups nor their control of the area would be a problem.

I had to abstain from one of the visits to the fields as my tummy was a little wobbly so I stayed behind in Kilamobo community with Jose, the BOAD protection officer. We were invited by an old community elder to sit in the shade outside his house –he was very friendly but already quite drunk on a local, extremely strong alcoholic drink. Apparently his house also doubled as a kind of bar as there were also 5 other older men sitting outside, all smelling of alcohol. We chatted for a while and he gave me 5 beautiful avocados, two of which I have saved , 2 shared with the nuns and 1 with the gentle cleaning lady at the convent who brought us warm water to wash with every morning (which was so lovely, there is so much dust here) and who made us breakfast. Of course there were little kiddies again who played in the banana trees behind us—one of them, smiley little thing, had quite a bad skin infection on his head. He turned out to be the community elder’s little grandchild.

Agnes and I stayed in the convent with 4 lovely nuns (sadly, due to the late hours, we did not really get to spend time with them); and the guys stayed with the priest. The blokes had slightly better conditions as they had a toilet inside the building and electricity—whereas we had to navigate with torches and the basic loo was a bit of a walk through the grass. That said, I would not have missed the convent with the sisters for the world: they were so sweet and so welcoming.

The priest himself was quite a character—very welcoming, very direct. We got to know him better yesterday as we bumped into him in town. He invited us to sit with him and two other guests. The guys had some beer and Agnes and I both had a soft drink—until he started telling us about the alcohol the sisters make: he then proceeded to get one of the nuns from the convent and she came back with him with a homemade pineapple alcohol drink which was actually very yummy. The hilarious thing was that the priest was then actually late for his own mass the next day (we found that out from the sister as we had our breakfast)—whether that was due to the alcohol or not I will never know.

Our journey home went well—BOAD did not come back with us but we managed to form a convoy with another NGO which is always better: should one vehicle have a problem of any sort, the other is there to help. We saw baboons on the way!!!! They were sitting there munching something in the middle of the road and moved out of our way only very reluctantly. We thanked them by giving them some biscuits. I was so excited and managed to get a picture through the closed window—after my experience in the Krueger Park in South Africa when a baboon climbed into the car with me, I did not want us to open the windows for the pic. We also saw some impalas (deer) along the way.

Now I am back in Goma until tomorrow and then I head to Kinshasa again. I think we have achieved a lot here in Goma; I just hope in Kinshasa, it’s the same. There is such a need for funding here–so many of our local partners (whom we also had a meeting with in the office here in Goma) have asked me for more support.  I pray that I can somehow help raise the funds that are needed to continue all the team’s important work.