Images: Guillaume Binet for Action Against Hunger
A drive through the conflict in Congo
Our colleague in the Democratic Republic of Congo, takes us on a journey through the most conflict-ridden region of the country, the Kasai.
May 7 2019
The impact of years of conflict in the Democratic Republic of Congo can still clearly be felt today. A large proportion of the population suffers from severe malnutrition and it is the children who are most affected by hunger and a lack of sufficient, nutritious food. More than 13.1 million people, including 7.7 million children, are in need of humanitarian assistance and protection. The region of Kasai has been the epicentre of the majority of the violence in the country and remains an area with high tensions. Despite this danger, our teams are working in the Kasai region, helping the communities to rebuild their lives.
We have 205 staff members supporting displaced communities all over the country. They work hard to improve access to clean water and sanitation facilities, screen and treat children for malnutrition, distribute hygiene kits, hand out food and supplies and provide psycho-social support through group therapy.
Last year, our colleague Coline Aymard, travelled across the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) to look at the link between conflict and hunger. She tells us about her experience and explains the multi-layered context of working in the DRC.
Luc Bellon, the Director of Action Against Hunger in the Democratic Republic of Congo, once said to me ‘the context of this country can be summed up in three words; unpredictability, instability and tenacity’.
As we drive through the country on the main motorway, I don’t know what to expect and I can feel a sense of unpredictability all around me. We pass villages that have been totally deserted or burned to the ground, showing the scars of the conflict that has torn through the region since August 2016. Before the conflict broke out, the Kasai region had been a stable and peaceful part of the country for over 60 years. Who could have predicted this level of violence? The Government, regional experts and even the local communities were none the wiser to what was about to happen in the region.
To understand this unpredictable context, you have to first understand that this country did not experience one crisis, but a wave of crises over twenty years. For us, as humanitarian staff trying to support the vulnerable communities, it is important that our response and programmes reflect this complexity.
We’re out in the middle of nowhere and our driver slows down as we near a checkpoint. The uniformed men start talking to our driver and we reach for our credentials. Despite being recognised officially as a Non-Governmental Organisation (NGO), we still have to pass through the same check points as anyone else travelling around the country. We had to explain what we were doing in the region and show all the relevant documents. Everyone warned us that in the DRC they take administrative duties very seriously and it can take hours for checks to be completed to a T. We were called out of the car one by one and questioned by the guards at the checkpoint. Finally satisfied with our answers and paperwork, they let us go, but not without taking the chance to shake some money out of our driver. We got back in the car and he said “negotiation is all part of the game out here.”
Driving through the lush, green scenery, I noticed a real contradiction. Whilst this tropical country’s produce could easily feed the population, millions of people are suffering from hunger. In the Democratic Republic of Congo, almost 10 million people suffer from food insecurity and can’t access enough, or any nutritious food.
The reasons for this disparity are numerous, and we got a glimpse of some of them on our drive through the Kasai region. From political tensions and a climate of protest against the government, to new policies favouring mining over farming, to new and old armed struggles, it is clear that the whole region is built on unstable foundations.
As the sun begins to set, we approach Kikwit. Surprisingly, we arrived safe and even before nightfall. I open up the map and see that we are a small point in the middle of a region as big as Italy in the heart of Congo.
We start our journey back to Kinshasa at dawn. Tomorrow the capital will be shut down for protests, so we hope to get there before the roads are blocked off. Finally, the road turns into tarmac. I never thought I would care so much about the state of the roads, but after days of being thrown around in the back of the car on off track roads, it’s a real relief for the team to be on flat ground.
We drive past women holding pots of water on their heads. Come rain or shine, these women walk kilometres to and from water sources. Every time we drive past one of these girls or women collecting water, I think of the tenacity that Luc spoke about. They walk for hours and have had to build these long journeys into their routine.
Action Against Hunger has built water sources in Kamonia and Tshikapa to help families access water. A few days ago, we visited Kasala, where the job of collecting water mostly fell on the little girls in the region. They had to walk down winding dirt paths down to a cliff edge, where they lowered the heavy containers into the water before filling it up and lifting it to their heads to carry home. Our work in the area has helped these girls gain hours of their day back while also providing safe and drinkable water which has helped to reduce the spread of water borne diseases.
As we approach Kinshasa the villages begin to look different. Some of the houses are surrounded by small gardens or fields growing crops and there are lots more animals roaming freely. The closer we get the capital, the louder the sounds of cars beeping and loud music gets. The smell of fried chicken wafts in through the widow.
The cars around us hurry past and squeeze between traffic as the people complain and shout. In my head, I keep thinking about how apt the three words Luc used to describe this place are: unpredictability, instability and tenacity.
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