Concern in DRC: A long, hard road

Written by Kieran McConville

More than two decades of hard work

The Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) did not exist in July 1994, when a team from Concern Worldwide first arrived in the town of Goma. This regional outpost in the east of the Republic of Zaire had rapidly become the center of world attention, as hundreds of thousands of refugees fled over the nearby border in the aftermath of the Rwandan genocide. Many of them were implicated in the ethnically driven mass killings and their arrival would become the trigger for a series of catastrophic conflicts, causing untold misery for the Congolese people .

Refugees walking along the crowded road to Goma, Zaire carrying their possessions

Rwandan refugees on the road to Goma, Zaire in late 1994. (Photo: Liam Burke / Press 22)

A tough environment

Those who worked for Concern in the refugee camps of Goma were deeply affected by the suffering and death caused by cholera, dysentery, thirst and starvation, but also by the deep underlying tone of violence and darkness that pervaded.

“A number of agencies wrestled with the idea of helping so-called genocidaires, but within Concern we were clear…”

Dominic MacSorley, now CEO of Concern, recalls, “It was a really tough environment – physically and morally on all levels. A number of agencies wrestled with the idea of helping so-called ‘genocidaires,’ but within Concern we were clear… the humanitarian imperative demands objectivity. A lot of lives were saved in the months and years that followed.”

Makeshift shelters in a crowded, rocky area on the outskirts of Goma, Zaire. Concern Worldwide provided emergency relief services here from 1994 for Rwandan refugees.

One of the refugee camps on the outskirts of Goma, Zaire, where Concern provided emergency relief from for people displaced in the wake of the Rwandan genocide in 1994. (Photo: Concern Worldwide)

One project which stood out at the time was the organized repatriation and reconnection of hundreds of unaccompanied refugee children with their families in Rwanda. Years later, MacSorley would return to meet some of them, an experience he describes as cathartic.

Descent into chaos

There have been few bright spots since then for the people of DRC. Many of those involved in the Rwandan genocide took refuge in the eastern hills and forests of this vast country, and several neighboring countries were subsequently drawn into a protracted and bloody conflict, which lasted for 10 years. Many people were killed, injured, or displaced – some estimates put the death toll between 1998 and 2008 in excess of five million, although it’s unlikely the true figure will ever be known.

UN vehicles on patrol in DRC

A MONUSCO BMP armored vehicle patrolling the outskirts of Goma, July 2012. (Photo: MONUSCO/Sylvain Liechti)

This country is huge and has vast reserves of mineral wealth. However, as is so often the case, that wealth has not necessarily translated into better living conditions for all. Many parts of DRC are seriously remote – often inaccessible for months on end due to heavy rains. Government services such as health and education are poorly resourced and today the average income per capita is less than $500 a year.

A daily struggle

Reagan Mbuyu married his high school sweetheart, Thérèse, seven years ago. He says they lived well, with their own home, a fertile plot of land, and three young children. Then their village was overrun by another ethnic group and they ran.

A family photo of Reagan Mbuyu

Reagan Mbuyu, his wife Therese and their two children outside their temporary home in Manono, DRC. The family was selected to participate in Concern’s Graduation program. (Photo: Kieran McConville)

Last year one of the tunnels he works in collapsed and his friend was buried alive.

Today they live in a rented house with only half a roof in the town of Manono. Reagan works in a tin mine, a job that is difficult and dangerous – last year one of the tunnels he works in collapsed and his friend was buried alive. But he sees no other choice if he’s to support his young family. They only manage one meal a day and the children, aged 6, 4 and 2 are listless and often sick.

Building for the future

Since the late 1990’s, Concern has focused much of its efforts on long-term development, building schools and health centers, training teachers and health volunteers, and supporting agriculture and livelihood projects. Over the past 20 years, millions of people have benefited from this work, supported by funding from the likes of the British, Irish, and American governments and donations from the public and charitable foundations. 

The construction of a school in North Kivu, DRC in 1998.

Today programs stretch from the lowlands of the south to the hills of the north.  In Tanganyika, a province in the southeast which has struggled to recover from the civil war and collapse of the tin mining industry, Concern has been leading a massive effort to roll out new water and sanitation infrastructure. Boreholes, wells, hand pumps, and latrines have been built in dozens of poor communities. Often that involves renovating or even building roads simply to reach remote villages. But lessons learned long ago have shown that building things is not enough. A huge amount of time is spent working with communities to ensure that good hygiene becomes a part of daily life.

Construction on a road in DRC

One of the roads being rehabilitated by Concern in Manono, DRC, to provide access for well-drilling equipment. (Photo:Kieran McConville / Concern Worldwide)


The essentials for development

In the village of Mulombwa, Liliana recalls how she would collect water several times a day from a reservoir she says was “left by the ancestors” — a manmade pond just outside of town. “The water was trouble. It was dark.” Liliana’s brothers and sisters got sick from the water, and so did she, often missing school due to diarrhea.

When the Concern team arrived, Liliana remembers how much emphasis they put on good practices such as handwashing and keeping household plots tidy. They worked with the community to build a new pump and protective enclosure, and for the first time Mulombwa had a regular supply of clean drinking water. 

Liliana drinks cup of water

Liliana lives with her family in Mulombwa, DRC where dirty water was making people sick. Concern built the town a water pump, and taught good hygiene practices as part of the WASH programming. (Photo: Kieran McConville)

Liliana used to spend hours every day just getting water for her family. “Now it just takes me two minutes fetch water!” Plus, she can get more water in each trip.

“With my spare time, I can help my mother around the house and do my homework.” And now she doesn’t get sick as much, so she hardly ever misses school. Her studies are especially important because when Liliana grows up, she wants to be a nurse. “I want to heal people,” she says.

Water is just part of the solution though, with an entire strategy for improving hygiene and sanitation now in place.

The Mulumbwa pump is maintained by a water management committee, elected by the village, and the community is fundraising to pay for ongoing maintenance. Liliana’s mother pays 500 francs (approximately 32 cents) into the fund every month.

A maintenance team works on the water pump

Ongoing maintenance of a water pump built by Concern in Mulombwa, DRC. (Photo: Kieran McConville)

Running for their lives

Sadly for DRC, the violence has not gone away. Civil war has been replaced by ongoing outbreaks of armed conflict, triggered by land, natural resource, or ethnic disputes. Today in the northern district of Masisi, which borders Rwanda, thousands of families are driven from their homes every year by “armed groups” who take over their land.  Often they will flee in terror and leave most of their possessions behind, arriving at displacement camps in neighboring towns and villages with just clothes and a few portable items.

A couple standing outside a temporary shlter on a hillside in DRC with a set of household goods given to them by Concern

Munyabarenzi Mpakniye and her husband, Muragije Nyiramiasha outside their shelter in a displacement camp with an NFI kit they received from Concern Worldwide. They have six children, ranging in age from 4 to 18 years. (Photo: Kieran McConville, Concern Worldwide)

Munyabarenzi, her husband, and their six children left at night as attackers approached their village hill by hill. The camp they came to is on a very steep hillside about a kilometre outside the village of Bushani. The family took over a tiny shelter which had been abandoned by someone else. Munyabarenzi says the only things they brought were a small casserole pot, a plastic jerry can, and the clothes they were wearing.

The first assistance they received was a household kit from Concern, which included new jerry cans, cooking pots, mugs, plates, silverware, blankets, sleeping mats, family clothing, female sanitary products and a 4×6-meter tarpaulin.

 “I have been wearing the same dress for months.”

“I am so happy — this is very important for us,” Munyabarenzi says. “There are blankets to keep us warm and new clothes – I have been wearing the same dress for months.”

Her husband, Muragije, says he is going to build a new and bigger shelter for the family, using the tarpaulin. “This one is very, very small for eight of us.”

Homes with tarpaulin roofs

The village of Katale, Masisi, DRC, which has become home to hundreds of families displaced by violence. (Photo: Kieran McConville)

The long run

Back in Manono, things are about to change for Reagan Mbuyu and his family. They have been selected to take part in Concern’s Graduation program, a comprehensive two-year intervention that gives participants the skills and the resources they need to get out — and stay out — of poverty.

Concern is in the business of putting itself out of business – something which is unlikely to happen in DRC any time soon. There’s ongoing uncertainty around the political situation and a huge number of people continue to live in extreme poverty.

“That’s what Concern is about”

But, according to County Director Gregoire Borgoltz, the organization is here for the long haul. “We understand that there will be a need for emergency intervention in DRC for some time to come – and we will continue to respond,” he says. “But the kind of programs we really want to expand on are designed to lift people out of poverty and give them a real shot at having sustainable incomes and healthy lives. That’s the goal, that’s what Concern is about.”

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Country: DRCCategories: Health