The superwoman of Masisi

November 6, 2017
Written by Kristin Myers
Photo by Kieran McConville

High in the hills of Masisi, Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), thousands of families have found safety — but still face hunger.

Among the thousands of people that live in Katale, a town located in Masisi territory in the DRC’s North Kivu Province, there is one superwoman.

More than 8,000 people have settled in this area, displaced mainly from the 11 villages in the nearby Kisuma area. Katale was once a modest sized town of about 4,000 people — but as violence has swept over this region, those numbers have swelled. And it is here, in a small school room that our superwoman — real name Nyirakamana Bakenga Jeanne — lives.

Woman cooking

Jeanne lives with her husband and her five children in a schoolroom in Katale, which they share with several other families. Every day Jeanne and her husband look for work, and if they earn enough to buy food, she can cook a simple meal for her family. Photo: Kieran McConville

Fighting hunger

Like many of the people living here in Masisi, the 30-year-old mother of five has been caught up in violent land disputes that plague the region. Jeanne and her family lived in Kisuma, a neighboring village. But they were forced from their home when armed groups attacked Jeanne’s village. Hearing shots ringing out into the night, the family fled in terror, and left everything behind.

They ran to nearby Katale, home to an camp for internally displaced families, where they hoped they could find refuge. But with thousands in the area displaced from fighting, there was no space for them. They found shelter in a schoolhouse with several other families.

“Life in the camp is starvation and sickness.”

Though the family has found safety, they don’t have much else. They arrived in Katale without food or money, and with very few clothes. Jeanne can often be seen wearing her “Superman” t-shirt as she walks around the camp.

“Before, life was better,” she says. “We had everything we needed.” But in Katale this superwoman has to fight a powerful and invisible enemy: hunger.

Items on the ground

The few possessions of Jeanne and her family lie in the corner of the schoolroom — some clothes, potatoes for that night’s dinner, a jerrycan for gathering water, and the new tarpaulin she received from Concern.  Photo: Kieran McConville

A necessary risk

Jeanne explains that the family used to work the land in front of their home, growing Irish and sweet potatoes, vegetables, and protein-rich beans. But now, the family has no food to eat.

“Life is tough here,” Jeanne says. “The most important thing to me is finding food for my family to eat. But it’s hard to find food here.”

Out of desperation, she and her husband tried to sneak back to their old home to dig up food — even though fighting continues throughout the area. The last time they attempted to return home for food, they were chased away by men with guns.

Homes with tarpaulin roofs

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

Nothing but starvation

Hunger haunts everyone in the family. Jeanne’s daughter Angelique is only 10 years old, but talks about it often.

“Life in the camp is starvation and sickness,” she says. “Before, in my home, we ate and we had food. But here, we are starving all the time.”

Feza Angelique, age 10 years, in her temporary accommodation at a school in Katale village

Angelique, aged 10 years, in her temporary accommodation at a school in Katale village, Masisi, DRC. Angelique says, “it’s hard to live in a classroom. I miss my home.” Photo: Kieran McConville

In the eastern part of DRC, where Masisi lies, growing food insecurity and violence have sent malnutrition rates climbing. Across the country, levels of hunger have increased by 30 percent in just one year. In North Kivu province, where Jeanne and her family live, the situation is becoming increasingly desperate: of the one million people displaced in the province, only a quarter are receiving assistance — and only half are receiving food distributions.

“It’s very cold in the classroom. There aren’t enough blankets for everyone.”

Jeanne and her husband try hard to find work, but often they can only afford to make one meal for the family per day. Work is hard to come by in this area; many people look for casual day labor jobs on local farms, working in exchange for food and some money. If Jeanne and her husband cannot find work, then the family cannot eat. “When we come back without food, the children starve,” she says.

On good days, they can scrape together enough to buy rice, potatoes, corn flour, or vegetables.

But here, there are not many good days.

A school

This school in Katale village, Masisi, DRC is home to families displaced by fighting in nearby villages. Photo: Kieran McConville

Declining health

The lack of food and proper shelter mean that the children are often sick. The family sleeps on the dirt floor of a schoolhouse in the camp, and the kids have contracted parasitic worms several times. Perched high on a hillside, even the climate poses a risk.

“It’s very cold in the classroom,” Angelique says. “There aren’t enough blankets for everyone.”

Jeanne is also eager to find a better shelter for her family. “The conditions aren’t good here, and there are a lot of people that sleep here, so it is very crowded.”

Jeanne with a tarpaulin

Jeanne received a tarpaulin at a recent Concern distribution. She hopes to use it to make a better shelter for her family. Photo: Helene Coulson

A place to call home

Jeanne received a tarpaulin at a Concern distribution, and she’s hoping that she can find a space to make her own shelter. But if she can’t find a place in the camp, she’ll need to save enough to rent a piece of land — about $10 for six months.

Right now, that seems far out of reach. But Jeanne has already seen her family through greater hardships than most of us can ever imagine. And in keeping with the big red “S” emblazoned across her chest, her resolve is steely.

You can help us reach more families like Jeanne’s