A deadly volcano erupted in the Democratic Republic of the Congo this week, killing at least 32 people and leaving a trail of destruction. This is just the latest in a series of extraordinary challenges for the people of the DRC that the United Nations says could be on the verge of famine, amid the outbreaks of COVID-19 and Ebola and a conflict of several decades.
Bernard Balibuno, who works for our local partner organization, CAFOD (Catholic Agency of Overseas Development, UK), recently told us about the current situation on the ground in DRC.
Q. The United Nations has warned that the Democratic Republic of the Congo and other countries in the region may be on the verge of the first famine of the coronavirus era. What is the current food security situation for people in DRC at this time?
A. You have to remember that people weren’t doing their farming, due to COVID a lot of people ate their seeds which they were supposed to plant in the next planting season.
A lot of people now, instead of really thinking about tomorrow and what future, they really think about what my kids can eat today, what can I eat today? There has been a shortage of food and it is predicted that it will also be bad in the next few days as we don’t know what this year’s or next year’s harvest will look like as we haven’t done the agriculture as we should have done.
There have also been fewer imports, most of our rice comes from outside the country. Lots of fish come from outside and with the restrictions all over the world it has been slow.
Q. What is the current situation of COVID-19 on the ground in the DRC?
A. The situation in the DRC is very complicated. It is a country that has had many humanitarian disasters, we have had floods, it is a country that has been at war for many years, we have more than 7,000 displaced people, the country has just come out of a very long Ebola crisis which started in 2018 and lasted almost 2 years. Shortly thereafter, just as we declared the eastern part of the country to be Ebola free, then this COVID-19 started.
Then there were a lot of restrictions on our travel, which meant that there were no imports. Moreover, the people who go to the street to sell to do their daily work could no longer do this – most women, who do odd jobs, like shining shoes in the street, selling peanuts or selling bananas or fruit couldn’t do that. Life has become very, very difficult in the country. Children have been barred from going to school for a long time, so everything has basically stopped in the country.
Q. Was the DRC better prepared to prevent the spread of COVID-19, given that it had just lived through several years of the Ebola virus epidemic?
AI think Ebola helped us because when Ebola happened our awareness was the best for which we have to thank Caritas Australia and the Australian government who helped us in the community engagement part of the Ebola response. During the Ebola epidemic, basically people didn’t accept its existence, people didn’t want it. We worked really hard to raise awareness in the community, and then people started to understand and adhere to the protocols, in terms of hand washing, in terms of not touching their body, etc.
So, from the end of Ebola, COVID arrived and we continued this same type of awareness-raising and community engagement process where teachers, churches and the Justice and Peace Commission, for example, were very heavily involved in dissemination of the message.
Q. How does CAFOD, in collaboration with Caritas Australia, get the message across about preventing the spread of COVID-19 across the DRC, especially in the most remote areas?
A. The church here in the DRC is a very important actor. Basically we have 47 dioceses and we have over 2000 parishes in the Catholic Church, most social services are run by the Catholic Church including schools including hospitals etc. So what we have done is use this same network of the Catholic Church to spread the message and it actually makes our job very easy because there is the Justice and Peace Commission at the national level, there is in every diocese and every parish and every little community that comes together in an area of 10 or 20 families – and that has been key in terms of the work that we do.
And they do a good job using young people to text, sending What’s App messages, using the community, Catholic radio, putting up posters in a working-class neighborhood, using young people and performing plays. , theater to get the message across. Right now the kids here are into hip hop, they love it so we use the same model to get messages across with famous kids. We do this for each particular community – not at the national level, but rather using the local language, local dialects, clichés to make sure people understand what is going on.
Q. What message would you like to send to Caritas Australia supporters?
A. The DRC needs a lot of prayer. We live in a unique world, it is a common world in which we live. The issues that affect us here can easily affect Australia, the issues that affect Australia can easily affect us here in the country.
I remember recently you had some fire problem in Australia, the churches here were praying for the people in Australia so I think the Australians, the first thing for us to pray for the people of the DRC.
Thank you to all your supporters, may they continue to support you financially so that you can also support us here in the country and we can do what we do.