Saving lives, rebuilding livelihoods
Assistance to eastern Congo’s most vulnerable pays off
30 October 2006, Rutshuru - “She was sick,” says Nirabuhuru, caressing her two-and-a-half-year-old daughter, Rachel, who sits in her lap. “Sick from malnutrition,” she adds.
So Nirabuhuru, a 35-year-old mother of ten children, carried Rachel 40 kilometres from their home in Tongo to Matumaïni, a nutritional centre in Rutshuru in North Kivu, a province in the east of the Democratic Republic of Congo.
“It’s because of our poverty,” she says of her daughter’s malnourishment. “And we are poor because of the war.”
Nirabuhuru’s story is as simple as it is dramatic: for years, she and her family have not felt safe enough to sleep in their own house. Instead, they have slept in the forest every night.
“How can you expect my children not to be sick?” she asks.
Sadly, Nirabuhuru’s drama is all too common in North Kivu, says Jacqueline, an extension officer at the Matumaïni centre, as she prepares lunch for the children being treated there.
Although the Democratic Republic of Congo embarked on a reconstruction and peace process in 2003, years of war have left the country deeply scarred. Insecurity still prevails, particularly in eastern parts of the country.
In 2005 it was estimated that almost 600 000 people were displaced in North Kivu, out of a total population of 4.2 million. The impact on the rural population is dramatic. Agricultural production has plummeted. According to a 2005 UN report, the output of staple crops, such as cassava and bananas, has dropped by half since war burst out in 1996. Malnutrition is one of the grim consequences.
Rebuilding the livelihoods of rural families
As to its food needs, the paradox of DR Congo could hardly be more stark: a country with the potential to feed the whole of Africa, it still ranks among the world’s least food secure countries according to FAO’s 2006 State of Food Insecurity in the World: 72% of the population does not have enough to eat.
The Matumaïni centre, which hosts one hundred children on average, is one of 60 centres in North and South Kivu provinces, where FAO, together with UN and non-governmental partners, helps improve children’s nutritional status. Lunch includes a portion of vegetables, such as cabbage, potatoes, onion and leek, cultivated in the centre’s garden with seeds provided by FAO.
The assistance is part of a regional project launched by FAO with the financial support of the European Union, its main donor in DR Congo, to help 95 000 of the most vulnerable rural families in North and South Kivu provinces, most with malnourished children like Rachel.
In 2005, the first year of the project, FAO reached over 25 000 such families through nutritional centres like Matumaïni. But the organization is not only providing emergency assistance to improve the food security of the most vulnerable. In line with its overall strategy in the country, FAO is helping rural families make a new start by providing them with the tools to rebuild their livelihoods.
Good news from the marshlands
And, the first signs of hope have begun to surface.
Not far from Rutshuru sits the marshland of Kitarama. Three years ago, papyrus was rampant here, and the land lay idle. In 2003, a group of returnees and displaced persons set out to rehabilitate five hectares of land. FAO gave them the tools to do it.
“After the war, they had nothing left,” says Jules Mushanjili, an agronomist in the Ministry of Agriculture of North-Kivu, who supervised the rehabilitation. “These tools helped them to get started.”
Through the ministry, FAO also provided seeds. Today, beans, maize, rice, cabbage and leek are grown in Kitarama. There is even a fishing pond.
“Now they are able to feed themselves,” says Mr Mushanjili.
Under the EU-funded FAO programme, 125 hectares of marshland have been rehabilitated so far throughout the Kivu provinces. Some 5 000 families, or around 30 000 people, are benefiting.
“We eat well,” says Kavira, one of the project’s beneficiaries in Kitarama. “Moreover, with the surpluses that we produce, we can pay our children’s school fees and health care. And still each of us saves up to 3 000 Congolese francs (US$ 6) at the end of the month.”
Back in the Matumaïni nutritional centre, hope also flourishes.
While Nirabuhuru feeds her child, Jacqueline, the extension officer, explains that in two weeks’ time, Rachel has almost put on enough weight to be released.
Jacqueline points out another young child, eating in his mother’s lap. “When he came, more than a month ago, he was in bad shape,” she says.
But today the boy, Hakorimana, and his mother are going home.
Jacqueline smiles: “Most of them get cured.”
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