As food prices reach record highs worldwide, International Medical Corps is helping safeguard people in the Democratic Republic of Congo from increasing insecurity with an agricultural livelihood program that has provided families with the tools and skills they need to grow their own vegetable gardens.
A community garden is a chance for neighbors to connect. It is no different in Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), where International Medical Corps along with sponsor, Child First Meds Lucress and Dick Watson Children’s Foundation, have brought people together to harvest food, as well as friendship, with an agricultural program that looks to renew the health and livelihood of some of the country’s most vulnerable. As part of its integrated health effort in DRC, the program is an example of how International Medical Corps not only provides relief to at-risk populations, but also plants seeds for sustainable change.
Working to increase food security and economic livelihoods for some of DRC’s most afflicted, the program targets malnourished children, victims of sexual- and gender-based violence, and other susceptible groups, like widows and the elderly. As survivors of a conflict that kills an average of 45,000 people every month, any stability – particularly for food and income – is a treasured commodity. With this agricultural livelihood program, International Medical Corps has not only made food and job security possible, but sustainable, for over 12,000 people.
Following a two-tiered approach, International Medical Corps first distributed the materials, such as seeds and garden tools, to 2,500 households in 12 districts through a network of local organizations. The seeds, donated by Child First Meds, arrived in October – just in time for planting season – and included cabbage, carrots, lettuce, red onions, peppers, and tomatoes. To help the communities bring these seeds to life, International Medical Corps conducted agricultural demonstrations and trainings that showed locals how to prepare land for re-planting, protect crops from damage, and improve soil quality with compost.
After months of patiently tilling the soil, the communities have been rewarded with their first harvest. Now with a garden variety of vegetables to eat and sell, families are able to enjoy a more balanced diet and earn a modest income. “By giving people the knowledge and tools to cultivate their own food, International Medical Corps is not only providing immediate relief to the people of DRC, but helping them to become self-reliant,” says Woseh Gobeh, International Medical Corps program coordinator for North Kivu. “After a successful harvest, individuals are able to meet immediate dietary and economic needs. They have food to feed their families and money to pay their children’s school fees today, as well as the knowledge to continuing growing their own produce in the future.”
Mothers whose children were treated for malnutrition in International Medical Corps’ feeding centers, now have vegetables to bring home to their families. Ravaged by 20 years of violence, DRC struggles to provide food for its citizens, as the UN estimates that only 2 percent of the country’s arable land is cultivated. This lack of agriculture, combined with ongoing instability, makes food shortages common. Children are the most affected, with approximately one in five Congolese younger than five suffering from stunted growth due to lack of nutrition.
With variety in their diet, these children have renewed energy to play with their new friends from the community gardens. Six-year-old Mugisho met two new friends, Baraka, and Musa, both five years old, while visiting his aunt’s newly cultivated garden of carrot and beans. Baraka and Musa are regulars at their uncle’s tomato garden, which borders Mugisho’s aunt’s carrot-and-bean plot. “I come here every day and meet Musa and Baraka. We are now friends,” says Mugisho.
The harvest has also helped many victims of rape and gender-based violence to get back on their feet after being ostracized from their families and communities. As a result, rape victims in DRC often lose relationships as well as their livelihoods, forcing many to handle the physical and psychological trauma on their own. Working alongside fellow survivors to plant, nurture, and harvest vegetables, the women are able to form new bonds while supporting themselves nutritionally and financially.
“The U.N. estimates that 56,000 women have been raped in DRC since 2004. Considering the obstacles that victims face, this number is likely much higher because many do not come forward,” says Dr. Birame Sarr, International Medical Corps country director in DRC. “This livelihood program is an important addition to the safety net that International Medical Corps already provides for the survivors of gender-based violence. We are now not only able to repair their physical wounds and provide psychosocial counseling, but we are also able to help them rebuild their livelihoods and form support networks with fellow survivors.”
Despite the ceasefire that was signed this January, the conflict still rages on in DRC’s North and South Kivu provinces, but for these women, children, and other beneficiaries of International Medical Corps’ livelihoods program, a small seed of stability has sprouted with their shared gardens. Newly empowered with the knowledge and ability to grow their food and make a living, these communities, with the help of International Medical Corps, are now able to cultivate the self-reliance needed to survive, and eventually recover, in one of the world’s most volatile, unforgiving environments.