South Kivu province of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) feels like one of the greenest places on earth. Every inch of the fertile brown soil seems to pour forth dense vegetation. Within minutes of leaving behind the chaos and energy of Bukavu, the province’s main city, a landscape of green rolling hills unfolds uninterrupted for hundreds of miles in every direction. Only deterioration in the quality of the roads reminds you of the distance traveled.
Yet despite the fertility of the soil, malnutrition is a common problem for the people of South Kivu. As I traveled around the province visiting International Medical Corps-supported health centers, doctors and nurses told me of the steady stream of emaciated children they see. Most frequently, these patients are Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs) or from host families that have welcomed into their homes as many as six IDP families fleeing violence.
The dense jungle covering much of eastern DRC has provided refuge to scores of armed groups during the more than 15 years of conflict that has plagued this region. Even today, the remnants of various militias remain, bringing fear and insecurity to a vast area. Recent fighting in North Kivu province has forced a further 19,000 people from their homes, bringing the number of IDPs in eastern DRC to over 2 million (UNHCR). International Medical Corps’ commitment to working in areas with the greatest need meant that, during my brief time in South Kivu, two of our offices had to be temporarily closed because of the proximity of fighting.
The frustration that I heard repeated over and again among the Congolese that I met was rooted in the potential and desire for positive change rubbing up against the limits imposed by continuing insecurity. Chance, a student volunteer at International Medical Corps’ office in Bunyakiri, is fluent in Swahili, French and English and will soon graduate from college. Yet despite representing DRC’s promising tomorrow, he asked me:
“How can I plan a future away from here, when I know that my family is not secure?”
At the same time, I saw the generosity of Congolese people demonstrated every hour of my stay, as they welcomed me into their communities and shared their stories. More remarkable was their willingness to welcome IDP families into their homes, often for months or years at a time, even at the risk of their own health and prosperity. The International Medical Corps staff I met—along with the doctors and nurses in health centers we support; the teachers, police officers and soldiers we have trained in the prevention of sexual and gender-based violence; and the communities we have reached—were unified by their determination to secure a better future for their country. Many times, I heard people comment that their children would live far happier lives than they had:
“I used to think that only boys could benefit the family as they grew older, but now I know that my daughters are just as important. They will stay in school, they will benefit and then all my children will benefit us.” – A male community volunteer, ‘Hero’, trained by International Medical Corps in Kalonge Health Zone, South Kivu
It is easy to dismiss DRC as a failed state, beyond hope: its modern history is punctuated with suffering and hardship on an almost unimaginable scale, much of it centered on the provinces of North and South Kivu, and violence continues today. Yet to do so would mean disregarding the greatest asset that this region has– the determination of the Congolese people, including some of the most professional and dedicated individuals I have worked with, to secure a brighter future for their country. I feel privileged to be part of International Medical Corps, which is standing side-by-side with DRC’s people as they rebuild and prepare for a time when insecurity no longer frustrates their progress.