The forest air that surrounds the eastern town of Minova in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DR Congo) is thick with the essence of verdant plants and damp black soil. Birds call from the foliage, while a creek rushes in the background.
With hardly a glance at the beauty around them, Chubaka Birhonoka and his wife Nsimire Mugoli stride purposefully down a dirt path to a rented field, carrying hoes and bags of seeds — all resources that MCC provided.
They are eager to put the next crop in their field because, despite the rich natural resources around them, Birhonoka and Mugoli have almost nothing — except nine children, ages eight months to 15 years, who they are trying to shepherd into a better life than they have known. They need the beans and corn to help feed their family.
Nine years ago, they fled their home in Masisi to escape armed groups that attacked the village, assaulted women and killed people, including some of Mugoli’s brothers and sisters.
“The war affected me so much,” Mugoli says. “I left many important things to save the life of my children. There are those who actually lost their children during the war time.”
In Masisi, they owned their own house and could support their growing family from their own land.
Now the family of 11 crowds into two rounded thatch huts at Mubimbi Camp.
The camp is home to some 300 displaced families, all with their own stories of being terrorized by one or more of the 100 armed groups battling for land, resources, power and money in eastern DR Congo.
In this place of relative safety, they stay, often for years, waiting until it’s safe to return home.
They have little choice. Moving to a city in hopes of earning more money is almost futile because there are already more people than jobs, says Mulanda Jimmy Juma, MCC representative for DR Congo.
Without money for housing or help from extended family, children are likely to end up as beggars and the whole family is vulnerable to harm.
Over the years, the projects of MCC and its partner Église du Christ au Congo — Ministère des Refugiés et des Urgences (ECC-MERU or Church of Christ in Congo — Ministry of Refugees and Emergencies) have provided a safety net for families at Mubimbi.
With funding from MCC’s donors and MCC’s account at the Canadian Foodgrains Bank, ECC-MERU has provided emergency food, rented fields for families’ use, distributed plastic tarps to help rainproof huts and sent children to school through grade 12. A small clinic now offers basic medical care and medication for malaria and other illnesses.
This work becomes even more critical amid the health and economic threats of the COVID-19 pandemic. Families already struggling to meet basic needs for food and health care are most at risk in difficult economic times. They have few safety nets left.
And they are most vulnerable to illness. Those who are malnourished have weaker immune systems and are less able to fight off infections. Necessary precautions like frequent handwashing and remaining distant from others are difficult in the crowded and makeshift conditions of the camp.
Gifts to MCC's centennial fundraising campaign (Our Faith. Our Future.) will support work with displaced people around the world, including, in DR Congo, this and similar efforts with displaced families in neighbouring Poste Camp and in the town of Shasha.
The results of the assistance are clear in Mubimbi each weekday morning. By 7 a.m., children wash their faces, put on uniforms and sip porridge from a cup, then walk to school.
When displaced people can take care of their own families, they regain dignity and dignity is a path to peace.”
- Mulanda Jimmy Juma
School gives them a purpose as they learn to read and write in French and Swahili and acquire the math, science and social studies skills that prepare them for life, including university, in the unlikely chance they can find a way to pay for it.
“Our joy is to see displaced children taught,” says principal Joel Maombi Fikiri, who started Rutshunda Primary School in 2010 because he saw risks for displaced children with nothing to do. “Instead of seeing those children in the town, among the armed groups, thieves and burglars in the city, we want to see them in the classroom.”
In 2018, he says, 90 per cent of the sixth graders in his school passed the national exam, and the top student was from Mubimbi. In 2019, 100 per cent of the students passed the exam.
After school, children often join their parents in individual or communal fields, where camp families work together to grow eggplant, carrots, onions, amaranth and cassava that they will share.
When displaced people can take care of their own families, Juma says, “They regain dignity and dignity is a path to peace.”
Growing food for themselves is key to supporting that dignity. However, the yield is not enough, even when combined with income from odd jobs.
To help fill the gaps, ECC-MERU also distributes food provided by MCC four times a year.
Early in February, Mubimbi families gather expectantly, but quietly, outside the camp’s church building. Corn flour, beans, oil, salt and seeds are organized into equal piles for each family.
When Mugoli’s number is called, she lays a gold and blue piece of fabric on the floor, loads the seed and beans on it and ties the four corners together before hoisting it over her shoulder. Her son and friends help carry the flour, oil and salt back to the family’s huts.
That evening, she has a jubilant dance in her step and a smile that doesn’t quit as she cooks large pots of maize and beans. Everyone eats until they are full.
The next morning, she and her husband put the seeds to their intended use in their sloping forest field.
Using branches and string to make a grid and cornstalks to measure the right distance between where the corn and bean seeds are planted, they follow the training in conservation agriculture they received from agronomists in the project, hoping it will lead to a better harvest than their traditional method of scattering seed.
Later, Birhonoka and Mugoli will surround the holes where they plant seeds with banana tree leaves and other foliage to keep the moisture in the soil, discourage weeds and nourish the soil as they decompose. Next season, they will plant different crops, such as wheat and soybeans, so the soil stays healthy and diseases are minimized.
“I am feeling happy inside,” Mugoli says, as she leans over to poke a hole and insert a few seeds, her baby riding on her back. “I’m thinking the way I am planting, I will be harvesting soon.”
Linda Espenshade is MCC U.S. news co-ordinator. Matthew Lester is a photographer in Lancaster, Pennsylvania