In Goma, in North Kivu province of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), a local research organisation conducted a rapid Knowledge Practices and Attitude survey in the early days of COVID-19 to gauge communities’ understanding of the global crisis. Habimana Jonas reports.
This is the ninth in the series of stories from Voices from the Frontline initiative by ICCCAD and CDKN.
The eastern region of the DRC has been devastated by armed conflict in the past decade as well as natural disasters. As a result, a large percentage of the population is displaced and has little or no access to basic facilities. The COVID-19 crisis has added to existing frailties of the poor communities in Goma, who live on under USD 1 per day.
The Bureau of Information, Training, Exchanges, and Research for Development (BIFERD) is an organisation that works to tackle social and economic inequalities, violence and vulnerability in eastern DRC. In the early days of the emerging pandemic, BIFERD carried out a Knowledge Practices and Attitude Survey to gauge local people’s understanding of the new public health threat and establish how they were coping.
The survey revealed that less than 50 percent of the people living in Goma have access to clean water and so the remainder have no handwashing facilities available. Some 98 percent of households did not have sufficient food when the government imposed a total lockdown. Past armed violence destroyed the area’s water supply infrastructure and has not been replaced.
According to Barengeke Ngini, a local community member from the Ngangi 3 quarter in Goma city, people in her community have fallen into despair, as a result of job losses, lack of food and closure of schools. “There is a rise in early pregnancies amongst young girls as their families are unable to respond to their needs during the ongoing crisis,” says Barengeke.
Despite lack of funding and limited resources, there are 250 volunteers working with BIFERD to create awareness about the virus, initiate income-generating activities for women and provide small loans in order to support the most impacted communities. The organisation’s previous resilience-building exercises and training on disaster response helped them to respond quickly to the crisis.
Local volunteers are being trained to build handwashing facilities using available materials such as jerry cans, and produce masks for distribution within communities. BIFERD has collaborated with churches to allocate food for the elderly population in Goma. Loans are being provided to women who are single mothers to start small businesses for income generation. “With the help of USD 100 provided to me by BIFERD, I started a business of selling vegetables like tomatoes, potatoes and other fruits to support my family, and also buy essential items like masks to protect ourselves from the virus,” says Barengeke. The government permits essential transport if adequate social distance is maintained, so Barengeke travels to Minerva, 40 km from Goma city, to buy vegetables and fruits for resale in her community.
Furthermore, 80 savings groups, consisting of 30 members each, have been developed by BIFERD in the poorest of communities in Goma as well as in Rutshuru, a small town outside Goma. These have helped communities during the COVID-19 crisis. “I decided to participate in a micro-finance group through which I save 1000 FC (USD 0.5) per day. This will help me to save more money to strengthen my business,” remarks Barengeke.
In Rutshuru, 95,000 people have been displaced during the COVID-19 crisis, due to rising armed conflict in the area. Community violence and conflict, in addition to the pandemic, has led to terrible conditions for the people living there. BIFERD has distributed seeds and mobilised agronomist teams to teach farming methods and build community gardens in small plots of land available in the area.
Initiatives that have been undertaken by BIFERD to support vulnerable communities are exemplary especially given that the organisation regularly faces barriers in the form of insufficient funds. Moreover, the lockdown has made it difficult for volunteers to work efficiently because of poor equipment and internet facilities. In terms of institutional support, there is a lack of cooperation between international NGOs and local NGOs, which needs to be addressed.
However, what is evident is the strong sense of solidarity among members of these low-income communities. As Barengeke observes, families living in these communities have shared food and even distributed masks to the more vulnerable families among them: “During this pandemic we learned that it is important to come together as a community and help each other in times of need.”
Interviewer’s perspective – Habimana Jonas
In the Democratic Republic of Congo and other African countries, development of a more risk-informed socioeconomic model may be the best approach to respond to a crisis like COVID-19, as communities are compounded with severe poverty and myriad vulnerabilities. Local authorities and organisations should respond to an emergency like the COVID-19 crisis through a multi-sectoral response as opposed to the initial health-only response.
Creating peer to peer learning between different communities, developing community plans and cultivating solidarity in terms of sharing existing capacities is crucial. Millions of children cannot access education in poor communities due to the digital divide – internet access is not always readily available along with necessary equipment, to support online education. And this is a critical situation for countries that are already struggling with development deficits. To effectively combat such crises, governments need to collaborate with organisations such as BIFERD, which has a strong existing presence in communities. Local organisations are preparing and responding to COVID-19 through resilience-building initiatives in the most vulnerable communities, and require cooperation and support to sustain their vital work.
About the Interviewer
Habimana Jonas works for BIFERD and lives in Goma city. He is deeply experienced in working on disaster prevention and response, including with the Ministry of Health. Jonas is involved with multiple COVID-19 initiatives that are supporting local communities in North Kivu. He lends his expertise in mobilisation of funds, training volunteers, forging partnerships with key stakeholders and in monitoring community responses during the pandemic.
About the interviewee
Barengeke Ngini is a local community member in Goma where she has been living since she was 14 years old. She runs a small business selling vegetables and fruits in her community.