Hearing the cries for a better life

April 17, 2010

Kamina.

The Democratic Republic of Congo has seen its most basic infrastructure destroyed by ten years of civil war. Roads, schools, hospitals and clinics, nearly every basic piece of infrastructure necessary for life is lacking, compromised, or doesn’t exist.

We discovered this in Lubumbashi when we experienced roads within the city that in the developed world would be considered impassable. And we rediscovered it when we drove from the airbase in ru-ral Kamina into the small town. A strip of asphalt in the center, not wide enough for a vehicle, was all that remained of a paved road that once connected the dilapidated base to the town.

But this lack of essential service doesn’t necessarily mean lack of community, nor lack of enthusiasm for improvement. Perhaps the most dangerous result of resource deprivation is the risk that people begin to believe they don’t matter, or deserve better, because they adapt to being without. It’s the risk to human dignity.

But we experienced a surge of community-wide expressiveness that I’ve never witnessed before in Africa in such a place as Kamina. As she did in Lubumbashi, Yvonne Chaka Chaka called people to come forward to the stage as she sang and danced. And a sea of humanity surged forward. Sitting on the stage, I could not see the end of the mass of people who had come to hear her and to learn about malaria.

But it became clear that they already know malaria’s toll. They wanted nets. And they made that clear. One man held up money to demonstrate that he would pay for a net at that moment.

What this said to me is that the education about malaria has been successful. People in Kamina under-stand what causes it, and they want help to prevent their children and loved ones from contracting it. And it says that people want action. They want change.

Unlike the children in Lubumbashi, this crowd was insistent and assertive. They want nets, and they want them now. I began to be concerned about the mood of the celebratory event. It wasn’t menacing in the least, but we had thousands of people standing shoulder to shoulder calling for nets, and we had no nets. An earlier distribution had already been carried out here.

Yvonne managed them well, changed the mood to celebration and hope, and offered words of educa-tion about what can be done even without nets to reduce the risk.

And the community has done significant work already. A canal 15 kilometers long has been dug to drain large areas of standing water to reduce the breeding ground for mosquitoes. Nets have been dis-tributed, not nearly enough for the entire city, but a small fraction at least. And community health workers are accessible, the local hospital is functioning and agriculture development is producing food and generating income.

These are no small accomplishments. And yet blazed into my memory of Kamina is thousands of people crying out for nets. Crying out for the chance to live a better, healthier life.

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