A boy in Lumbumbashi looks at contaminated water that is a breeding ground for mosquitoes. Photo by the Rev. Larry Hollon.
Last month, I had the opportunity to visit Lumbumbashi in the Democratic Republic of Congo to participate in planning for a World Malaria Day event that will feature a distribution of insecticide-treated bed nets.
The infection rate from malaria is high in Lumbumbashi. Standing water, open sewers, a contaminated water table and scarcely any economic infrastructure for jobs or businesses makes this place one of the poorest suburbs in the world.
While there, I sat outside in the late afternoon before an impressive stand of bamboo listening to a conversation about community-based development.
Actually, the conversation was about how this interfaith group of clergy and physicians would provide bed nets to two of the most resource-deprived neighborhoods in the city. They were devising a bold plan, giving thought to other partners, how to distribute nets, train residents in utilization, recruit volunteers and get media coverage.
They will recruit 150 volunteers, survey the neighborhoods, conduct community meetings and organize in-home distribution.
It is a grassroots group organizing to tackle a common enemy that knows no boundaries and affects everyone regardless of faith, gender, age or location-malaria. The people of The United Methodist Church will be one of the partners.
They had met earlier in the day with the regional minister of health to begin the process of establishing a relationship with this essential government partner. In the late afternoon, the UN Special envoy for malaria met with them as well.
The neighborhoods they serve have never had a bed net distribution. When we visited them the following day, it was clear they lack virtually every basic service from clean water to paved streets to sewers to trash pickup. Fetid, rotting garbage lined drainage ditches flowing with sewage and rain water. Children walked barefoot and played in the pockmarked dirt road amidst standing water and garbage. No wonder outbreaks of diseases are common here.
The clergy and physicians know the problems firsthand. They live or work here. They discussed how community residents might react to the bed net distribution and how to train them to use the nets properly. They know the people, their fears and capacity. This is the value of community-based organization. It is organically connected to the realities on the ground.
I came away from Congo more optimistic than I was going in. I had a media-created image, accurate but incomplete. The meetings under the bamboo gave me a bigger picture, and a belief that solutions to seemingly intractable problems are possible.
I left thinking new thoughts about community-based development and hopeful that as this small group of committed leaders continue their work they will experience a success and in due time move from net distribution to other activities that empower them and their communities, and make life better for the kids walking barefoot through the fetid trash and foul water.