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Being a humanitarian aid worker in DR Congo can be challenging. In Goma, where I live and work, the security situation has been calm for the past week or so but it remains volatile. The general feeling is that the resumption of fighting is imminent. Sometimes heavy explosions are heard, sometimes shells fall here and there in the city, and there are ongoing threats from armed forces.
Cathy, my 11-year-old daughter, is still traumatized by what happened in Goma at the end of last year, when an armed group seized our hometown for a few days. Back then, on a Thursday, I went to work in a camp of displaced people. It was one of those camps that just mushroomed over night. Insecurity was still looming, and to make it to the camp on time to start our early work, I had to leave my house at 1 a.m. Cathy was very worried, but I kept telling her not to. I told why I had to go. CARE and other humanitarian organisations arranged for us to go to this is internally displaced camp in Mugunga to assess the number of people there and their needs. Cathy was very interested in what I told her, and asked lots of questions. It was moving to see how involved and interested she was in my work.
During that time, I was confronted with the demands of working at night, fighting sleep deprivation and difficult conditions. And I came face to face with people living in extreme stress. They told us that they had to flee their villages because of fighting and violence and managed to find shelter in other villages. But three months later, at the end of last year, they were once again uprooted and came to Goma to seek shelter in this camp hastily patched together. I spoke to Cathy about this when I returned and she said that now she understood the sacrifices of my work, and how important this work was.
A few weeks later, in the same camp, CARE distributed relief items to meet the most basic needs of the people: kitchen sets, jerry cans, plastic sheeting and other goods. The atmosphere was tense, the displaced men and women were impatient, visibly traumatized, sometimes also pushed to aggressive behavior. At one point, our work was interrupted by people who had not been counted during the earlier census, and demanded that they also receive the relief items. They said that they had been absent the day of our census, looking for firewood or seeking medical care. Some even tried to just take the relief kits and leave. For safety’s sake, CARE’s female staff left the camp, leaving the men to carry out the work. Fortunately, Congolese police and the United Nations peacekeeping forces were able to quickly re-establish order. This is a daily challenge in CARE’s work: our mission is to deliver humanitarian aid, but this is never an easy task.
A few months ago, whilst together with Cathy, I met two women who are part of a savings group. CARE supports these village savings and loans groups, which help women save money as a group and then invest it in small businesses. Our friendly conversation made Cathy think these women were my colleagues. “Mom, when are these nice ladies coming to our house? The colleagues you talked to the other day”, she asked me later. I told Cathy about the savings groups and how eager these women were to learn how to save and invest. Many told me that thanks to their new skills, they also had much easier access to credit from other sources. The relationship between the women is really strong and encouraging in my parts of the world. I often meet them to discuss what issues they might have them, and give them advice. Cathy’s observations made me think that she was right: I am on very good terms with the women in these groups and there is no feeling of hierarchy between us as it’s sometimes the case between people with different levels of education, background. Encouraged by this good relationship, my team and I work on the bigger picture: How do these savings groups help to eradicate poverty? How can we improve the way these women use their savings? And what are their expectations towards CARE? This is also a part of our humanitarian work. And these types of reflections make me appreciate my job even more. It gives me a chance to reach out to those who are often forgotten and left out.
Despite the challenges of being a humanitarian aid worker in DRC, and the volatile security situation, Cathy’s early interest and questions make me think that she will do just the same.