Thursday, June 4, 2009

Is there positive change in Goma?

Melinda asked...

All around Goma, there are still the thousands of people in refugee camps and hundreds of women and children who have been raped by soldiers, and they need help. Are other African countries helping to become part of the solution? Do you see any signs of positive change in Goma besides SHONA? Is there an internal support system for Goma residents -churches? world health organizations?

Oh Melinda, you're trying to kill me! My husband recently told me that I should try and include more "sweetness and light" in my blog. Now if you know my husband you have probably already fallen down laughing. He is definitely not the type to normally call for "sweetness and light". So when he of all people suggests I should lighten up my blog, I definitely listen. I have been trying to include the aforementioned "sweetness and light" in my answers to the give-away questions, and it is easy when I am talking about SHONA or about the many wonderful people we know here in Congo. But when asked to comment on the current state of the region? Oh-la-la.

Let me start with the first part of the question.

Are other African countries becoming part of the solution?

Unfortunately the history in Congo is that other African countries tend to become a part of the problem rather than the solution. The Congo War which raged until 2004 pulled in almost all of Congo's neighboring countries, such that by the end they all had troops in Congo fighting for one side or the other. The problem is that Congo is wealthy in natural resources, thus giving neighboring countries a strong reason to send troops in the name of "helping" yet in reality they benefit from the conflict and have little reason to work towards ending it. Currently the presence of troops from other African countries seems reduced. There that is a GOOD thing. Sweetness and light here I come.

One exception to this is that the UN troops have a contingent from South Africa. These troops are working within the UN peacekeeping operation and could potentially play a positive role. They are mostly stationed outside Goma, so I don't know how that is playing out.

Do I see signs of positive change (besides SHONA)?
Well, Goma is calmer than it was 6 months ago. There are no longer rebel soldiers standing at the outskirts of the city, facing off with government soldiers. So in that sense the threat of fighting taking over the city has been greatly reduced.

However fighting and pillaging continue in many rural areas in Eastern Congo and villagers are suffering very heavily. And even in Goma the rule of law does not seem to have returned, if it ever existed at all. Armed robberies and killings continue to happen regularly. There was some sense of hope when the military police began policing their own soldiers a couple months ago. People in rough neighborhoods did report military police doing rounds in the neighborhood and noticeable reduction in violence at that time. However as of late, this does not seem to be holding up very well. Soldiers have reportedly not been paid for 6 months, and it is hard to imagine anything but a further spiral downward as long as they remain unpaid.

Is there an internal support system for Goma residents?

What does exist are a lot of NGOs (local and international) offering aid of different sorts, particularly for refugees and raped women. For example HEAL Africa (a local hospital and NGO, but with a large amount of international funding) treats raped women for free, and offers a wide variety of services for sexually abused women. I think the awareness of rape as a problem in Congo is increasing, and has lead to some good programs and an internal support system of sorts for people suffering from such abuse. For refugees in the camps I believe that the camps are better organized and supplied than they used to be.

When you look at these facts in light of the larger question of whether positive change exists, the view isn't so promising. What you realize is that positive change does exist in terms of addressing some of the problems caused by the war and helping the victims. Unfortunately positive change in terms of creating peace and security is much harder to come by.

For me, working and living in Congo often requires the ability to focus on the small victories and not be discouraged by the larger picture. The reality is that I don't see real, positive change on a large scale here. Yet. But I see amazing victories everyday here, and for the people who live them they are not small. My husband works for a microfinance program. The theory of microfinance is to make loans available to poor people, mostly market women, who have no collateral and could never receive a loan from a bank. The idea is that when given the access to credit a woman who sells peanuts in the market will be able to grow her business herself. They form groups of about 50 and provide the collateral for each other. If one group member fails to repay her loan, the group must repay it for her. They guarantee each other. Imagine that. The repayment rate on those loans is over 99%, here in Goma, where surely people face almost every reason to default on a loan. Do I see positive change, yes. Do I believe it is possible? Yes. But I am pretty sure it will come from places we never bothered to look.


Lynn said...

I've been seeing more ads and informational pieces about using rape as a weapon of war in Congo than I used to. I think Darfur is still the most "popular" African cause (celebrities are wearing bracelets), but more people are learning about the problems in Congo. As you've commented before, it's very strange that places like Congo have to almost have a marketing campaign to get help, and it's hard not to feel cynical about it. (Celebrities wearing bracelets? Please!)

shona congo said...

Yes, what do you do when your disaster country becomes trendy? Darfur has been "trendy" for a long time now and I wonder what real results that has brought. Other than that everyone knows the name.

I can't yell too loudly because I am sure the increased awareness brought by media campaigns for Congo has brought some people here to my blog, to our website and ultimately to our store. But still, I think I'd better not look to closely at the amount of money and resources poured into those campaigns or I might cry.

Nina Jørgensen said...

Wow some of this stuff is horrible and its happening in our world!

kristine said...

I just came across your blog totally coincidentally, and found your post really interesting, particularly as I just today made a microfinance loan through kiva to a group of women in Congo. I'll be back to read more!

shona congo said...

Thank you for your compassion Nina! It is also sometimes hard for me to believe what some people go through!

Kristine, welcome to my blog! Thanks for finding us!
Thank you for your interest in the women of Congo and for supporting microfinance through kiva. I have heard great things about kiva. They haven't made it to Eastern Congo yet but are planning to start with HEKIMA (the organization my husband works with) within the next couple months. Thanks for following our blog and commenting. It really helps to know people are out there, and care.