The “bicycle room” at Bumi Health Center in the Democratic Republic of Congo’s Katanga region. Behind the center’s director, Sister Beatrice Nyembo Bulanda (center) and nurses Jean Kalenga Dianda (left) and Alexia Ngoy Kabwe (right) are bicycles left by patients in payment for their treatment.
By David Tereshchuk*
April 30, 2013—For two decades or more, violent conflict has wreaked immeasurable harm upon life in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC). Despite a formal agreement last February to bring an end to what had been called “Africa’s World War” (since it drew in nine African countries), the effects of the violence have not been lifted from the Congolese people’s daily experience.
The country inescapably suffers severe socio-economic and political crises as the enduring fall-out from war. Perhaps the most telling indicator of such devastating disruption is the national health situation. The prevalence of HIV/AIDS, for instance, is now estimated at more than 4 percent of the general population, meaning approximately 1.2 million adults are living with HIV, and more than 1 million children have been orphaned by AIDS.
The United Methodist Committee on Relief (UMCOR), through its country office in DRC—now in its eleventh year—is responding to the health crisis by channeling its efforts via partnership with a local grassroots health organization, SANRU (a shortening of the French phrase Santé Rurale, or rural health). They play a key role in what has been developed as a fresh national strategic plan for rapidly ratcheting up the fight against HIV and AIDS.
SANRU and UMCOR’s work is getting support from the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria. Under an initial Global Fund grant, the organizations conducted malaria-control programming in three Congolese health zones (a health zone encompasses about 100,000 people residing in some 200 communities). Now a second grant is allowing UMCOR to extend its malaria-control work to four health zones while also inaugurating HIV/AIDS programming in 14 health zones.
The work takes aim at HIV transmission among vulnerable groups, strengthens and expands voluntary counseling and testing (VCT), encourages antiretroviral treatments, secures safer blood transfusion services, and provides support both to people living with HIV and AIDS and to the children of parents who have died of the disease.
Thanks to the Global Fund grant, patients’ all-important medications—whether for HIV and AIDS or malaria—are made available to them free of charge. A public education component of the grant stresses the importance of prevention and treatment measures for both conditions.
But challenges remain. Just how daunting a struggle confronts this effort in hard, cold economic terms can be seen at the Bumi Health Center, a vital hub in the Katanga region, where UMCOR-backed SANRU efforts are focused.
Eventually, the Bumi Health Center hopes to make all health care universally available at no or very little cost to the impoverished citizens who need it. For now, though, it must accept payment from patients and their families for the care it offers because available resources are so constrained, even with the Global Fund support.
But rather than cash (which people don’t have, anyway) payment is often made in a most telling form: bicycles.
It is hard to exaggerate how much value a bicycle can represent to a poor family in the Katanga region. John Nday of UMCOR DRC says: “They survive through the use of their bicycle. It’s used to transport people, but also to move around vital goods like firewood, charcoal, or agricultural products. In remote areas where roads are nonexistent, bicycles are especially valued by poor people—not least as a source of income generation.”
With the support of United Methodists and other people of goodwill, UMCOR and partner SANRU are hopeful that before too long the scourge of HIV and AIDS will be kept at bay for DRC’s poorest citizens—without their having to pledge their own most-valued possession.
Your gift to Congo (DRC) Emergency, UMCOR Advance #198400, will support UMCOR’s work with the Congolese people.
*David Tereshchuk is a journalist and media critic who regularly contributes to www.umcor.org.