DRC Leaders Learn to Address Health Issues
By Judith Santiago*
March 17, 2009—Major strides are being made in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) to break the silence about HIV/AIDS. Workshops sponsored by the United Methodist Church are educating and encouraging church leaders, pastors, church groups, and United Methodist men and women.
It is all part of a new program supported by the health unit of the United Methodist Committee on Relief (UMCOR) to fight against HIV/AIDS, malaria, tuberculosis and malnutrition. The program, "Break the Silence About HIV/AIDS in the United Methodist Church," was launched in October, 2008 and addressed several other critical health concerns.
Through the UMCOR-supported Mpasa Health Center, a medical facility located on the outskirts of the capital city of Kinshasa, leaders are learning about the impact of these fatal diseases in their communities and how to address the health needs of the people they oversee. The Mpasa Health Center treats thousands of people left homeless or displaced by war at no cost to them.
Church Involvement Sets Standard
At the official launch of "Break the Silence" in October, about thirty pastors including Bishop Yemba of Central Congo Episcopal Area, Dr. Rebecca Yohadi, medical officer of the Mpasa Health Center, as well as health leaders and doctors in the area, came together to learn about the primary health issues surrounding their communities and churches.
One participating pastor expressed his eagerness to speak about HIV/AIDS at his weekly church meeting and hoped that more pastors would receive the lifesaving information and learn about sensitizing communities about HIV/AIDS and other diseases. Rev. Akenda Okenge, superintendent of Kinshasa East Congo Annual Conference, expressed her delight in the program and willingness to support the HIV/AIDS directive which is oftentimes a taboo subject between pastors. Other pastors committed to sensitizing populations in their districts, communities and local markets, conveying that once a church is persuaded to act through education awareness, the church population it influences will respond well, therefore setting a standard for others to follow.
"It was a privilege for pastors to be the first beneficiaries of these projects," said Darla Rowley, an UMCOR Health executive. "The pastors, in essence, become the silence breakers for their communities. Under their leadership, communities will be encouraged to learn more and help prevent further spread of these deadly diseases."
United Methodist Women Speak
Raising awareness among United Methodist women in the rural areas outside of Kinshasa was key in helping to break the silence about HIV/AIDS. Women account for 60 percent of the HIV/AIDS cases in Sub-Sahara Africa and they are often not allowed to speak openly about the disease or sexual issues. In November, 2008, Dr. Mpoy Emundu, a Methodist physician assigned to the Western Congo Annual Conference, facilitated training for 220 women on basic HIV/AIDS prevention and education. The women committed themselves to talk openly about HIV/AIDS among their families and during church meetings. From this group, about 172 women agreed to voluntary HIV testing demonstrating that AIDS education is important in helping to save lives.
United Methodist Men Confront HIV/AIDS Topic
Men are also involved in stemming the HIV crisis in DRC thanks to an UMCOR-supported HIV/AIDS training this past December. The training focused on stigma and discrimination issues within the church and in surrounding communities. About 112 United Methodist men participated in the training and were encouraged to get tested. Fifty men stepped up to the challenge and boldly agreed to HIV testing, nine men in this group tested positive for the virus.
As part of this health effort, 100 pregnant and nursing mothers attended a training on malaria prevention at the Mpasa Health Center. The women received mosquito nets and were taught how to use them. The importance of net usage for children was specifically raised, as malaria kills one fifth of the children under the age of five in Sub-Sahara Africa.
UMCOR is also supporting an additional project for the Mpasa Health Center that addresses the increasing need for assisting malnourished children in the Mpasa community-one of the poorest and overly populated communities in Kinshasa. In a nutritional and therapeutic unit in the mother-and-child facility of Mpasa Health Center, about 45 of its 300 children, who are in critical need of care, receive medical assistance and food support. The nutrition program supports the children's needs with oversight from a team of two nurses and two nutritionists of the Nsele Health area which closely monitors the severely undernourished children.
Plans to provide income generating activities for these children's parents are being facilitated. This will allow the mothers to take care of their own children and free up time for nursing staff to take on new cases. Additional nutrition workshops will focus on the use of Moringa leaves for consumption. Moringa is a highly-nutritious supplement that helps combat malnutrition. Its leaves are an excellent source of vitamins A, C, iron, calcium, potassium, protein, magnesium and zinc. When added to a meal, Moringa helps fortify nutrition for those who do not have adequate food supplies.
UMCOR in DR Congo
UMCOR has been working in the Democratic Republic of Congo since 1999 through its non-governmental organization to assist residents heavily impacted by war. UMCOR's current projects involve agricultural assistance for 15,000 farmers, the building of local schools and water points, and a girl's scholarship and mentoring program that benefits more than 2,000 students.
You can support projects like these that encourage health education awareness by giving to United Methodist Global AIDS Fund, UMCOR Advance #982345 or Community-Based Malaria Control Program, UMCOR Advance #982009.
*Santiago is a Program Coordinator for UMCOR Communications