Nurturing Hope in Kamina
By Linda Unger*
April 12, 2010—When the group of 30 community health workers from the village of Kamina in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) stepped off a bus and onto the muddy earth of their neighbors’ group farm, they were amazed at the crop.
Row after neat row of pest-free soybeans sprouted from the mud, an unfamiliar site to the community health workers (CHW), who were more accustomed to depleted soil and weak shoots.
“How is this possible?” Monga asked. “These fields look great!”
“Can I get a plot of land here?” Nday asked.
It was just the reaction program executives Lisa Jackson, June Kim and Shannon Trilli, of the United Methodist Committee on Relief (UMCOR), had hoped the volunteer health workers of Shungu Memorial United Methodist Health Center would have.
“We wanted to encourage the CHWs, as they are volunteers and not paid,” said Kim, a specialist in sustainable agriculture. “Anything they do as volunteers takes them away from their families and livelihoods.”
And, she added, “even though most of them are farmers, they are poorly nourished. So, we were looking at agricultural training as an incentive. If we can train them in skills that result in better farm yields, this helps them and helps the community, as they have the inroads as CHWs to be able to train others.”
Kim, Jackson and Trilli began talking a year ago about integrating their separate disciplines—sustainable agriculture, clean water, and nutrition and health, respectively—in the DRC’s North Katanga Province, where Kamina is situated.
When Jackson was asked to lead the development of a model project for the General Board of Global Ministries’ (GBGM) to advance the United Methodist Church’s quadrennial focus on Ministry with the Poor, Kamina offered the ideal setting for a project that would draw together the executives’ particular foci.
The objective of the pilot project in Kamina—one of five such projects around the world based on the UMC’s four focus areas—is to build self-reliance and credibility for the community health workers so that they can become the principal agents of an integrated approach to address rampant poverty and embody a spirit of hope for their neighbors.
They would accomplish this by spearheading a replicable program in which they would model effective farming and clean water practices and thereby improve nutrition and health for their own families and for the broader community.
The pilot project also calls for the creation of a national health board and for health boards at the community level to guide and support practices in local clinics and hospitals, an aspect that Trilli will direct as part of the larger Global Health Initiative of the United Methodist Church.
“The overall aim of the program is to develop a CHW and community outreach system that will decrease maternal and child mortality by 50 percent over time,” Trilli reported. In a country where access to hospitals and medicine is not a reality for most, education and prevention through trusted community representatives are critical.”
Kamina was chosen as the site for the pilot project, explained Jackson, because ideal conditions required that the pilot be located in an area that is “both geographically contained and accessible.”
The village in North Katanga Province, in the DRC’s southeastern flank, was also familiar territory to UMCOR. Kim had been promoting appropriate agriculture practices there through farmer field schools—in which local farmers are trained to share these practices with each other—for about seven years.
The group of 30 CHWs had been recruited and trained at Shungu Memorial Health Center by Doctor Guy Kasanka, a GBGM missionary and Director of the DRC UMC Health Board, with the strong support of the local United Methodist bishop, Nkulu Ntambo Ntanda.
“We went to Democratic Republic of Congo last April to make an assessment,” Jackson said. “We found that the people of the area are hungry and poor. So the question was how do we get the CHWs to be healthier themselves and have the income and credibility to feel motivated and be effective.”
Introducing the community health workers to the group farm (less than two and a half miles from Shungu Memorial Health Center) was the culmination of a four-day training the three UMCOR executives led in Kamina in January.
“These are very poor people. They get used to diarrhea and intestinal worms, but think a moped is a necessity,” Jackson said. “The training we conducted using Participatory Analysis for Community Action (PACA) activities helped them to identify their most urgent needs and those of the community.”
Access to clean water and means to a healthier crop yield came up again and again over the course of the training.
Jackson introduced the CHWs to Richard Forward, a representative from UMCOR partner Global Medic, who brought in a water filtration system. It is planned that over the next year, the filtration system will be brought into the homes of all of the 30 CHWs.
Kim introduced the community health workers to a team of sustainable agriculture specialists, who will encourage them either to begin a group farm similar to the one they visited or to plant home-based gardens to improve food access and nutrition practices.
“When local farmers improve their yields, it means they can afford things like sending their children to school, putting a zinc roof over their heads or purchasing livestock,” Kim said. “This helps them break the cycle of subsistence farming.”
As that happens, the CHWs will improve their own health, model these good practices to their neighbors, feel encouraged and motivated in their volunteer health work, and impact both the experience of poverty in their community and their neighbors’ hope for a better life.
Linda Unger is the staff writer for UMCOR.