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Using Health as a Platform of Peace in the Heart of Darkness

— By Dominique Vidale-Plaza, founder of Build Hope, & blogger of development, healthcare, and despair in the the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Dominique Vidale-Plaza

Dominique Vidale-Plaza, one of our Global MedStartrs. See her project by clicking her photo here.

I had studied the Democratic Republic of Congo’s tumultuous past for years, hoping to come to a better understanding of this nation that is known as the “heart of darkness”.

But books, blogs and theories couldn’t compare to what I learned from the time I spent actually in the country. Seeing bullet-hole pock marks on buildings left by the war, and strolling alongside military personnel with AK-47’s casually slung over their shoulders, wrapped in blankets to diminish the backlash from shooting, can breathe a certain amount of truth and life into text and words.

I had first traveled to the DRC to work with women who had been raped. I remember that in my first meeting with some of the local stakeholders, when I proposed our idea of educating rape survivors, I was shouted at with, “What will these women do with an education?”.

At the time, I thought of that reaction as indicative of the way women were viewed in the DRC, as sub-par, unworthy of an education, and good only for sex, child-rearing and hard-labor. I took it as fuel for our organization’s mission, because women ARE worthy of an education, and education CAN empower women and help them reclaim their lives after being raped.

Looking back now, I have a little bit of a clearer understanding of what those individuals meant by what they said.

They were not saying that education was unimportant, or that it wouldn’t help. They meant that while rehabilitation was important, and so is the empowerment of women, what Congo needed more than anything else, was peace.

And that elusive peace, was so inextricably connected to issues like education, justice, rape and the treatment of women, that one could not tackle an issue independent of the other.

While Congo’s cities give an illusion of peace, it is not so in the rural areas, where war has left an indelible print on the villages and their societies. When I first traveled to Mwenga, a rural community, known for its history of massacre and war, I was blown away by what I saw, and the way in which war had literally torn away at their lives.

Teachers had no chalk with which to teach and educate the children in the community. Women huddled together in dark huts, sharing their stories of rape, protected by the secrecy that is expected among rape-survivors. Widows and abandoned wives pooled together their money and distributed loans to each other, that sometimes consisted of mere pennies. Poverty is too mild a term to describe the life in the villages of Mwenga.

What was perhaps most shocking about my experience in Mwenga though, was the story of a little girl named Esther.

Esther had been running away from the rebels a few years earlier with her mom. She barely reached my knees and was painfully shy. While running through the jungle, she had hit her head and cut herself.

Since they were on the run for a few more days, from the rebels that ravaged their community, leaving nothing but bodies and burnt buildings in their wake, her mother could do nothing to help her daughter but cover her head with a little scarf.

Esther’s wound of course became infected. Years passed, and her mother, unable to afford to take her to a clinic that was days of walking away from their village, and unable to find any care or medication in their community that would work, accepted her daughter’s fate. The villagers told me that they could only tie her head with whatever pieces of cloth they had, and hope that a missionary or an organization would come to help her.

The doctor who had traveled there with me, examined Esther before the worry-filled eyes of her mother, and instructed her on how to clean the wound with clean water and dress it with a clean cloth. The infection though, was a white pus-filled mass, that was already threatening to eat away at her ear.

The doctor sighed heavily, as he explained to me later on that day, that if there had been something as simple as an antiseptic or antibiotic cream, clean water and a bandage, not even a hospital necessarily, Esther’s wound may have been healed today.

That wasn’t the end of the impromptu clinic session however. For what seemed like hours that evening, villagers poured into our little hut. Without any equipment, or any preparation, the doctor examined and assessed who he could, while I spoke to the villagers and listened to their stories of brutal rape, AIDS, cancer misdiagnosed as witch-craft, mothers dying during child-birth, children growing ill from lack of nutrients, and all of this going un-addressed because the clinic was too far away and too expensive for any of them to afford.

When we left the community, my team and I were mentally and emotionally exhausted by what we had seen and done. War had indeed taken its toll on Mwenga and on us.

It was clear that even before the war and the pursuant rape crisis though, health-care was nothing but a dream for these people. Now, in the tentative quiet of the nation, they still could not rebuild their community, and lack of access to health-care played a huge part in that.

The people of Mwenga need a health-care facility within reasonable reach of their home. It is an abomination, and an indictment on the international community, that such extreme levels of human suffering can occur right below our noses, only a few hours away from nearby cities and aid-hubs.

Unfortunately, this is the case in many other Congolese villages, and really, in villages all around the world. In developing countries around the world, rural health-care is virtually non-existent, and without it, people continue to die at astonishing rates from preventable causes.

This is what Build Hope is about. This Medstartr project seeks to respond to the desperate need for improved access to health-care in the Mwenga territory, specifically in the village of Kilungtuwe.

What do we mean by health-care? Not only building a clinic, but working with the community and through local channels to holistically strengthen health and build hope in this community, through education, resources and empowerment.

Starting with making birth safer and strengthening the response to the emergency medical needs of mothers and women, Build Hope is working to use health as a platform for peace in this community.

Health has been called the cornerstone of development, and peace is rooted in valuing human life and dignity. There can be no true peace or sustainable development in the DRC, if human beings are living without access to certain basic services, like health.

It’s time for us to rethink how we view health-care.

Right now, the word evokes thoughts of taxes, insurance and politics, but what a narrow view of the term! It is almost as narrow as thinking of war as only a battle among soldiers, when really war rears its ugly head in communities like Mwenga, in villages, schools, families and homes. Health can no longer be thought of as a stand-alone issue. It is a road to peace in the Democratic Republic of Congo.

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