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Hunger Games in Congo

Francis Hannaway, from Middlesbrough, England, is working in Basankusu, in the Democratic Republic of Congo. In 2014, he started working for the treatment of malnourished children. He then set up a treatment centre with a team of 12 local volunteers.

He is a former Mill Hill Missionary Associate

His story.

I live and work in the Congo. The Democratic Republic of Congo, to give it its full name, is a massive country right in the middle of Africa. It’s covered in lush rainforest. And I can pick avocados, bananas and pineapples from my garden to have for breakfast.

But how did I end up here? And what do I do?

I’ll start my story with my dad. He was a welder at Smith’s Dock shipyard, in Middlesbrough. When he was 29 he worked his way across Canada. Later, after he’d married my mother and had children – he took us half way around the world to Australia, where we lived for almost 3 years. I’d like to think that my sense of adventure comes from him.

The nuns at the convent school in Australia told us stories about explorers: Scott of the Antarctic, Magellan, and Captain Cook, of course. But it was David Livingstone who caught my interest. David Livingstone wasn’t just an adventuring explorer, looking for the source of the Nile, he was also a missionary. I decided that that was the life for me. 

We returned to Middlesbrough when I was 10. I grew up and became a teacher in special education. I was also involved in the Catholic Handicapped Fellowship, running a weekly youth club one evening and playgroups on Saturday mornings; we took our members away for holidays in the summer. It took up a lot of my time. I got a mortgage and moved into my own home, I had a car, a motorbike, a job, a social life, money in my pocket – yet it all seemed a bit too easy. I needed something a bit more challenging – I wanted an adventure.

So, I thought about my childhood dream of going to Africa. I realised of course that the whole world had already been explored – but I was sure there were things I could do to help people living in difficult circumstances. I applied to VSO, Voluntary Service Overseas. It’s a government sponsored organisation which sends people to developing countries for 2 years. I went for an interview in Glasgow. They rejected me. 

I didn’t know what to do next. I was back to square one. I suppose I could have just gone to Africa – Kenya I would probably have chosen – just to see what it was like. Then I saw an advert in a Catholic newspaper. Mill Hill Missionaries, England and Wales own Catholic Missionary society were recruiting lay people to do 3 years to support their work in developing countries. When I wrote and told them that I didn’t really know what I could do to help them, a very nice letter came back from Fr Mark Connelly saying that when he first went to Pakistan he had no idea what he could do either but had spent the last 10 years there building communities among oppressed minorities.

Mill Hill Missionaries decided to send me to Pakistan. I’d been hankering after Africa – but Pakistan would be something else again. I left my job, sold my house, my car, my motorbike, whittled down my collection of photos and cassettes to the bare minimum and moved to Mill Hill in London. I waited for over a year for a visa which was eventually refused.

Back to square one again.

Now I did visit Pakistan – I did a tour of all the places Mill Hill Missionaries were working over a 6 week period on a tourist visa.

And when I returned to Mill Hill in London they asked me to go to a place called Zaīre. At that time the Congo had changed its name to Zaire – but has since changed it back to Congo.  I had no idea where this Zaire place was and the young men studying to become priests in Mill Hill all told me it would be horrible because it’s so isolated, it’s not near anywhere and there are no real roads connecting places. Basankusu, the place the missionaries worked was right in the middle of the rainforest. No shops, no phones, no newspapers, no McDonalds … I thought WOW! That’s exactly what I’m looking for! It was 1992.

When I arrived, I was shocked by how broken down everything was, how dirty and unkempt everything was – but after a week, I got used to it. I spent two years there in a small village, teaching small groups of young men who wanted to become missionary priests. I learnt the local language, Lingala, made a lot of friends.

I returned to a teaching career in primary schools in Teesside, I visited Basankusu several times after my stint there and eventually did a couple of visits to Kinshasa to help an environmental group there. During one visit, in 2013, I went back up to Basankusu, and I stayed at the mission where there remained only one English priest, Fr John Kirwan, from Merseyside. He said, “Francis, you keep coming back for visits; why don’t you come and do another 3 years with us? We need someone to teach the students English and if you could look after the accounts for us that would be even better.”

So, I agreed and went back.

While I was getting ready to go, I read about the scourge of malnutrition in the Congo. 50% of infants don’t live past their 5th birthday – it’s incredible. Having such large families is part of the problem. Women give birth just about every year and then can’t feed their children. Poverty is the major cause of malnutrition – but there are other causes – a child could suffer from one of a number of tropical illnesses and then just not be able to put the weight back on afterwards. The staple food is cassava – it’s a root which is easy to grow. They make it into a starchy doughy lump and eat it with everything. It’s got plenty of carbohydrates but zero protein. So it’ll fill you up, but you won’t grow. You’ve got to eat meat of fish with it otherwise you’ll have serious problems.

So, I decided I would collect some money and see what I could do.

I started my teaching duties and started keeping accounts. And the mission cat gave birth to 3 lovely little kittens. We gave 2 away and the 3rd sort of became mine. He did well for a time and then one day he refused to eat. Each day that passed he got thinner. I tried to feed him but he kept his mouth firmly closed and refused everything I offered him. Eventually he died and I was quite down about it. How was I going to cope with malnourished children if I get upset about a cat dying? I’ll have to pull myself together.

So, I gave support to a group that was just starting in Basankusu, I gave them the money to buy food to feed malnourished children for 3 days of the week – so that it’s a supplementary feeding programme, the parents still have responsibility for the children on the other days. 

One of the volunteers, Judith Bondjembo, decided that some of the children, 2 or 3 children, were so severely malnourished that they needed support 7 days a week. So she fed them herself from her grandmother’s house, where she lived at the time. I said I would fund it.

After 9 months or so, we saw that the project was being mismanaged – the woman in charge was creaming off food for herself and her family. Judith suggested we rented a small house and set up a centre by ourselves. So we did. We were so pleased when all of the volunteers from the first project followed us. And that’s how we started.

After 4 years the Missionary Society moved its teaching facility to Kinshasa so now I’m independent of them. Judith and I are still running the centre, this is our 6th year. We’ve sort of become the Social Services of Basankusu. People stop us in the street to show us their children. 

So what’s a typical day like for me? It’s like this:

Up at 6 am, washed in water from the well.

Judith joins me at 7 am. We have breakfast together.

Often we have parents with malnourished children arriving from far away villages.

We take them to the small Catholic hospital which is next to my house. We get them registered, vital statistics are taken, address, name, age, weight, etc. Then we move on the laboratory to get other tests: blood iron, parasites (worms), malaria, and other illnesses are tested for. 

Some children need further treatment and are admitted to the hospital. Malnutrition comes in various forms and various degrees of severity. So, we group the children generally into severe and moderate cases. The parents are asked to present themselves with their children at our feeding centre which is on the other side of Basankusu. It’s just a small, single storey house. The cooking area is a thatched shelter outside the house. And the children sit on a tarpaulin to receive their food. We get water from our well for washing, cooking and drinking. 

Work at the feeding centre begins at 7 am. The majority of children are usually moderately malnourished. Volunteers take turns to attend, cooking meals for them on Monday, Wednesday and Saturday. At just after 7 am they will drink some milky tea with sugar, and eat bread. Between 9 and 10 they eat porridge. The porridge is made from ground maize, ground peanuts and soya-milk, with vegetable oil and sugar added. This ensures an easy to absorb source of protein and energy. Towards midday they have a meal of beans, in tomato sauce, rice, and fish. 

Children who are severely malnourished sleep at the centre with their parents. They are fed every single day until they can be classed as moderately malnourished. These children often have the classic signs of kwashiorkor: swollen bellies, faces and feet, pale peeling skin, fragile pale hair, lethargy, little interest in eating, often irritable – malnourished children are often in a bad mood – when they start laughing you know they’re getting better! They begin for the first two weeks with a diet of full-cream milk, from powder, with a little sugar and vegetable oil added, every four hours. After one week the swelling is reduced. Eventually, porridge is introduced and then solid food, such as rice and beans.

When Judith and I have finished processing children at the hospital, we take a taxi-bike each, over the rough dirt tracks, across town to the feeding centre. We manage the provision of food, maintenance of the building and grounds, planting of soya and leafy green vegetables, and follow the registration and progress of children on our books.

The first Saturday of each month we hold a meeting with all twelve volunteers. The volunteers get an allowance for expenses at this meeting. They each receive about £14, plus 5 cups of beans, 5 cups of rice, and 2 cups of salt. On special days, Christmas, International Women’s Day, church festivals, etc they often receive the same again. Usually, they will get a length of cloth to make their uniform from. The centre manager/storekeeper gets a bit more because she lives at the centre and is on call for severe cases. We also have a nurse who prescribes medicines and gives training to the parents. During the meeting, chaired by Judith, the volunteers discuss what went well and what could be improved. Associated activities, such as our gardens for peanuts, maize and beans, are discussed. Members who are late for work, or have caused any problem, can be penalised and privileges suspended. Those who have made an extra effort are applauded.

November to January is usually a quiet time at the centre. May to October is the busiest time, with as many as 75 children attending. The past year has been busier than ever because of a measles epidemic, 7,000 dead nationally.

At around 1 pm. Judith and I leave the volunteers to finish off. We return on foot. 

Sometimes we have children at the General Hospital, and might visit them. There are countless incidents of us having to track children down at home, but generally we get them to stay in one place. Similarly, we often have to diplomatically give advice to care staff and nurses in the hospitals because of the fragile nature of children with malnutrition.

After lunch – usually of fish, green vegetables, and rice or plantain bananas, I set about organising photos and videos to post on facebook. I also write an article each month for the Middlesbrough Catholic Voice. Through these efforts we try to raise enough money to continue.

During the afternoon we could sometimes get a visit from a disabled person in need of a wheelchair. During the past 5 years, I’ve provided 30 wheelchairs. Polio is the major cause of disability in Basankusu and Congo generally. A lot of disabled adults have no option to crawl around on the ground – in dry weather it’s difficult enough, but in wet weather the ground just turns to mud. Providing a wheelchair for someone completely revolutionises their life. If someone turns up, asking for a chair (or a bike as they like to call them here), I take some photos, or make a little video – and then make an appeal on facebook to raise the money. We build the chairs locally. They cost around £340 each to make.

During the evenings we usually make a tour of the Catholic hospital to visit any of our children who are there.

Other days I help at various places in the diocese with projects. One of the local brothers helps street children, or children who’ve become outcasts after being accused of witchcraft. I’ve made videos to appeal for their school fees. Recently I translated a project for a corn mill. Use of the mill would provide money for the boys’ support.

The local convent houses some very capable sisters. I’m presently supporting a project for deaf children. It involves the conversion of a building and equipping it as a workshop for sewing and carpentry.

At the moment there are restrictions because of Coronavirus, but nothing very strict. Kinshasa, the capital city is about 1,000 km from us. It’s sealed off for travel. But the virus hasn’t reached here yet. Basankusu has closed all the schools, churches and beer-gardens like the rest of the countries (but the bars are still open unofficially).

In the past, Judith and I would sometimes go for a glass of beer in one of three beer gardens in Basankusu – but we’ve had to put that on hold. Things have changed quite a lot since the 1990s when I was first here. Solar panels and satellite TV can only be afforded by a few – and similarly mobile phones are too expensive for most people – but all the same, quite a few people have them these days. I have a basic package for TV at £7/month. So I get the news in French and Judith gets her soap operas.

On days when we are not at the hospital or the feeding centre, we go to our vegetable garden in the forest. All the volunteers and their children join in. This year we have a hectare of land planted with peanuts. This brings the costs at the centre down by supplementing our stocks. Some of the peanuts can be sold and each volunteer gets a share of the rest as encouragement for their work. It’s about 4 miles from Basankusu.

I have a quite meagre existence, luxury items aren’t really available. We argue about whether a jar of chocolate spread is an extravagance of not. Fortunately, Judith is determined that I don’t let myself go and ensures I live without starving.

So, how do I fund it all?

I take photos and make 2 minute videos to put on facebook. People send small donations and St Gabriel’s Church in Middlesbrough collects money for me, and that’s how I get by. I need to generate around £1,000 each month to keep going. That covers food for the children, hospital costs and my daily living costs. It’d be great if people could have a look at my facebook page to see what I do and perhaps send a small donation themselves.

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