Q&A with our local partner in the Democratic Republic of Congo - CAFOD'S Bernard Balibuno

Bernard Balibuno, Country Representative for CAFOD (Catholic Agency for Overseas Development UK), our local partner organisation on the ground in DRC.

A deadly volcano erupted in Democratic Republic of Congo this week, killing at least 32 people and leaving a trail of destruction. It’s just the latest in a series of extraordinary challenges for the people of DRC which the United Nations says may be on the brink of famine, amid COVID-19 and Ebola virus outbreaks and a decades-long conflict. 

Bernard Balibuno, who works for our local partner organisation, CAFOD (Catholic Agency of Overseas Development, UK), recently spoke to us about the current situation on the ground in the DRC.

Q. The United Nations has warned that the Democratic Republic of Congo and other countries in the region may be on the brink of the first coronavirus era famine. What is the current food security situation for people in the DRC at the moment? 

A. You have to remember that people did not do their farming, due to COVID, many people have eaten their seeds that they were supposed to plant in the next planting season.  

Many people are now, instead of really thinking about tomorrow and what’s my future, they’re really thinking what’s my children can eat today, what can I eat today? There’s been a shortage of food and its projected that this will also be bad in the coming days because we don’t know what the harvest this year or next year will look like, as we didn’t do the farming as we should have.  

There have also been less imports, most of our rice comes from outside the country. A lot of fish comes from outside and with the restrictions around the world, this has been slow coming in.  

Q. What is the current COVID-19 situation on the ground in the DRC? 

A. The situation in DRC is very complicated. This is a country that has had a lot of humanitarian catastrophes, we’ve had flooding, it’s a country that has been at war for many years, we have over 7000 displaced, the country just came out of a very long Ebola crisis that started in 2018 and lasted almost 2 years. Soon after that, just when we declared the eastern part of the country to be Ebola-free, then this COVID-19 started. 

Then there was a lot of restrictions on our travel, that means there were no imports. Also, people who go to sell on the street to do their daily work could not do that anymore - mostly women, who do the small jobs, like shining shoes on the street, selling peanuts or selling bananas or fruit could not do that. Life became very, very difficult in the country. Children were stopped from going to school for a long time, so everything is stopped in the country basically. 

Q. Was the DRC better prepared for preventing the spread of COVID-19, given that they had just experienced several years of an Ebola virus outbreak? 

A. I think Ebola did help us because when Ebola came, our awareness-raising was the best for which we have to give credit to Caritas Australia and the Australian Government which helped us in the community engagement part of the Ebola virus response. During the Ebola outbreak, basically people did not accept its existence, people did not want it. We worked very hard to raise awareness in the community and then people started understanding and adhering to the protocols, in terms of handwashing, in terms of not touching their bodies etc. 

So as soon as Ebola ended, COVID came in and we continued that same kind of awareness-raising and community engagement process where the teachers, churches and Justice and Peace Commission, for example, was very heavily involved in getting the message out. 

Q. How does CAFOD, working with Caritas Australia, manage to get the message out about preventing the spread of COVID-19 across the DRC, particularly to the more remote areas? 

A. The church here in DRC is a very big player. Basically we have 47 Dioceses and we have over 2000 parishes in the Catholic Church, most of the social services are run by the Catholic Church, including schools, including hospitals and so on and so forth. So, what we did is use that same network of the Catholic Church to spread the message and this actually makes our work very easy because there is the Justice and Peace Commission at the national level, there is at each diocese and each parish and each small community that meets in an area of 10 or 20 families - and this has been the key in terms of the work we’re doing.  

And they’re doing a good job in terms of using young people to send SMS, sending What’s App messages, in terms of using community, Catholic radio, in terms of putting up posters in a popular area, in terms of using young people and performing plays, drama to get the message out. Right now, young people here are into hip hop, they love that so we’re using the same model to put in some messages with famous young people. We do that in for each particular community - not at the national level, but rather using the local language, local dialects, clichés to make sure people understand what’s going on. 

Q. What message would you like to send to Caritas Australia’s supporters? 

A. DRC needs a lot of prayer. We live in a single world, it’s a common world we live in. The problems that are affecting us here can easily affect Australia, the problems that are affecting Australia can easily affect us here in the country. 

I remember recently you had fire issues in Australia, the churches here were praying for the people in Australia, so I think people of Australia, the first thing for us to pray for the people of DRC.  

Thank you to all your supporters, may they continue to support you financially so that you can also support us here in the country and we can do what we’re doing.