By MARGARITE CLAREY Communications and Advocacy Consultant, Mercy Corps DRC
and CHRISTIAN MUHINDO Multimedia Communications Officer, Mercy Corps DRC
At just 24, Grace Ganisikale knows what it’s like to start your life from scratch. In April 2021, violence broke out in her native Nyankunde, forcing Grace and thousands of others to flee to the hills for safety. In the chaos, she was separated from her family members. “We all fled in different directions,” said Grace, who fled to neighboring Komanda with her two young children.
In September, violence reached Komanda. Again, Grace fled with her children, but this time towards her hometown. There she was reunited with her extended family, many of whom had gradually returned to Nyankunde as security calmed down.
The relief of their reunion was soon overshadowed by worries as the family, cut off from their fields due to continued insecurity, became weak with hunger.
“Our previous life was based on our fields. We ate and traded the cassava, sweet potatoes and bananas that we grew there. When we came back we were too afraid to go to the fields because there was still uncertainty. Our houses were also looted. We had nothing. We were really hungry,” Grace said.
Grace and her family were among more than 6,000 households who fled the September 2021 violence in Komanda and Makayanga towards Nyankunde, where Mercy Corps has already assisted more than 28,000 people returning from the April 2021 violence. This new wave of displaced people doubled the population and exacerbated food and water shortages.
Addressing a double drain on the water supply
Christine Maikolu also fled her village in Komanda when violence broke out in September. “When we got here, my children started having diarrhea and vomiting, chills at night and a fever,” she said. She showed us the classroom where she and her young children sleep at the Marabo Center.
Mercy Corps found that more than 85% of newly displaced families said their children had diarrhea since fleeing the area. To respond quickly to the prevalence of waterborne diseases, the Mercy Corps (supported by the USAID Office of Humanitarian Assistance) constructed two water tanks to provide clean water to 43,000 people. Once these emergency tanks were in place, Mercy Corps rehabilitated existing water points, built public latrines and showers, distributed hygiene kits, and conducted community activities to promote improved sanitation. This work resulted in a 77% reduction in diarrhea in children under the age of five.
“The children’s health has improved. Thank you to Mercy Corps for helping with the water. The biggest challenge we have now is hunger,” Christine said.
Families caught in a cycle of displacement and starvation
Nearly 27.3 million people in the Democratic Republic of the Congo are acutely food insecure – the country has the most people in urgent need of food security assistance in the world. In Ituri province, where the Mercy Corps emergency relief program is providing life-saving assistance, more than 1.7 million people have been displaced and nearly half the population suffers from critical hunger. Displaced families are among the most vulnerable as insecurity and active violence prevent them from accessing their fields, food and livelihoods. Although displaced families often have the option of staying with host families, their presence reduces food and water supplies, increases pressure on local communities and increases the needs of the entire population.
“The families displaced from Komanda came here to seek shelter, even though we had just returned home and had no food or water for ourselves,” said Badouin Emberamu, who lives with his wife Marie and their grandchildren. They too returned and found their house and fields plundered.
In response to acute food insecurity in Nyankunde, Mercy Corps launched two additional emergency intervention programs. “Our SAFER Rapid Response Program provides emergency lifesaving assistance as families displaced by or returned from conflict often have left behind everything they possess and have very limited access to food, water, clothing and basic household items,” said Trisha Bury, who served as head of the Mercy Corps Contingency Program in the Democratic Republic of the Congo.
Address hunger with immediate relief and longer-term agricultural solutions
In Nyankunde, the Mercy Corps SAFER project helped secure food and essential household items, reaching more than 9,500 families.
“During the first Mercy Corps intervention, we prioritized buying a mattress because up until then we had all been sleeping on the floor. We also took beans, oil and soap to share with the family who are hosting us,” Badouin said.
Despite a first round of emergency life-saving aid, the food needs of families dependent on agriculture have remained high and many are still cut off from their fields. Mercy Corps continued to help by providing temporary assistance through a program called “PHASE” to ensure families had a predictable supply of nutritious food until they were able to resume livelihoods or farming activities. The program also provided alternative farming solutions for families to create a sustainable food supply, as well as access to markets through “food fairs”.
These fairs, where attendees receive vouchers to buy supplies for their families, aim not only to address the immediate needs of the target audience, but also to boost economic recovery by supporting local markets and vendors. Food fairs organized by Mercy Corps in partnership with local vendors in the Nyankunde area reached more than 57,000 people, including Steven Baraka, whose father was killed in the April 2021 violence. Steven has slowly rebuilt the family butcher shop since returning to Nyankunde.
“When we got home we found our houses burned and our livestock looted. We had no way of making a living,” Steven said. With little revenue circulating in the local economy, it was difficult for him to do business. As a participant and seller, he is able to meet his family’s immediate needs and increase his income to reinvest in his family’s future.
“Ever since Mercy Corps helped us, we’ve had food in our homes — beans, rice, oil. Conditions have improved. I can sell three cows a day at Mercy Corps fairs, which is a lot more than I can sell outside of the fair. With my winnings, I plan to even build a small house for my family, because since we returned home we live in difficult conditions,” he said.
For Grace, whose family is still cut off from their fields due to insecurity, Mercy Corps has provided both supplies and skills. “Today I picked up rice, beans, oil and salt,” Grace says, carrying home the supplies of groceries she picked at the closing fair. Seven months after returning home, Grace and her family can now get by with vegetables that are grown much closer to home.
“Mercy Corps came to train us in Permagarden techniques. They showed us how to properly fertilize the soil, grow vegetables using techniques that don’t require a lot of water, so even in the dry season we can eat vegetables close to home,” said Grace, whose family is one of 528 in Permagarden techniques trained through neighborhood demonstration plots. To stimulate the garden, she was given gardening tools and vegetable seeds.
Grace says she’s noticed an improvement in her children’s health now that they’re eating multiple times a day. “In our garden now we have amaranth, leeks, pumpkin and spinach. It helps us survive. We now eat vegetables regularly, which not only helps us to survive but also to live better.”