Tuesday, 20 March 2018

Basankusu: Pineapples, fish and a broken tooth

During the past month, the “Rural Women Determined Against Malnutrition”, the registered name of our association, were pleased to see our numbers drop to only five. They didn’t waste time, and were soon planting pineapples and soya beans in our garden. These crops will provide food for the children and an income to support our work. Pineapples grow on the ground and send runners through the soil to make new plants, like strawberries do.

“The pineapples will take more than six months before we can pick them,” explained our nurse, Mama José, “but the soya will be ripe in about two months. We’ve got to be ready for the next wave of malnourished children coming to us.

Francis with pineapple plant

At the moment, there is some fish for families to catch in the small streams. That’s quite easy, lots of children go with their mothers to catch catfish, which slither along in the small streams.”

Rural Women Determined Against Malnutrition ... working hard.
She explained further, “The women dig a hole and scoop out the water; they put a basket into the hole and the fish come down the stream and fall into the basket. That’s an easy way to feed your children for free,” she said. “Towards the end of April, heavy rains flood the streams and the fish swim off to deeper water. So no more free food! That’s when we always see lots of malnourished children at our centre. The hungry months continue right up until the end of August when the next free food arrives: that’s the edible caterpillars! Just like the free fish, they are very rich in protein, which helps the children to grow.”

As I walked home from our vegetable garden, I walked underneath the branches of an avocado tree which leant over the path from someone’s garden. I counted twenty ripe avocados hanging on the tree. It just shows what people can have to eat if they just think ahead – sadly, some people fall on difficult times, or times of illness, and end up not being able to feed their children.

The very same day, at our Mill Hill Missionaries house, I enjoyed some tasty catfish like the ones I mentioned.

I tried to be like the locals and crunched hard on the small bones. It wasn’t very wise; I broke part of a tooth! In Basankusu you might be able to have a tooth taken out, but I didn’t want that and to find a proper dentist I needed to travel to Kinshasa.

The routine has now become familiar. I was able to get a canoe ride with the visiting Provincial of the Daughters of Jesus sisters. Two days on the river was followed by two days waiting for a plane which failed to turn up the first day ... and I arrived in Kinshasa.

We were eventually reunited with our suitcases three days after arriving, but didn’t complain (well, not too much anyway).

I will be back in Basankusu soon – in time for the malnourished children who we know will soon arrive.

Please keep us in your thoughts and prayers ... and even better, send a small donation to help with this work.


Basankusu: Francis Hannaway thinks about his time in the Congo

Time goes quickly in Basankusu, in the Congo. My three years have spilled into a fourth year committed to missionary life with Mill Hill Missionaries.

The students I started teaching at the beginning of 2015 are studying Philosophy in Uganda. They will eventually become Mill Hill priests.

A little get-together after mass for extending my time in the Congo

My centre for treating malnourished children and advising their parents has passed its third birthday. Some volunteers have moved on but have been replaced with new, even better ones. We have now successfully treated over one thousand children at the centre.

Further to that, we’ve taken on a second house to concentrate on the more severely malnourished children. It’s right next to our Catholic hospital for easy access to medical services (such as they are!).

The rebuilding of our Mill Hill house, since it burnt down, is almost complete. And we’re just saying goodbye to our visiting eye-doctors, from Belgium, who have just spent another two weeks treating Basankusu people, their fifth visit!

More anniversaries come to mind: this year will mark 25 years since I first came to Basankusu as a Mill Hill Missionary, for three years.

I found this photo from 1992 of myself and a young woman from the Ngombe tribe.

She’d given birth to her first child and was following the tribal tradition of “First Birth”. She was accompanied by two younger sisters, or cousins – one carried the baby for her, the other carried a small stool for her to sit on to feed the baby.

For at least one year, – without her husband – she visits her extended family in neighbouring villages, who should feed her up to keep her in good health. She avoids washing in the river, in case she catches a chill – instead she’s covered in palm-oil.

She wears several different charms to keep away evil spirits, including: a leopard’s tooth, a leopard’s skin, a traditional raffia skirt, cow-bells (they’re behind her on a belt) again, to keep away evil spirits, and several marks and bracelets from the traditional healers to protect her.

This all seems very extravagant – and very hard on the poor husband – but it ensured that mother and child survived in possibly harsh conditions.

Mobile phones, solar panel lights, and a shaky internet connection have since arrived in Basankusu. Sadly, the tradition of “First Birth” has all but died out. My work, these days, working with malnourished children, gets me thinking that perhaps it should be reintroduced.

Kinshasa: avoiding trouble!

It was already 9 o'clock, this morning, when I set off from the outskirts of Kinshasa to go to my makeshift office at the 'Procure des Missions' in central Kinshasa. I’m staying in Kinshasa for a few weeks, to sort out accounts and such like for our Mill Hill Missionaries community, here in the Congo. 

There were plenty of people waiting for shared taxis, too many, in fact, so I boarded a crowded mini-bus, with its tattered seats and hanging-off sliding door. Holding tight next to the open sliding door, we set off, with a fair breeze wafting in and cooling us down in the overpowering heat. Depending on the traffic, we should have arrived in Kintambo in about twenty-five minutes. From there I would look for another shared taxi or minibus to the centre of the city.

We'd only gone about half a mile when we came to a halt. 

Perspiration soaked through my shirt as the breeze disappeared. The driver decided to do a three-point turn.
"There's trouble ahead," he said, pointing down the road. "They've killed a teacher at a secondary school - there's mayhem! We'll go a different route."

Every vehicle followed suit. An elderly couple, sitting next to me, decided to get off. I asked where exactly the trouble was. Was it everywhere...? No-one knew. We were very soon in a solid traffic jam - it was like a quiet panic.
I passed the place I'd started. I had three appointments today at the ‘Procure des Missions’ ... perhaps they could wait. Arriving in a place is one thing ... but if things got out of hand (and if it was linked to oppression of opposition supporters it could get out of hand) it was possible there'd be no way back. Being a white foreigner, I could easily attract the wrong type of attention: attention from rioters, corrupt police, and the local thieves who hang around and wait for distractions like this. 

I touched the ticket man's arm ... "I've changed my mind,” I said, “I'll get off here."

Armed police appeared - a soldier with his Kalashnikov appeared. I went back to the house where I'm staying. 

After a while a friend, who’d heard of the trouble, called to see where I was. 

"Don't worry," I said, "I didn't go." "That's good," continued my friend, "because this is a riot caused by the halving of the value of the currency against the dollar ... but school fees are in dollars. The police and soldiers are now shooting at the crowd in Kintambo!" 

Kintambo is where I was heading. It's where I would look for a second shared taxi.

Well, it's a wasted day - but I think I made the right decision, don't you?

Basankusu: Catherine's story

“Help me!” whispered a young woman as she gripped my arm, her voice barely audible over the noise of the jostling crowd. It was a full year ago, during the eye-doctors’ annual visit. The hospital compound was buzzing with crowds from far and wide who had come to have eye problems treated.  Her name was Catherine and she looked frightened and desperate. I’d helped several elderly people to get seen quickly, but this girl looked barely twenty.

“What’s the matter?” I asked, as her grip on my arm tightened. She showed me one eye that was closed and sunken. She moved closer to tell me, “Last year I had a cataract operation – but a few weeks later it went wrong. Help me to see the doctors so that they can fix it for me.”

I took her swiftly through to see Dr Pauline, who quickly saw that an infection had damaged the eye beyond repair. The only thing to do was to remove the original implant – but she would be permanently blind in that eye.

We were all very upset about the prospect. Catherine started to cry; she didn’t want to have another operation. By this time, Dr Pauline and I had tears in our eyes as well; fortunately, Hilde, one of the nurses, came to put an arm around Catherine and calmed the situation. It was all over in fifteen minutes. I summoned two bicycle-taxis and took her back home.

“She’s been miserable all year,” her brother said. “She’s 29 years old. Her husband left her saying she was no longer beautiful – alone with five children.” Their simple house was made from planks and stood on stilts in the riverbank mud. “She’ll have to be brave,” I said, not really knowing what to say. “Her life has taken a different path to the one she’d envisaged, but I’m sure she’ll do well.”

I didn’t see her again until this year. I took her to get her other eye checked. Fortunately it was in good condition. “I’m so down about the whole affair,” she confided. “Being left alone is a huge burden.”

She visited again, this time with her brother and a local politician. They started demanding compensation of £700 (which is a fortune here!).

During their five visits the eye doctors have performed 1,300 cataract operations – this is the only one that didn’t work out well. I felt as if she’d betrayed me ... I still had a lot of sympathy for her condition, but it had suddenly turned sour. I avoided them for over a week.

Eventually, she came back by herself. “Forgive me,” she said. “My brother and his politician friend are only looking to profit from my situation and I should never have allowed them to come along. If they phone you, just ignore them. All I’m looking for is a little money to survive on.”

“With a small amount of money, you could sell things,” I suggested.

“Yes,” she replied, “I’ll go along the river and buy fish to sell. There’s a boat coming next week, so please keep the money until then.”

We agreed an amount of £50. Catherine seemed very pleased.

“I’ll ask the good people of Middlesbrough Diocese to help us,” I added, thinking that I should try to pay for her children’s school fees as well.  

Wednesday, 6 December 2017

DR Congo: Christmas and presents

Advent is a time of preparation – putting our lives in order and thinking about what is important in life. Of course, giving presents at Christmas can be fun, too!

A lot has happened in the last month. I visited a school for orphans run by Mama Martha and her volunteers. Martha and her husband do their best to raise money by keeping sheep and hybrid chickens. I’d given a contribution to the school and so they had decided to buy an exercise book and a pen for each child with it. What struck me was, not only how full of life these orphans were – a stark contrast to the listless, sad children at my centre for malnutrition - but that they were all over the moon with their gift. In each classroom they greeted me with rote learned greetings in French. Then they lined up in front of the tiny school building and sang and sang and sang. They cheered and clapped. They were so happy with their gifts.

These children would never even think of receiving a computer or a new bike at Christmas – but to have their very own exercise book and pen, and to be able to go to school, is like the best Christmas ever!

Meanwhile, at my centre for malnourished children, a thank-you is more difficult to come by. Parents are anxious, depressed. The children have got used to being hungry and forget to cry.
“Tata Francis,” one mother called to me, “it is easy for you to give our children food because you are rich.” I told her that it wasn’t my money that was saving her daughter’s life, but gifts from kind people in England. “But they don’t know us,” she said. “Why would they send money to help the children of strangers?”

I didn’t really know the answer. Perhaps some people think about how fortunate they are in life. Perhaps people are happy that their own children were born into comfortable lives and they feel sorry for others.

To give presents at Christmas in the UK is an expensive business. But to give ten percent of your present buying budget to those less fortunate would be great. It would easily be worth more than the presents that the other ninety percent could buy!

So, enjoy your Advent. Let’s put our lives in order and think about what is important in life.

Monday, 13 November 2017

Basankusu: Poverty is the cause of malnutrition

Some of our helpers’ children played on the ground while those being treated for malnutrition stared aimlessly into space. Similarly, their parents looked bored and there was little in the way of conversation taking place. On the other side of our fence, a woman was wailing and crying – her little boy had died; the wake was in the garden next door. Childhood deaths are a common occurrence here and malnutrition is only one of the causes.
Mama José - our nurse

We gave the children their corn and peanut porridge, while I wondered how we could possibly continue with so few donations being sent at present. I asked Mama José, our nurse, why so many children become malnourished.

“Poverty is the number one cause,” she replied without hesitation. “Having too many children and not enough money to feed them with is very common here.”

She went on to describe how a mother would try to feed a large family with about forty pence a day.
“She can give them all something to eat – but it won’t have enough energy or protein in it,” she continued. “The choice of food is very limited here, and a lot don’t know the value of eating fruit and vegetables. Other children become malnourished when the mother is expecting another baby, even though the first one isn’t yet weaned – they wouldn’t stand a chance if this centre wasn’t here.”
Another reason she told me was when children have diarrhoea, or worms. “They lose so much weight that just eating the local food just can’t put the weight back on them – it just fills them up, but doesn’t help them at all.”
Francis Hannaway getting kids checked at the hospital

I thought about the little boy who had died next door, and then about the children at my centre. In the last week, two children had died after coming to us too late. Corrupt government leaves nothing for the needy. Poverty is also caused by ignorance about the right foods to eat. I thought about those children who had died because they happened to have been born into such poor conditions, and the emptiness it must leave in each of their families.

I was trying to cheer myself up by thinking about the 700, or more, children that we’ve put back on the road to health during the past three years, when a women arrived with a little girl.
“This is Nadia,” she said. “You treated her here last year and we’ve come to say “thank you”.”
We couldn’t believe how well she looked. “What a lovely surprise,” exclaimed Mama José. “You see, Francis, here’s living proof that our work is all worthwhile!”

Nadia - before and after
We pray for the repose of the souls of those poor children who have died because of poverty, and we rejoice in the lives of the ones who are on the road to recovery.