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.

Basankusu: Things are looking up

I travelled from Kinshasa to Basankusu with Fr John Kirwan MHM, who had been on leave in England since just after our house fire, last year. Fr John was happy to be back in his adopted country, where he has worked as a missionary for many years. The journey, however, was less than easy. From Congo’s capital, Kinshasa, to Mbandaka, on the Equator, it took only fifty-five minutes by plane. After that, the river journey to Basankusu took three days!
Our trusty canoe with outboard

We travelled with our diocesan priests, all packed closely on blue plastic chairs in a dugout canoe, driven by a not-very-powerful outboard engine. We were happily received in several isolated village parishes along the river and got a few hours’ sleep during the two nights, on assorted mats and mattresses. It was very cramped – but we managed to keep in good spirits as we chugged along through the rainforest. Whatever hardships we met we were given the reminder: “A la guerre, comme à la guerre!”… “When at war, we live as at war!”
With the diocesan priests taking a rest on the journey

In Basankusu our house reconstruction had already begun, overseen by Fr Stan Bondoko, the third member of Mill Hill Missionaries in the Congo. Piles of white sand arrived constantly by handcart, which was then swiftly transformed into concrete bricks. After a year of washing from a bucket of rainwater, I’ll be very pleased when the house is finished and we can return to en-suite plumbing.
My nutrition centre is still firing on all cylinders. Sadly, we are treating more children than ever – yet our donations have gone down drastically. Late rains have led to a poor harvest and an only meagre appearance of the protein-rich edible caterpillars, this year. People from outlying villages are getting to hear about us, travelling great distances on foot to be treated at the centre. So, we are now treating more than fifty malnourished children, each day.

In fact, the malnutrition project is expanding. We have decided to buy a small house which is close to our Catholic hospital. It will be used for our severely malnourished children, who, as well as being fed around the clock, often need urgent medical treatment. We intend to extend it a little, replace the palm-thatch with a metal roof and install a toilet for the resident manager. We need to raise £4,000 to buy it and do it up ... and a further £4,000 to run it for the first year.
Francis Hannaway at his centre for malnourished children

Something else that I noticed, on my return, was that I didn’t get harassed by Basankusu’s immigration police this time. 

So, all things considered, things are looking up.


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Pay: St Joseph’s Society for FM
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Sunday, 29 October 2017

DR Congo: No elections here!

Squealing mice and rats ran around the room, as well as squeaking bats that sounded like Punch laughing, as I tried to get a few hours’ sleep in a remote parish house during my 25 hour river journey to Mbandaka on the River Congo. At least I had a mosquito net to keep them out of my bed – but sleep was slow in coming. We watched a distant tropical storm, but because of reports of bandits on the river’s approach to Mbandaka, and subsequent military patrols, we were advised to take a break for a few hours and continue at one o’clock in the morning.

I arrived in Mbandaka and heard that a small boat carrying money for the people working to register voters, in the interior, for the elections, had been attacked, robbed and all six people on board had been killed.

From Mbandaka I took a plane to Congo’s capital, Kinshasa ... and followed the preparations for this year’s supposed general election. The president’s mandate ended last year.

“The latest technology will provide each citizen with a biometric voting card ...” said the man on the television, in Kinshasa. They then showed a woman giving her details as someone slowly typed them into a laptop. That done, he was able to push out the printed card from a large square of plastic. The woman was ready for the election!

However, Lilianna, a friend’s daughter in Kinshasa, found the reality quite different. She set off with a friend at five in the morning to the local church hall. She was given a number, 67, waited all day, outside in the scorching sun ... and then told to come back the following day. I asked her if she would try again the following day. “Yes,” she said, “It’s important to register to vote, but today there was only one person with one computer processing applications. Only twenty people managed to get their cards all day.” Lilianna returned early the next day and was given a new number, this time 177! She went home to wait and returned to the hall at 3 pm; there was nobody there! She, like many others, is still not registered.
Lillianna, ready to register as a voter in the General Election

Since the brutal repression of street protests in Kinshasa, and elsewhere in the Congo, last September and December, another phenomenon has further aggravated the population. The value of the local currency, the Congolese Franc, has lost half of its value. Prices have doubled. Rents and imported goods are set in US dollars; a lot of people are going hungry and unable to pay the rent for their houses.

I met Lilianna again a few days later. “We are more than seven months on from the President’s promise of elections,” she sighed. “People assume they’ll take place this December. What is clear to me is that there’ll be no elections this year.” 

There may be trouble ahead ...

[Since writing this, in July 2017, the electorate has been advised that elections will take place in 2019 ...]

Kinshasa: a very special school

I visited Kinshasa during July and August; I’d only been there for a few days when I was invited to visit Sister Marie-Therese Banamea, a sister in the Daughters of Jesus community. “Francis, come and see our school. It’s for all the children of those people who came to Kinshasa on René Ikeka’s boat and didn’t go back. They don’t have a penny to their name – and so the children never normally get to go to school.” 

Francis Hannaway MHM
René Ikeka is a Basankusu man who made it big in the time of the late President Mobutu. He has a riverboat for carrying goods. Many Basankusu people take advantage of it to transport them and their goods to Kinshasa, for free. Most go back and forth several times a year. Others see the bright city lights and decide to stay.

I arrived at the school and saw very polite and well behave children in their classrooms. “The children are all behind with their studies,” she explained. “The youngest in this classroom is nine – but is still learning to read simple words.”

In another room the students were around 16 years old. They each sat behind a sewing machine and treadled it with their feet. An array of dresses was displayed along one wall. “They learn to make clothes,” she continued, “but the main purpose of the school is to teach literacy and arithmetic.”

Francis Hannaway chatting to pupils
After visiting the school, we visited a new development, nearby. Built on reclaimed land on the River Congo, at Stanley Pool, it’s called The River City. It’s a secure island of luxury apartments. To get into it we passed through an area of very poor dwellings, tiny cement brick sheds, huts made from salvaged metal sheets, each housing large families – a real shanty-town. “This is where our children live,” Sr. Marie-Therese said as we passed through. “It’s a real ghetto. There are no facilities, they mostly just sit at home.”

To see the luxury of the The River City, made such an impact on me because of the contrast. At least when these people were back in Basankusu they could grow vegetables and keep a few chickens, but here they were surrounded dirt and pollution. We watched as children collected water for cooking from an open drain.

“Sadly, the girls grow up and turn to prostitution ,” sighed Sr. Marie-Therese. “The boys often become bandits. Education is the only way to save them. That’s why we started the school.”

As I said my goodbyes, Sr. Marie-Therese called to me, “Don’t forget to tell the people in Middlesbrough Diocese about our work to save these children.”

I turned back to wave. “I won’t!” I said.

Outside the school

Tuesday, 4 July 2017

Basankusu: Tasty Caterpillars end the Hunger Games

Juicy caterpillars!
Creepy crawlies wouldn’t normally spring to mind when you’re feeling hungry, but caterpillars are an absolute delicacy here. It’s not just any old caterpillar that people eat, though, but a very specific one; it’s the caterpillar of the Diverse Emperor Moth. Not only is it a tasty addition to what’s normally eaten, this seasonal bug adds much needed protein to the diet at a time when other food is scarce.

The caterpillars, known as mbinzo, appear on a particular tree – so, every village makes sure that plenty of these trees are planted. The mbinzo season is also a time for lots of outings with baskets and plastic tubs to carry them from the forest. Everybody eats them, but it’s usually women and children who collect them. They are black, or brown, with big red eyes.

If you come to a mbinzo tree, you would see it absolutely teaming with caterpillars – and locals can spot them at quite a distance.

"I’ve got to be honest and say that they are not my favourite food. For parents struggling to feed their children, though, they are an absolute Godsend." 

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Recipe: Caterpillars with peanut sauce


Mbinzo (several handfuls); 
palm oil (3 tablespoons); 
hot peppers (to your taste);
peanuts (1 cup); 
aubergine and onion (optional).

  1. Wash the caterpillars with fresh water and leave in the sun to dry, make sure they don’t wriggle away! 
  2. Grind the peanuts in a pestle and mortar. 
  3. Fry in palm oil adding the salt, ground peanuts and other ingredients as you fry. Drain surplus oil and serve. 
  4. Serve with green vegetables.

I eat caterpillars when they are in season. I’ve got to be honest and say that they are not my favourite food. For parents struggling to feed their children, though, they are an absolute Godsend. First of all, they are free, and easy to collect, (if you have a head for heights because someone has to climb the tree). Secondly, they are very high in protein – the cassava that is normally eaten has no protein in it at all. And thirdly, the children go out and collect the caterpillars themselves – so it’s a win-win situation!

The caterpillars appear in August at the end of the hungry months that I mentioned last month. It is before most harvests and at a time when fish and bush-meat is scarce – that’s why we see so many malnourished children coming to my supplementary feeding centre at this time of year. Eating caterpillars might make us feel uncomfortable – but, for many children, it saves their lives.

Saturday, 10 June 2017

Basankusu: Leopard steals goat from house

Ferocious wild animals in the Congo are difficult to get to see. Occasionally, someone keeps a monkey as a pet instead of for the pot and you might see a snake now and then, but, apart from that, the jungle keeps its inhabitants very well hidden. Yesterday, though, I came a step closer to brushing with the wild.

The sky began to darken around 6 pm; the trees teamed with bright yellow weaver-birds, chattering and squealing and carrying endless streamers of grass and palm-leaf to build up their nests. Darkness descended swiftly, leaving ragged banana trees and oil-kernel palms silhouetted against the clear royal-blue sky, with vivid twinkling constellations scattered like sequins on a velvet cloth.
People in Basankusu settled down to cook and eat their evening meal, the glow of charcoal burners and the smell of various foods filled the air.

Towards 10 o’clock, Papa Gerard went to wash. He left his little clay-brick house, ducking down a little to step under the palm-thatched roof and walked across his garden. His two goats had already found a corner and were fast asleep. He entered his little area. It’s just a private area screened from view with four flimsy palm-leaf walls and a bucket of water inside. Papa Gerard was tired after a long day in his vegetable garden in the forest, about 4 miles from Basankusu. He’d walked there and back, and now he was ready for bed.

He was just emerging again when he heard a noise. He saw that the ground had been flattened as if something had been dragged across the long grass. He called to his wife but didn’t wait; he followed the trail. He was quite surprised with what was there. A leopard, no less, had dragged one of his goats from the garden and was standing right in front of him, its long yellowish teeth deeply embedded into the side of the goat, and its distinctive orange, white and black pattern clearly visible, despite the darkness.

“Oh, oh, oh, oh, oh!” he cried out, not really thinking about what he was saying or doing, waving his arms at the leopard as his wife caught up with him. The leopard stared into his eyes, then, without a sound, released its jaws from the now-dead goat and scurried into the undergrowth.

It happened to our cook’s neighbour, so we all heard the story the next. Some were excited, others afraid ... but a few decided the story wasn’t true at all.

As for me, I believe it was an uncommon intrusion into Basankusu by a rare and secretive animal ... for whatever reason. Perhaps it was sick, or old. Perhaps it was the leopard that soldiers had captured, 10 years ago, caged and fed, which had returned to a place it knew. Who knows? At least I can now say, that the wild of the equatorial rainforest around me has taken a few steps closer.