In Their Own Words: During Wartime in DRC, I Saw That Only Humanitarians Came to Provide AidAug 18, 2020
Jean Baptiste Babone is working as a project manager with People in Need (PIN) in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC). He joined the team six years ago, and the 37-year-old father of two has already worked as a nutrition supervisor and field coordinator.
In the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, he was working on a project in Mulungu health zone, South Kivu province which was funded by the DRC Humanitarian Fund and managed by the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. The objective of the project was to facilitate access to primary health care including prevention and treatment of severe acute malnutrition and to improve food security and WASH conditions of the most vulnerable populations in Shabunda territory.
How did you become a humanitarian worker? Why did you choose this job?
While I was in school in South Kivu, I lived in an environment of war and population movements and I noticed that it was only humanitarians who came to provide aid to the affected populations. I was very interested in doing this work and supporting human beings. After my studies, I started to apply to NGOs to mark my presence in humanitarian work, and now it has been 10 years that I have been working in the service of humanity, with experience in international and national organizations.
Why exactly did you join People in Need? How long have you been in the organization?
I joined PIN in 2014 for the first time after following its interventions remotely in different areas of South Kivu. I was interested in their implementation strategy, especially in terms of going where others do not go, because often that is where there are numerous humanitarian issues or aggravated vulnerability.
Can you describe what your average day in the field looks like?
When I was in purely technical positions, my day in the field was devoted to monitoring and carrying out activities with the beneficiaries. For example, the work involved supervising healthcare providers in their management of acute malnutrition treatment within healthcare structures, and supporting community workers who carried out home visits to beneficiary households to give advice on infant and young child feeding as well as other essential family practices as well as cooking demonstration education. In my current position, I mentor project staff, implementing partners, and community leaders on a technical and managerial level.
How has your job changed because of COVID-19?
In the project I currently manage, we eliminated all mass sensitization activities in our healthcare structures and in the communities in which we work, and at the same time we defined a strategy for integrating Covid-19 prevention activities into all of our project activities. We are organizing community discussions with groups of less than 20 people with respect for social distancing and a focus on individual advice. We also sensitize health personnel and community leaders on COVID-19 prevention measures and on individual and collective protection. Last but not least, we are providing healthcare facilities with COVID-19 awareness materials.
Are your daily routines different? How do you protect yourself and the people you support?
Yes, they changed significantly. We protect ourselves and the people we support by systematically wearing masks, regularly washing our hands with soap or hydroalcoholic gels, maintaining social distancing between colleagues and visitors, and limiting visits in the office and in communities.
Do you see any new challenges occurring due to the disease?
There is a problem with access, because the city is isolated from rural areas. The coming economic crisis will be a problem as well. I have also noticed the stigmatization of those who are affected by the disease and those who are coming from areas with some confirmed cases. Of course, there is a lack of knowledge about COVID-19 within the communities, and some people lack trust.
How have the lives of people and communities changed because of the coronavirus?
We have noticed an increase in the cases of unwanted pregnancies in the communities in which we work, as well as higher occurrence of early marriages and high-risk abortions. Many people have lost their jobs or sources of living. Communities are also poorly supplied with basic necessities which increases the risk of food or nutritional insecurity. Especially in low income households, the risk of separation of men and women is quite high. Somewhere, crimes such as looting have become more frequent.
Have the people you are supporting changed their perspective on aid workers in any way?
Some people think that it is the NGO staff who bring the coronavirus into the community, especially since the disease has gained traction in the West. To overcome this, we are doing everything we can to protect the communities we work in, by wearing the protective equipment and keeping the recommended distance. We are also sensitizing the community about prevention and the virus itself, as I already mentioned.
Are you personally afraid of illness or the economic consequences associated with it?
No, I am not afraid of the disease but I respect it and I deal directly with the prevention aspects, because it is a dangerous disease but also curable. Its consequences are very harmful and I am among the people who decide to face it positively to minimize the risks of its consequences.
How did your family cope with this new situation?
When the pandemic was announced in our province, I was in the field. I stay in direct contact with my family to keep them informed and to give them prevention strategies, especially regarding awareness-raising so that they cannot be afraid of it. Immediately, we installed a hand washing point at the entrance of the house and limited movement between households, and we are using masks and respecting the social distancing rule. In addition, during the lockdown, we obtained a small stock of food which was not sufficient due to rising food prices in the local market.
Is it now more difficult to combine your work as an aid worker with your family life? What changed?
At home I constantly face the risk that I will not have electricity because the power is cut quite often. It is really difficult to reach the area of intervention due to a lack of flights and road inaccessibility due to growing insecurity. It is also difficult to access our salaries from banks, due to exchange rate imbalances and the scarcity of international currency.
Has the COVID-19 emergency response changed you in any way? If yes, how?
In professional life, the integration of COVID-19 prevention activities into project activities started timidly because this is a novelty here. The project teams took a while to get used to it but eventually they adjusted. The beneficiaries, in turn, were initially opposed to joining COVID-19 prevention activities, but over time they understood their importance and a gradual adherence was observed. Supply difficulties were identified and managed with locally available means and all project activities continued, although there was a point when we had been operating at a minimal level.
Moreover, my social life was disrupted by the measures adopted by the government in the context of the fight against COVID-19. It affected our African style of living and culture.