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Our stories, our history

 

To mark this year’s World Red Cross Red Crescent day, people around theworld tell of their personal connection to the Movement. Here, volunteersof Africa’s oldest National Society share their stories and give their views onhumanitarian action.

DURING THE LAST HALF CENTURY, the people of the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) have endured a succession of devastating crises — internal conflicts, displacement, major influxes of refugees, natural calamities — in addition to chronic poverty and poor health conditions. As a result, the country is home to one of the world’s largest and longest-running international humanitarian and development operations. But reaching vulnerable people in remote, conflict-affected areas is no easy task in a country with limited infrastructure and a territory larger than France, Germany, Norway, Spain and Sweden combined.

But that’s where the volunteers come in. Despite limited resources, the National Society has built up a volunteer corps that allows it to reach vulnerable people in all the country’s 11 provinces.

“This is what makes us strong and we are proud of it,” says 72-year-old volunteer and HIV/AIDS coordinator Paul Panzu (left). “For example, the Equateur Province is landlocked, but we manage to provide assistance to refugees from the Central African Republic who arrive in the north of the province.”

The National Society has also made important contributions: working to prevent soil erosion that threatened local communities; promoting humanitarianism and non-violence; improving hygiene; providing first aid; reconnecting families separated by conflict; and offering psychosocial and economic support for former child soldiers and children from broken families.

But there are gaps. Much more needs to be done, they say, to better coordinate humanitarian action, work with communities to develop long-term solutions, get much-needed equipment into the hands of first responders, expand the network of volunteers, enhance professional capacity and protect volunteers from harm.

“The volunteers are well cared for, but it is not enough,” says 22-year-old Thomas Kalonji Kananga, a trainer and youth coach. “We need the Movement to strengthen its support, especially regarding the provision of equipment and advocacy for volunteers, so they can freely access victims and not be targeted by armed groups.”

 



 

 

 

 

 

 



Violette Lakulu Nkwewa Photo: ©Red Cross of the
Democratic Republic of
the Congo

 

 

Violette Lakulu Nkwewa

National trainer and coordinator of the women’s brigade in the city and province of Kinshasa

As a young girl, Violette Lakulu Nkwewa was inspired by her older brother’s involvement in the Red Cross. “I loved the group of young volunteers he belonged to,” she recalls. “They were always together and they all spontaneously brought relief to victims, mostly related to car accidents.

“This was reinforced when I saw the volunteers help someone who had fallen and seemed old and abandoned,” says Nkwewa, now 47. “They washed him and he recovered. He was not actually an old man, but a young one, weakened by disease. This gesture moved me and strengthened my conviction.”

Joining as a junior volunteer at the age of 11, Nkwewa was trained in basic emergency response and over the years continued to expand her skills. “Some people were surprised that a woman could serve as a rescue volunteer, but I always told them that volunteering or rescuing was not restricted to men,” she says. Now, with 36 years experience, she serves as a national trainer and coordinator of the women’s brigade for the city and province of Kinshasa.

She is most proud of her National Society’s work helping child soldiers and children from the street. “Many children have now become useful to society; they finished their university studies and work,” she says. “I am also proud of the first-aid volunteers, especially the women, who have always been the first ones on the scene.”

But the National Society can improve, she says, by strengthening its capacity to respond to disasters, providing volunteers with adequate equipment and training, and finding the resources to offer a desperately needed ambulance service.

Her toughest moment as a volunteer came when she was taken hostage by the former child soldiers she was supervising. “The children were complaining that they hadn’t received any financial support to enable them to resume normal life, so they offloaded their frustration onto me, taking me hostage for more than 24 hours. As I was on good terms with them, they didn’t do anything wrong to me. I used my powers of persuasion until the authorities of the Red Cross came to release me.”


Kikeki Di-Bikeka

Volunteer and former head of the provincial Red Cross of Kinshasa

The year was 1950 and 24-year-old scout leader Kikeki Di-Bikeka and his troupe needed to learn life-saving skills as part of their training. “The scout movement asked a Belgian nurse and Red Cross member to train us,” he says, recalling his first encounter with the Movement. “At that time, the Red Cross was only open to white people and was not known as a volunteer organization by the Congolese people. Rather, it was seen as a health service.”

Two years later, a Belgian Red Cross volunteer named Leon Stouff, who was encouraging the admission of indigenous Congolese to the Red Cross, recruited Di-Bikeka as a volunteer. “Stouff’s strategy was to reach out to adults through an awareness programme on hygiene and health called ‘Small Samaritans’ carried out by children at the Salvationists’ [Salvation Army’s] schools,” he recalls, adding that the corps of young people grew to include 1,600 children and teens after just one year. (See www.redcross.int for a story about Leon Stouff, as well as Belgian Red Cross actions in the Democratic Republic of the Congo.)

As part of that effort, Di-Bikeka helped organize a tournament which brought even more public attention to health issues as well as support for the National Society in the community, among colonial authorities and within the Movement.

“The fact that I was recruited as the first Congolese to organize the membership of black persons empowered my humanitarian action,” says Di-Bikeka, who is now 87. “I had to organize adult trainings and create rescue services fitted with 105 well-equipped vehicles and mobile clinics.

“We were always close to the community. This strengthened our image and trust within the community. Where there was an emergency, the Red Cross was seen. This momentum has preserved the National Society until today, and it makes it one of the few, if not the only, organization to be close to the populations in very difficult situations — and this in spite of insufficient resources.”

Though the National Society has accomplished much, he laments that the ambulance corps no longer exists. The National Society is still not living up to its potential because the peoplepower of volunteers is not matched with sufficient resources and support in terms of equipment, health care and sustainable funding. “I’m sorry that after all these years, the Red Cross of the Democratic Republic of the Congo is still a beginner National Society that only intervenes with support from providing National Societies,” he says.

The National Society and the Movement, he says, need to do a better job raising funds, spreading its message and strengthening advocacy with parliamentarians and other officials for policies that would, for example, use a small percentage of the state budget.

Like most volunteers here, Di-Bikeka has lived through some difficult times. “In 1962, during the political crisis for an independent Congo, I was responsible for food assistance to war victims throughout the republic. Once I arrived in Kisangani, a stronghold of opponents to the government in Kinshasa, I was arrested along with the local authorities, the people who were accused of having caused food poisoning. I was saved by the intervention of a volunteer.”

After all these years working as a volunteer, does he think that all the humanitarian interventions in the DR C are making a difference? “What is positive is that victims are assisted and their suffering is alleviated,” he says. “The downside is that in crisis, ordinary people do not assist each other. They expect organizations to act. And even the organizations sometimes lack the resources to assist most of the vulnerable people or the assistance does not meet their real needs.”


Kikeki Di-Bikeka
Photo: ©Red Cross of the
Democratic Republic of
the Congo

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

“At that time, the
Red Cross was only
open  to white people
and  was not known
as a volunteer organiz-
ation by the Congolese
people. Rather, it was
seen as a  health service.

Kikeki Di-Bikeka

 

 

 

 

 


Leon Stouff,
Photo: ©Red Cross of the
Democratic Republic of
the Congo

 



Thomas Kalonji Kananga
Photo: ©Red Cross of the
Democratic Republic of
the Congo

 

 

 

 

 

 

Thomas Kalonji Kananga

Volunteer, facilitator, trainer and coach for youth

For 22-year-old Thomas Kalonji Kananga, the Red Cross spirit runs in the family. So when he decided to volunteer at the age of 10, there were no objections from his parents, who were also Red Cross volunteers.

But not all parents are so supportive. “Many parents reduce the mission of the Red Cross to the collection of dead bodies and are reluctant to let their children join,” says Kananga, who works in hospitals, old people’s homes and vulnerable communities as well as with young people. “To support the youth who approach me, I personally meet with their parents to better inform them about our activities. Most of the parents end up consenting.”

For his part, the decision to volunteer has deepened his love for his fellow human beings, improved his own self-control and helped him understand people’s problems and address their concerns.

Because of conflict, poverty and other issues, many young people in the DR C lack the family support, employment, education and supervision that can help keep them on track. Activities for youth are critical in helping them avoid drugs, crime and violence, he says.

The trick is to make youth activities sustainable, by increasing the number of youth supervisors, strengthening their capacity and having more partnerships and experience-sharing with young people from other National Societies and humanitarian organizations.

“Many challenges await youth across the world, and particularly in the DR C,” he says. “We therefore have a mission to manage our peers properly so they do not let themselves be carried away by bad influences.”

 

‘My story’

That’s the theme of World Red Cross Red Crescent Day on 8 May. Do you or someone you know have a story to share about their connection to the Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement? If so, let us know via rcrc@ifrc.org.

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