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We can’t leave these children with nothing

In Goma, Democratic Republic of Congo, just across the border from Rwanda, international aid is limited and bloodshed is plentiful. But the tragic reality of life in the centre of Africa has not defeated 40-year-old Marie Shematsi Baeni. Forced from her home by war four years ago, Baeni now spends every afternoon working with a grass-roots group, the Association Lutte Contre la Malnutrition (ALCM), providing food for 100 children and hope for their families who are trapped in a nightmarish cycle of war and deprivation.

“I saw the suffering and it’s been my manner to help,” says the determined mother of two teenage girls, with a simplicity that matches her neatly groomed hair, bright blue dress and black sandals. “We can’t leave these children with nothing. We must help them.”

Baeni, who earns the equivalent of $120 a month as an insurance company accountant, launched ALCM in 1996 with the support of her husband, a veterinarian. She drew in other displaced women who had been helping malnourished children. But within months, the war that brought Congolese President Laurent Kabila to power had swept the country. The volunteers lost everything.

A year later, ALCM started anew with a $700 loan. They used one member’s brick home for the association’s headquarters and constructed two more buildings for livestock and storing produce.

On weekdays, children come to the centre from 8 a.m. until noon for two meals of corn and beans cooked in large metal vats over open fires. “There’s a great demand, but we don’t have enough space,” says Baeni. “We are not only dealing with displaced people, but also local children from Goma. The extreme poverty in town is causing malnutrition for them as well.”

The centre’s budget comes partly from sales of mats woven by ALCM volunteers but primarily from Baeni’s salary. “My money and our small profits from selling things helps us feed the children,” she says. “But the children aren’t fed much.”

In an area where 9 out of 10 children receive no schooling, ALCM’s women volunteers teach reading, writing and arithmetic to the children, and also such practical skills as shoe repair. Nine-year-old Antoine Shimwami bought grey jeans and a purple shirt with the money he earned fixing shoes. Shimwami has been coming to the centre since August 1999 when he fled from a Rwandan Hutu militia in his village, about 20 miles west of Goma. He hasn’t seen his parents or eight siblings since and doesn’t know if they’re dead or alive.

When asked how important the ALCM has been to him, he looks over at Baeni, and then at some of the women making lunch. Lowering his eyes toward the ground, he answers quietly, “This organization makes me happy…if they weren’t here, I would die.”

Prepared by UNICEF on behalf of the Global Movement for Children, January 2001.

Copyright © UNICEF/HQ00-0731/Radhika Chalasani
Children wait for food outside the Association to Fight Malnutrition, a children’s centre in Goma, a town in the Democratic Republic of Congo. The centre cares for about 100 children, including unaccompanied and orphaned children, most of whom have been displaced by the ongoing conflict.
 

 

 

My money and our small profits from selling things helps us feed the children.... But the children aren’t fed much.