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At a glance: Congo

Day of the African Child: Saving lives and fighting for the rights of indigenous children

© UNICEF Congo/2009/Williams
Ten year old Albert is given an injection of penicillin to treat yaws, a contagious skin disease that has been eradicated in much of the world, but common amongst forest dwelling communities.

By Shantha Bloemen

The Day of the African Child has been marked on 16 June every year since 1991, when it was first initiated by the Organization of African Unity. This year’s theme is 'Africa Fit for Children:  A Call for Accelerated Action Towards Child Survival'. This is one in a series of stories on the theme.

MOSCOW VILLAGE, Republic of Congo, 15 June 2009 – It is mid-morning, when a UN Refugee Agency boat docks along the Bangui River. The passengers – a team of mobile health workers – climb up the steep bank. Physicians from ‘Doctors for Africa’ and other volunteers have travelled five hours to Moscow, a small village on the edge of the forest.

The health workers have come to visit the Baka, one of 15 indigenous ethnic groups in the forests of central Africa. For the Baka, like many indigenous people in the Republic of Congo, access to hospitals and clinics is practically non-existent. The visiting doctors offer vital health interventions, as well as access to birth registration.

Greeted with music and dance

The health workers are greeted with music and singing.  A dancer dressed as a ‘Jongi’ – a magical spirit from the forest – appears from the bushes, covered from head to toe in dried reeds and dances in the open space around their mud brick homes.

The drumming picks up pace, as more and more people join in the festivities. But eventually, the celebration dies down, and the community gathers for important health interventions.

Sister Ancilla is a Nigerian nun who is also trained as a nurse. She has worked in the country for two years.  She believes that the work of the mobile teams that move up and down the river providing services to indigenous children is critical. 

© UNICEF Congo/2009/Williams
A villager dressed as a ‘Jongi’, or forest spirit, arrives to welcome the team of mobile health workers to the village of Moscow in a remote part of Likoula province in Northern Republic of Congo.

“This work is very important to them because if you neglect them and leave them, many of them will die.”

Treatable diseases

Ten-year-old Albert Mangamma is suffering from yaws – a highly contagious, rare skin infection that remains common amongst forest dwelling communities. Many common tropical skin diseases skin like yaws and leprosy can be easily treated with penicillin.

“The mothers and fathers understand very well the importance of the treatment, but the children don’t understand,” said Sister Ancilla. “When you want to inject them, they start crying.”

Mortality rates can be higher in remote forest communities when measured against Congo’s national averages. Malaria and measles are also common.

The challenge is the lack of health facilities and access to treatment, as well as the fight against outside discrimination and stigma. 

Birth registration guarantees rights

On a makeshift desk in the shade, Dr. Rufin Mafouta from the Congolese non-governmental organization ‘Doctors for Africa’ is interviewing parents and filling out birth registration forms.

“Registration guarantees the rights of children because it gives them a nationality, a right to go to school and access to other social services, as well as legal status as a citizen. It is very important,” said Dr. Mafouta.

Along with a team of 20 people, Dr. Mafouta covers three districts in the province. It is a critical step in the push to give indigenous children equal rights.

Overcoming marginalization

The mobile health clinic, along with the birth registration project, is part of a larger national plan approved by the Government and supported by UNICEF and its partners to help overcome the marginalization faced by indigenous communities. 

Currently, a draft of a law outlining the rights of indigenous people lies ready to be approved by Parliament in the Republic of Congo.

For Antoine Bwange, Moscow Village chief, keeping traditions alive are very important.  He wants his sons to understand their forest environment and to respect its gifts. Yet, he also wants his children to be able to navigate the outside world.

“I don’t want them to lose their forest culture. I continue to teach my children,” he said.




UNICEF’s Shantha Bloemen reports on child protection efforts in remote villages in Congo.
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