Rebecca Wynn, a colleague and media officer with Oxfam Great Britain, is now in Democratic Republic of Congo where a fresh wave of fighting has forced thousands of people from their homes. Still, she managed to find some smiles in the midst of hardship. Here’s her account:
I am in Mugunga camp, near Goma, in the North Kivu Province of Democratic Republic of Congo. Not the place where you’d expect to find old acquaintances, but there he is. Charles. I see him. The tilt of his baseball cap, the mischievous glint of his eyes from behind those distinctive glasses, the smart checked shirt. That’s him! That’s Charles.
Charles Kimanuka is a 78-year-old chef and lives in Mugunga camp with his six children. He’s also a bit of a star. Charles features in a series of portraits by Rankin, the British portrait and fashion photographer, currently exhibiting on the South Bank in London. Charles’ grinning face is on display outside the National Theatre for all to see as they walk by. When we launched the exhibition just a few weeks ago, we did it to raise awareness of a harrowing, but forgotten conflict in eastern Congo. Since then, the region’s violence has increased even more horribly and Oxfam is doubling its emergency response to reach newly displaced people. But it’s important to remember in the midst of this that many of the people in Congo have been displaced for some time. Charles has been at Mugunga camp, which is home to 17,000 people, for more than a year. For a guy, who used to cook steak and Marconi cheese for important people, living on camp rations is far from ideal. But he struggles on, he laughs, and he copes.
Mugunga is one of the four camps in Goma, where Oxfam has a long-established water and sanitation response. The view is dotted with Oxfam water towers, Oxfam water pumps, and latrines–hardly sexy, but an absolutely essential way of saving lives in the sprawling, cluttered environment of Mugunga camp. We have committees of people in the camp who help us spread public health messages and keep their environment clean. They tell people to wash their hands and make sure the latrines are clean. They inform women who have been raped where to get their anti-retroviral medicines. These community educators are crucial to our response and we hope to mobilize similar groups in other camps like Kibati, where the latrines are dirty and a public health risk.
So how was Charles? He was okay. By some stroke of luck – and given the speed with which I was deployed to Congo on his emergency, trust me it’s luck – I had a leaflet from the Rankin exhibition, complete with Charles’ smiling face, in my bag. I showed it to him. And he laughed. I asked how it was to have his face on show in London town. It was okay, but he had bigger priorities he wanted to share. He wants peace, an end to this fighting, and he wants to go home. That’s what he wanted me to share. We shook hands, not once, not twice, but maybe more than three times. We smiled and I left him with the leaflet. He showed it to his friends around him and they laughed too. He tucked it in his inside pocket. Cheka Kidogo – laugh a little. Going to the camps you realize the sentiment behind the Rankin exhibition more than ever before. These are people just like us: mothers, fathers, sisters, brothers, farmers, tailors, shop owners, and chefs, but they’re living in impossible circumstances. We can help them and we owe them that.