Ned Meerdink (DR Congo)

Ned Meerdink (Sos Femmes en Danger – SOSFED): Ned earned his Bachelors degree from the University of Wisconsin-Madison, where he studied humanitarian work in Central and Eastern Africa. After graduation, NED worked for human rights NGOs in the US and Congo. They included Mutuelle Jeunesse Active (MJA) in Sud Kivu. AP deployed Ned to Uvira, in South Kivu, in September 2008 to work with civil society organizations including Tunza Mazingira, Arche d’Alliance, and SOS Femmes en Danger. Ned launched the partnership between SOSFED and AP in 2009.

“Tunza Mazingira: A Grassroots Conservation Movement in Eastern Congo”

14 Oct

The view from one house built in the Uvira mountains.

In North and South Kivu, all local humanitarian organizations and NGOs share at least one major characteristic: a lack of sufficient funding. There is a real wealth of ideas among local organizations and NGOs about how best to increase peace in Congo and aid the transition from war, but the major limiting effort for all grassroots movements here (likely everywhere) is the lack of available funds with which the organization can develop and be proactive. All but the most well established international non-governmental organizations (INGOs) (e.g. UNHCR, Médecins Sans Frontièrs, International Rescue Committee) share this feature, and even those larger organizations feel a financial crunch when it comes to funding work in countries lacking basic infrastructure, stable government, and access to materials with which to do their necessary work throughout Congo.

With this reality in mind, it is easy to understand that the golden word here among the local organizations is COLLABORATION. Seeing that no organization here has everything they need to work smoothly, it’s necessary to reach out to as many people as possible in hopes that they might share similar goals and have part of the resources necessary to accomplish them. One of the organizations I work with here, MJA, has definitely accomplished a lot here over the years, but I can honestly say that not one single MJA project has ever been completed without actively seeking collaborations with other organizations.

For example, last year, we were able to receive grants to purchase a few thousand dollars worth of school supplies in order to reduce the school year’s financial burden on vulnerable families and orphans living in “foster” families. Often times, the added expenses of supplies will lead parents to cancel out education for certain children, so we identified these families on the edge and attempted to at least ensure that they wouldn’t be unable to send their kids to school because of a lack of supplies (paying the $4/ month tuition, however, is often another problem).

The biggest hurdle in our whole plan was that we has no transportation, and thus no way to deliver the supplies to the families requesting them, mostly residing in the more remote villages outside of Uvira, South Kivu. The entire staff of MJA uses la motard, or a motocross bike taxi to move around, which obviously won’t suffice for moving a thousand pounds of supplies over no roads to villages 20 miles outside of the city center. Here is where collaboration came into place, as it always does here. With two other organizations interested in decreasing the financial burden of education for rural families, we were able to find a 4X4 and enough fuel to finish the project in a few days. Seeing that gas here runs about 1100 FC (Congolese Franc) per liter, or about $7.50 per gallon, you can see that just getting these supplies delivered once MJA accomplished the first step in securing the projects funds was no small feat.

Many students from Runingu village school benefited from the 2007 MJA school supply program.

This talk of collaboration is really just a segue which ran too long to the real topic of this posting, Tunza Mazingira. One of the more interesting (in my opinion) partnerships MJA has made here is with a local environmentalist, Clément Kitambala. It is perhaps a little difficult to contextualize a Congolese environmentalist, as the typical “aid” worker here is addressing needs and problems which definitely get more attention at the moment, like insecurity, refugees and internally displaced people, food crises, etc. One of the coolest things about Clément is that he places equal urgency in the cause for conservation and environmental protection here in Congo and does not let the fact that few in Eastern Congo give the environment much thought discourage him. It is understandable that the environmental protection here is sort of off the radar due the more immediate/obvious crises in the region, and Clément fights that attitude by producing a newsletter, Tunza Mazingra, and distributing it (via his motorbike) throughout Uvira territory, in both towns and villages. We (MJA) take care of the printing costs and use our equipment to format and produce the newsletter, as well as write occasional articles, and Clément writes the rest of the articles based on research we all contribute to and takes care of the distribution process. It’s an additional example of how important it is to share resources and responsibility here, as Tunza Mazingira would never have gotten off the ground without two organizations interested in getting it printed and distributed.

The content of Tunza Mazingira, which means “Conserve The Environment” in Swahili, is pretty broad-based, but focuses largely on the factors of environmental degradation in South Kivu which have the most immediate impacts on the quality of life here. For example, the latest issue had one editorial drawing attention to the fact that an increase in programs planting trees throughout Uvira, especially on mountainsides and river banks, has been proven to decrease soil erosion, maintain nutrients within the soil (80% of Congolese in South Kivu derive their income directly from agricultural/pastoralism), as well as providing sustainable income via the produce of the trees themselves. Without having taken formal courses in agroforestry or environmental science, Clément has hit the nail on the head, and introduced a concept in the region which has yet to be put into action through formalized programs.

Many Uvira families suffer the consequences of the rampant clearning of land, which increases soil erosion and the formation of large sinkholes like the one in this photo.
To gauge the urgency of intervention concerning the problem of soil erosion here, one needn’t look further than the houses throughout Uvira on the verge of literally falling off an eroding cliff or the multitudes of families who rebuild their houses each year following the rainy season due to the spontaneous rivers which form daily during storms and rush down Uvira’s mountains, taking everything with them. Other recent articles have concerned the accumulation of litter close to the shores of Lake Tanganyika which has been decreasing fishing yields, the need for revival of a defunct Mobutu-era Congolese tradition called Salongo which called for communities to join together each Saturday morning for two hours in order to clean the streets and remove refuse, and others concerning the governmental unwillingness to provide electricity in any consistent manner and possible community alternatives to the problem. One of the key aspects of the of the journal is that Clément goes far and wide to distribute the newsletter among a wide audience, refusing to leave villagers out of the informational loop because of the remoteness of their villages, as is often the custom in Eastern Congo.
This family house was destroyed with the return of the rainy season in Uvira. The family rebuilt again directly below their old house, and the new house is already showing signs of a possible washout.

So, for this entry, I just wanted to call attention to Clément’s work with Tunza Mazingira, and let all those reading know that we will soon have the digitized journal posted online in order to increase Clément’s reach. I’ll also link to his blog when we get it organized, but bear in mind that both the blog and newsletter are in French. If you have questions on the content but can’t make out the translation, feel free to email me and I can get you the translated content.

The organizations I am working with here all appreciate very much Clément’s foresight and ability to look beyond the immediate conflict-based causes of struggle in Eastern Congo to the environmental problems which certainly have the potential to endure long after Congo has found the means to end the conflict.

Ned Meerdink

Posted By Ned Meerdink (DR Congo)

Posted Oct 14th, 2008

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