At barely two years old, their face is already withered, their eyes bulging on a forehead strewn with wrinkles. “How can I feed them to their hunger?” Worries a mother at the bedside of her two-year-old twins.
In the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), in the diamond-bearing Kasai region, malnutrition continues to wreak havoc, in this country now the most affected in the world by food insecurity according to the UN.
“My husband does not work, I myself only sell water”, continues Claudine Kamwanya, pregnant and mother of four, who took her two twins to Bonzola hospital near the big city of Mbuji-Mayi.
In a neighboring room, lying on a stretcher, Marie-José, a four-and-a-half-year-old girl, comes out of her lethargy after twelve days of treatment, to the great satisfaction of the medical staff. “She arrived unconscious, with severe dehydration associated with the infections,” said a nurse.
From April 14 to May 1, “29 malnourished children were taken care of, six of whom were in a severe acute phase with medical complications”, explains Dr Grégoire Mpoyi, who thanks the NGO Action Against Hunger (ACF) for its support.
In total, 27.3 million people are affected by food insecurity in the DRC, estimated in early April the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) and the World Food Program (WFP).
The scourge of misery
“This situation makes the DRC the country with the largest number of people in urgent need of food security assistance in the world”, added the two UN agencies, in a plea with alarmist overtones.
In Mbuji-Mayi, about fifteen children with skeletal bodies, or with swelling from their feet to their faces, are lying under a mosquito net in a pediatric unit at the general hospital, under the helpless gaze of their mothers.
“Four are in the severe acute phase (the most critical), five in the transit phase and six in the rehabilitation or discharge phase”, summarizes Dr Pierre Kasongo, doctor and director of this hospital run by nuns.
“Malnutrition is a scourge that is in full swing in our community stricken by poverty”, he adds. In the space of three weeks, his hospital treated more than 60 children thanks to the support of ACF, which intervenes in 35 local medical structures.
Mado Kapinga is at the bedside of her little boy, Ntumba Kabengela, who is slowly recovering. “When we arrived here, he was very unwell, very weak too. After three days of treatment, he is getting better.”
This mother of five children and wife of an artisanal miner, however, fears returning home. “Here, we are given everything: food, water and even soap to wash ourselves. Once at home, we will have nothing to eat, he (his son Ntumba, editor’s note) risks having a relapse “.
The diamond mirage
Kasai was shaken by an armed conflict between September 2016 and May 2017 that left 3,000 dead and more than 1.5 million displaced. In a post-conflict situation, the province suffers from a slowing economy.
Its soils – rather clayey – are also reputed to be less fertile than in other regions. Agriculture is often neglected, in particular for the benefit of the diamond El Dorado.
“People do not work, do not want to start farming. The vast majority dream of making a fortune in artisanal diamond mining despite the evidence: diamonds can no longer be collected”, analyzes Sister Carine Kupela, the general administrator of the hospital.
The neighboring province of Kasaï-Central is not spared. Sitting on her mother’s lap, little Jeannette Kabuma swallows the nutritional porridge that a nurse distributes to the twenty or so children who have come for consultation in a health center in Kananga, the provincial capital.
At one year, Jeannette weighs 5.4 kg (against 7 to 11 kg on average at this age). The diagnosis is final: “severe acute malnutrition”, notes the nurse, Maman Denise.
Caterpillars and peanuts
At the Kamayi health center, from October 2020 to March 2021, 74 malnourished children were taken care of. Only 47 were declared cured.
Anto Kalonga, 23, arrived there with three children under his arms. Two have swollen bellies with edema, yellow and brittle hair; the third, also very thin, seems to have difficulty breathing. “He doesn’t even have the strength to cry anymore,” grieves his mother.
In these two health centers supported by Unicef, women are taught how to prepare porridge from local foods, corn, peanuts, caterpillars, palm oil …
“When a project stops, the situation falls again in this area where the agricultural population has aged”, considers Élie Mayiza Bamvangila from UNICEF in Kananga.
“The return of the displaced becomes a burden for the community”, he adds. On the outskirts of the city, more than 2,200 households are installed in a camp for displaced people, a scar of the 2016-17 conflict.
Since 2019, Vanessa Zawadi, head of the NGO Woman for Peace and Dignity (WPD) has employed the mothers of malnourished children in her fields.
“Every day I bought one or two coffins to bury malnourished children. The parents wanted me to be like the organizations that distribute food (…) I made them aware of the importance of getting involved in the agricultural activities and fish farming “, explains Ms. Zawadi.