Democratic Republic of the Congo: Ferdinand Kalenga, bearer of good news
Ferdinand Kalenga has just retired after working for 14 years at the International Committee of the Red Cross. Fresh from his work restoring contact between family members separated by the conflict in the eastern part of the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), Ferdinand agreed to share his memories with Espérance Tshibuabua, an ICRC employee in Kinshasa.
Do you remember the first cases you handled?
Of course! My first mission was in Katana, on the island of Idjwi. We were able to locate people who needed help getting back in touch with their loved ones, and we provided them with Red Cross messages. During my four-month mission to this region, I met many Congolese, Tanzanians, Rwandans and Burundians who were desperate for news from family members. Family is a universal value!
Tell us a little bit about your work.
As you know, many people who fled the fighting in the east of the country ended up in Kinshasa. We looked for them in places we knew they spent time, in order to assess their needs and assure them that all hope of finding their families was not lost. Some of them didn’t know that the Red Cross could help them. I wasn’t the only one doing this work, of course. ICRC employees around the country were busy tracking down dispersed family members with the assistance of volunteers from the Red Cross Society of the DRC. In fact, the search extended beyond the country’s borders to places like Kenya and Congo Brazzaville where refugee children were unaware of their parents' whereabouts. More often than not we were just as anxious as the people we were trying to help, and we hoped to find a solution as much as they did. We impatiently waited for a response, for good news about family members, and – the measure of true happiness – family reunification whenever possible.
Is the ICRC’s painstaking work in this area, including Red Cross messages, still relevant at a time of advanced technology such as telephones and the internet?
New technologies can really facilitate our work, and we sure do use them! Without these tools, especially databases, which store hundreds of pieces of information vital to the search process, our work would surely take more time. But no technology can replace on-the-ground work in close contact with the people we're helping. Talking to them, crying with them sometimes, sharing their hopes – all this is part of our work. This demands selflessness and human warmth. No machine can do this. We also mustn’t forget that there are many places in this country without telephone service or internet access. But Red Cross messages don’t need to be plugged in. They're not fast – but if they have to get there, they get there. Even in places that have yet to be reached by technology. And these messages don’t arrive alone. They are delivered by someone. Someone who can say to the family "yes, I saw him" or "it’s really true!" We’ve all experienced this.
What memories will you carry with you from all these years?
Memories? There are so many of them! Once, we were helping a child taken in by a National Society volunteer. She was very young and had been separated from her family, and we couldn’t locate her parents. So she grew up with a host family. A few years later one of her uncles showed up and wanted to bring her back to their family, but she had no memory of him. For her, her family were the people who had adopted her. In this instance, and with the uncle’s agreement, the girl stayed with her adoptive family. This is not a common situation. You see, our goal is to restore family links and give children the opportunity to grow up with their family, but not necessarily at all costs. The best interest of the child is what ultimately carries the day. In this particular case, the uncle really did understand the situation. This case also illustrates the generosity of host families who open their homes, their lives and their hearts to children who would otherwise be destined for all sorts of troubles.
What difficulties did you experience personally in the course of your work?
We have to deal with stress, like at any job. What's unique to the ICRC is that we work with people, for people. The other difference is the vulnerability of these people, whose lives have been upended by conflict. I have experienced it myself, and I know what it is like to feel alone and abandoned. We grow attached to these photos, these names. Sometimes when the search process was slow, especially for the youngest ones – even if we had never actually met the people – we would say to ourselves: "It must be getting hard for little Charlotte," or "Still no news for Mama Pauline?" We felt close to them. You always leave a little bit of yourselves in these cases, yet you have to be ready for every eventuality, you mustn't build up false hopes, and you always need to remain optimistic. Our work is from the heart, since we are helping other human beings. Sometimes families overestimate our abilities and lose patience when the search doesn’t progress fast enough. But that’s just human nature. We have to be able to handle their emotions – and ours too.