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Democratic Republic of the Congo: "Mama Africa", mother of 158

29-05-2009 Feature

For 15 years, Mama Bona has taken care of children separated from their families as a result of conflicts the country has gone through. When she cannot find a family to host unaccompanied children and orphans, they are welcome to stay at her house.


  ©ICRC/VII/Ron Haviv/v-p-cd-e-00967    
  Goma. Mama Bona, a volunteer for the Congo-Kinshasa Red Cross, takes care of unaccompanied children and orphans.    

" Each time there is a war in Congo, women get killed or raped, and many children are left on their own. They are homeless and live like vagrants. " Sitting in her sma ll hut in the town of Sake, in North Kivu, Mama Bona, 49, speaks with her usual decisiveness. For 15 years, the Red Cross volunteer has been looking after children lost to the repeated armed conflicts the country has suffered. These children are Congolese or Rwandan. Mama Bona knows what she is talking about.

" Take little Baraka, " she says, showing a tiny baby girl who is feebly crying at the breast of a woman seated opposite to her. " Last November, I was going with other volunteers to bury dead people whose bodies had been left on the road or in the fields. I met this woman. She had found the baby on the body of her mother, who had given birth just before being killed. She asked me what to do. I said: you are breastfeeding your own baby, aren't you? So keep this little one, and I will help you. "

It all started in the early 1990s, after the war in Rwanda had spilled over to Eastern Congo. Among those fleeing violence, there were thousands of children left on their own. " The Red Cross opened an orphanage in Kirotshe. After registering the children, we were trying to reunite them with their families whenever possible. But we realized quickly that an orphanage was not the best solution one could think of. The children felt abandoned and we were lacking space. So we decided to turn to host families. "

  ©ICRC/VII/Ron Haviv/v-p-cd-e-00968    
  Mama Bona with her children, grandchildren and the unaccompanied children and orphans in her care.    

Placing unaccompanied children and orphans with host families proved a natural solution. In Congo as in many African countries, the notion of family is flexible and children are often raised by the whole village they live in.

Typically, Mama Bona would contact the community's leader and, together, they would identify families to take care of the child. In the best case, the latter would stay there until a relative could be located. But many children end up growing up in what became their new family.

 Gifted in helping children  

" God has given me the gift to help children, " Mama Bona says with a smile. " There have been 158 to date. Everybody around here knows about me. People bring me every unaccompanied child they come across. " Mama Bona supervises a number of other Red Cross volunteers who, in turn, are in charge of keeping in touch with 10 to 15 families each. When things go wrong, it is to her that everybody turns.

" When a child is sick and needs medicine, when there is not enough food, or when there is no money to pay for the school, host families come and see me. It is sometimes difficu lt. I am myself a widow, with little resources. But I somehow always manage to help, " Mama Bona says proudly. " People trust me. They are always ready to give used clothes, food, or whatever it takes. "

That day, Noella Senawema, who looks after little Baraka, has a serious problem. The baby is sick, and she has no food for her. As a matter of fact, the baby looks malnourished. " Noella does not have enough milk for two babies, " Mama Bona explains. " She is a war widow with six children of her own. She cannot afford to buy baby formula. "

  ©ICRC/VII/Ron Haviv/v-p-cd-e-00963    
  Goma. Covedec Centre for orphaned and lost children.    

A Red Cross volunteer gives Noella some money for the formula, and tells her to go as quickly as possible to the local feeding centre. " Baraka's condition will soon improve, " sh e asserts with confidence.

 'Mama Africa'  

Each time she could not find a host family, Mama Bona has opened wide the doors of the house she owns in a crowded neighbourhood of Goma, the main city in North Kivu. Four Rwandan children, aged eight to 16, have now lived with her for years and, she adds proudly, " they all go to school " .

There is also little Stephanie. " She was only three days old when her mother died from a bullet wound, " Mama Bona recalls. " My eldest daughter had just delivered. She volunteered to take care of Stephanie, who is now, at 18 months, a beautiful girl. "

With her own 12 children, her grandchildren she has momentarily lost count of, and all those she has dispatched right and left to host families, she looks like'Mama Africa'.