The "walking sisters" deliver results for the impoverished Congolese of Kolwezi

Chances are you’ve never heard of Kolwezi, located in the south of the mineral-rich Democratic Republic of Congo. But you probably carry around with you a piece of Kolwezi wherever you go. The copper and cobalt mines from the area give us the materials to make vital components for computers and mobile phones. The mining boom literally put Kolwezi on the global map decades ago.

But despite the multi-billion-dollar mining trade, very little of its success ever reaches the people of the region. Electricity into the city and outlying villages flickers on and off unpredictably, the main roads are impassable for months on end, schools are cramped and under-resourced and even the most basic healthcare – aspirins and clean bandages – is scarce. As a result, widespread poverty (In DRC, 71% of the population lives below the poverty line), chronic hunger and disease are a fact of life here. And yet, the population continues to swell with a migrant population driven to the region in the hopes of finding steady work in the mines.

Life is particularly difficult on the area’s most vulnerable – women and small children. Many children do not have the option to go to school. For them, the only way to eek out a survival is to risk their lives and head into the mines. Congolese young women and girls, meanwhile, are the victims of gender-based violent crime and sexual abuse at an alarming rate. The U.S. Department of State recently singled out DRC for failing to protect its female citizens from the growing trafficking trade; many women are forced to serve as prostitutes in mining towns.

Conscious of the difficult situation women in his diocese and the country at large face, the bishop of Kolwezi, Nestor Ngoy Katahwa, in 2010 sought out the Good Shepherd Sisters – not in DRC, but in Kenya where the sisters had developed a series of successful economic justice and women’s rights programs – to address some of the core issues that continue to make life so difficult for women and youth of the area. After a series of fact-finding missions, the Good Shepherd Sisters of Kenya set up a permanent presence in the area of Domaine Marial in the Kolwezi parish.

The GSS here are affectionately nicknamed the “Walking Sisters” by the locals, a reference to their consistent presence in the community, visiting families door-to-door to learn what are the biggest issues facing the people and how they can begin to improve their lives. In the spring of 2012, the Sisters spearheaded plans for the locals to turn an unused structure into first, a community meeting place, and later into an "informal" primary school. Within a few months, there were 900 students enrolled in the school – a humble, mud-walled structure with a single blackboard and water cans that double as seats – and a waiting list of hundreds more. It was a school built and largely organized by the local community. The sisters provided the crucial guidance and support. They have expanded the "informal" school and it's now equipped with textbooks and paid teachers.

Aside from the school and the women's outreach and protection program, the Sisters conceived a long-term mission for the community based on four guiding principles:

1.Develop a self-sustaining community that is less dependent on the local mining industry for basic needs

2. Increase child protection

3. Decrease the incidence of gender discrimination and promote universal human rights, including lobbying for strengthened laws to protect women from domestic abuse and rape

4. Strengthen community cohesion and demand greater accountability from the mining industry

Thanks to donor support from Misean Cara and others the results are impressive. As of 2016, the GSS have achieved the following:

Child Protection/Health Care Program:

The program has enrolled 1,134 children (who formally worked in the mines) and 91% of them have not returned. The children each receive 1 meal per day, instead of 1 meal every 2/3 days, and the rate of malnutrition has decreased to less than 4%. A total of 193 children were reintergrated into the formal school system and are monitored to ensure continued participation.  

From a health care perspective, 29,000 children were vaccinated in the area, 800 children received health care support from the school nurse, about 900 community members and parents were educated on child protection and positive parenting, 75 children received counselling services, 20 children were referred to a psychologist, 70 cases of abuse were referred to the local authorities.    

Alternative Livelihood Program:

A total of 139 Kolwezi community members who formally worked in the mines were trained in pig and goat rearing, poultry keeping, nursery-bed preparation and general crop care, and they are now active in Maisha Farm Cooperative, created by 47 members of the project. Thanks to the cooperative the women have secured 6 months of food for their families throughout the year and have an average of 3 months of food security. The project has since expanded to other areas - Mwannza and Kanina - offering more residents training and tools needed to sustain an agribusiness.  

Economic Empowerment Program:

The skill training program enrolled 160 girls and 65 women. Each had been engaged in unsafe job in the mines. The women and the girls trained at the center now earn an income - on average $180 per month. The young girls also have an opportunity to earn a living and use their earning to pay for their school exams.

Awareness Raising and Community Mobilization:

A total of 1,294 women, 625 girls and 7 men were involved in human rights awareness raising. A group of 400 women, 19 adolescents and 6 men were trained in advocacy and lobbying. The voices of women were also heard when they recently participated in a radio program promoting education and the end of child marriage.

The lobbying effort with government officials has begun to produce results, including the installation of a new generator (5,000 households), the construction of 5 schools (1,500 children) and the digging of well (3,000 residents).

In this part of Congo, these changes are beginning to make an impact. To show the world the dangers of the mining industry and how our revitalization project is making a difference we produced a documentary film Maisha: A New Life Outisde the Mines that vividly illustrates the work of our Sisters in the area. 

There is much work to be done and in order to continue to provide these important services, extending the program to other 6 artisanal mining communities around Kolwezi. More funding from the international donor community is needed. To learn more contact us here and to donate directly click here.    

The mud-hut school house
The "walking sisters" deliver results for the impoverished Congolese of Kolwezi
The walking sisters making the rounds
The "walking sisters" deliver results for the impoverished Congolese of Kolwezi
A New life outside the mines