Democratic Republic of the Congo
By bringing together a group of leaders from many congregations, Nehemiah Committees have helped people to identify their own potentialities in rebuilding the social and economic life of communities destroyed by war.
Rév. Kambere Bolingo, N. Kivu Province
In the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), a group of diverse religious leaders came together in 2000 to question what could be done about the root causes of illness and poverty in the eastern region of the country. Spearheaded by Heal Africa, the group decided to focus their efforts on creating “an AIDS free generation.” They drew their inspiration from the Old Testament Book of Nehemiah, in which Nehemiah mobilized an affected population (who had lost direction, faith, hope, etc.) by rallying them to rebuild the walls of their destroyed city (Neh. 2:17-18). With these shared spiritual values, representatives from Protestant, Catholic, Kibangist (indigenous religion), and Muslim communities agreed that this work would be done together, or not at all. It was a 6 month process to get the “buy in” of this diversity of religious leaders, but, as one report on the initiative summarized, “an unprecedented level of unity and cohesion has been created between the different faiths as a result of their work together on HIV.”
Out of the above consultations, Nehemiah Committees—representing both men and women and all faiths and tribes in the community—were formed and have been operating for almost 10 years. At May 2010, there were nearly 90 of these committees in the DRC (the majority in North Kivu), with a particular upsurge over the past year and half. Their role has been as the “eyes and ears” of the health needs of local communities and they look for ways to help the most vulnerable in their villages. Nehemiah Committees are the centerpiece of Heal Africa’s work, a Congolese-led and community-focused organization which has provided initial trainings and acts as an umbrella structure for this initiative. HEAL Africa (Health, Education, Action, and Leadership) also runs a hospital and training center in Goma, DRC.
With an intimate knowledge of their surroundings, and the trust of the people, Nehemiah Committees have focused their work on reducing gender-based violence, treating HIV/AIDS, supporting maternal health, and urging men (and their pregnant wives) to get HIV tested. They also identify problems in the community that need a solution. In the case of sexual abuse, for example, the committee may refer a woman to a “safe house” for treatment. Although funding from donors (like Tear Fund) remains very limited, Nehemiah Committees consult and decide who should get the resources that do exist. They also identify those in the community who have leadership potential and ensure that they receive training. In a country racked by conflict, these committees operate as a functioning group that works across boundaries to focus on changing the social fabric of their communities.
In 2009, HEAL Africa had organized 5,000 community health programs focused on education about HIV, ensured that over 14,000 pregnant women were tested for HIV, and more. The basis, however, for HEAL Africa’s work is the Nehemiah Committee (NC) structure. One of the most successful programs involving NC’s has been the Safe Motherhood Campaign, which has reduced child mortality and complications from delivery. Hundreds of local leaders and midwives have been trained to improve prenatal care. And, when a woman delivers safely in a clinic, both the midwife who referred her and the nurse in the clinic get paid—thanks to an income generation fund, which is managed by the women of child-bearing age in the village, and kept there. This “insurance policy” provides the economic base to pay for delivery costs, which, previously, was a disincentive for a woman to go to a clinic for childbirth. To date, there are over 40 solidarity groups for maternity mutual help and self-insurance.
Some committees work well, some do not, some have developed spontaneously, those with strong leadership keep going, there is attrition with others, and corruption does happen. All involved, however, appreciate that this is a “work in progress.” Training is also critical. For example, initial committees (~the first one-third) were very diverse, but, without training, they began to reflect the divisions that existed in the society—such as domination by one ethnic group, or a particular church. Efforts were more successful, however, when committees represented diverse communities. The involvement of multiple faith groups has provided a good system of checks and balances because faith communities are responsible for follow up. If an Imam approves the program, for example, he will make sure it works. Challenges include finding funding for training, but from those that understand the vision. Those involved with the program admit that, “as more non-governmental organizations arrive with trunks full of money enticing people to join their cause, the challenge to maintain unity of purpose is constant.”
Interview Sources/Additional Links:
David Evans, Tear Fund
Richard Anderson, Director of Development, Heal Africa