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This place is home to 10,000 refugees who have fled the conflict in neighbouring Congo, many leaving with what they can carry on their backs, which in most cases is several very young children. It’s one of four camps for the 24,000 Congolese refugees already in Burundi – with a fifth camp for 10,000 people currently being built.
I’m not sure what to expect, but as soon as our drivers Wilson and Elvis pull to a stop outside the administration block we are mobbed by hordes of curious children – mostly boys aged 5 to 15, though they all look a lot younger due to their small size. Some have runny noses, others eye infections, and many are wearing rags but they still manage a “bonjour Madame” or “çava?” greeting along with megawatt smiles. They’re fascinated by us – feeling our skin, grabbing the camera mike, and most touchingly, trying to hold my hand.
I’m here to look at the work that one of our New Zealand Red Cross WATSAN (water and sanitation) aid workers Chelsea is doing here. She’s piloting a menstrual hygiene management programme in the camp with 2000 women, distributing disposable and reusable sanitary pads, along with soap to wash them, rope and pegs to hang them out to dry, underwear, and a bucket. If successful and useful for the women it will hopefully also be trialled in Somalia, Madagascar and Uganda with the long term aim of adding it to the IFRC’s global Emergency Relief Items Catalogue.
I ask Chelsea the obvious question - what did they do before you came along? Some women in this part of the world just wear an extra layer of underskirt and try not to move around too much (many don’t have underwear). Others are banished outside to sleep with the cattle. But most of the women in this camp grab and cut up the nearest piece of cloth they can find – which might be their children’s clothes, a dirty cleaning cloth or pieces of old towel. This leads to terrible infections, and given there is no real healthcare here for miles, except a crowded camp clinic for the most severe cases, it can, and often does, lead to more severe health problems. Throw in STDs and HIV and you have many women becoming sick with condition that in our part of the world are totally preventable.
While Chelsea and I are talking with eleven excitable women in a tiny airless room off the admin block, my New Zealand Red Cross colleague Aaron has been befriended by Eric, a small, sad looking eight-year-old, who has been rejected by the other kids because he has a slight deformity in his right arm and leg. Eric is practising his English on Aaron, but his repertoire seems to consist of the phrase, “I am fine, I am fine”. The fact that he is obviously not fine isn’t lost on us, or on our drivers, who do not shoo Eric away as they do the other children.
Eric sticks to Aaron and the drivers all day. He seems to enjoy the company, and the four of them split a packet of jelly belly sweets, while talking man talk. I see the men quietly slipping him half a bottle of coke here, a third of a bottle of water there. He also devours one and a half mandazi buns, a kind of fried pastry-donut bun, which have been purchased to thank the women for coming along to the group discussion today. The camp is vast and our drivers won’t let us walk anywhere, but on all our stops throughout the day, Eric appears. It’s like he has a sixth sense. We ask him where his family is and he points to the section of camp behind the admin block where he apparently lives with his mother and younger brother.
After soda and mandazi buns, we travel across the camp to interview one of the women in Chelsea’s programme. Helena is a 27-year-old single mother of four children – all under the age of 10. Her husband abandoned her back in Congo, her mother is dead and her only brother is missing. She’s been at the camp for three years, and says she doesn’t have anything to go back to Congo for. But it is obvious her life here is barely tolerable. I ask to see inside her “house” and she rushes inside to tidy up. The house is basically a dark room with a dirt floor, a cooking fire and pot in one corner, slats for a bed around another corner, another room full of soiled children’s clothing and no possessions to speak of. It’s stinking hot and my eyes won’t adjust. All I can smell is smoke and faeces. I quickly exit, as it becomes obvious Helena is embarrassed, and the crowd gathering outside is becoming larger and larger.
After I take some photos of this proud, striking woman, she tells me she is glad we are here and asks me to tell her story because “if you don’t talk about us people won’t know about us”. She says she worries about the future for her children, especially for their education and health.
On the way out of the camp we stop so Chelsea can show us a good example of a disabled toilet – very rare in this part of the world, which basically consists of a throne-like structure with high arms that people can pull themselves back upright with. I think it’s quite sweet how excited Chelsea gets when she sees good toilets, especially the raised kind which have the ability to compost the waste. She’s such a down to earth can-do Kiwi and nothing seems to faze her.
When we get back to the car Eric has found Aaron again. Aaron is saying his goodbyes, there are photos – we give Eric a big bottle of water (the container is more valuable than the water) and they go to shake hands but Eric is embarrassed by his arm and pulls it away at the last minute. As we leave he tells us that next month he and his mum are going to Europe. I find this the saddest thing I have heard all day. But maybe it is true. Please let it be true.
Corinne Ambler is working in Burundi as part of the New Zealand Red Cross delegate programme which has been running since 1960. The programme is currently supported by funding from New Zealand Aid Programme through the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade.