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Life Arts

Peril and Privilege in the Congo

By Bruce Andrews  Posted by Rady Ananda (about the submitter)     Permalink
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Widespread rape and murder continues in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) in central Africa, but Charles Sturt University (CSU) academic Dr Elaine Dietsch says her annual visit to the strife-torn country puts trans-cultural midwifery, primary health care and women's and children's health into a global perspective for her.

Dr Elaine Dietsch has safely returned to CSU's School of Nursing and Midwifery after spending the month of May in the DRC to attend to and learn from women who are among the most impoverished and oppressed in the world.

"I thought I couldn't possibly hear any worse stories than what I did on my previous visits," Dr Dietsch said. "I was wrong. Sadly, rebels and warring militia groups are becoming more and more sadistic and desperate. The women and girls are suffering even more dehumanising torture.

"No one knows for sure, but it is estimated that 45 000 people are murdered each month. Malnutrition is rife in an otherwise fertile land, because the women and children are too frightened to access the crops for fear of the rebels. Women carry 50 kilograms of wood 20 kilometres from village to town, are paid 30 cents and then walk back to their village."

Moving in silence

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Travelling through 'no man's land' on the border of neighbouring Burundi and the DRC to a tiny village called Korohoro, Dr Dietsch had to walk though long grasses and then travel across a huge swamp in a tiny dug-out boat.

 Dr Elaine Dietsch (fourth from left) is welcomed by Congolese villagers upon her return to the DRC in May 2008. Photo: John Dietsch.
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"We had to keep absolutely still for fear of ... I'm not exactly sure what, but crocodiles would have had to have been a possibility. This is the only way the 250 families living here can enter or leave their village.

"Burundi rebels occupied this village for about two years but no longer have a permanent presence. Sadly, every woman and girl in this village had been raped and the majority of children had been conceived through 'strategic raping'.  Many, many of the men of the village had been murdered."

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Dr Dietsch described the conditions she encountered in the pygmy village of Goma, which is 42 kilometres from the civil war frontlines and within ash-fall of an active volcano that glows at night and that last erupted in 2002, covering the area in black volcanic rock.

"Ironically, the volcano is the least of the worries for the people of Goma. The pygmies had been chased from their villages deep in the forests to live on the edge of town, grateful because they felt a little safer there. All had been tortured and many of the men had been murdered. 

"This tiny village with its beautiful people is built directly on the pumice rocks. The women birth in their tiny homes, which are smaller than a one-man tent and are made of twigs and ferns with no skilled support. There is no flooring, there is no bedding.

"No one accurately knows the infant and child mortality rate, but we were told that probably less than one child in one hundred would live to be five. Unbelievable as this sounds, having seen their living conditions, heard their coughing, witnessed their malnourished bodies and listened to their stories, I believe it is very possible."

Dr Dietsch's husband John, and their friend and a CSU student Hilda Fitzgerald, accompanied her on this trip to the DRC. They delivered 114 kilograms of materials donated by friends and CSU colleagues. This included hand-sewn and donated clothes, paracetamol and ointments. Medical centres donated unwanted equipment and the Australian Red Cross supplied 72 knitted teddy bears because there are no toys for the small children.

Jail challenge

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As though her journey wasn't already challenging enough, Dr Dietsch spent time in a women's jail in the DRC.

"Thankfully, I was allowed in and out," she joked. "My reason for going to the jail was to provide postnatal care to the women who had had babies, including one set of twins, but who had received no follow-up care. In one cell, four women and three babies and toddlers shared three thin mattresses on the floor.

"The jail does not provide food and the women are forced to rely on family, friends and community to bring them food. The woman with the tiny twins was breastfeeding her babies, but she herself only had a meal every two or three days."

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