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Friday 11 May 2012

Reflections from The Congo
Reflections from The Congo Response Team volunteers Dave Ray (UK), Cedric Neuville (FR), Ed Owen (UK) and Chris Warham (UK) on deployment in the Republic of the Congo responding to an industrial accident, April 2012.

Chris Warham (UK) was part of a ShelterBox Response Team (SRT) that distributed aid to families made homeless by an arms depot explosion in Brazzaville, the Republic of the Congo, on 4 March. Having returned home a few weeks ago, he recounts his experience of his first deployment.

'Wow. Where to begin. Sights and sounds, smells and emotions. The trip demanded a response from every possible sense.

'If you haven’t walked through a refugee camp (strictly a displaced persons camp) then you should. My colleagues on the ground with far more experience than me said that 'Cathedrale' was really not a bad one.

'Not a bad one?

'There were thousands of people in an area the size of a football pitch. Crowded tents. Long queues for water. Latrines the stench of which was unbelievable. Cholera on the fringe of becoming established.

'Food donated from every country - mostly it seemed from Russian state reserves.

'And everywhere smiling faces.

'Yes smiling faces.

Chris with Congolese Red Cross volunteers who helped set up the tents, April 2012.

'In the face of immense adversity families were doing what families do. Small stalls were springing up as people attempted to sell oranges, vegetables, etc., all in the midst of a seething camp. A table laden with 50 or so bottles of nail polish. A communal supply. Come and choose your colour, paint your nails but leave the bottle for someone else.

'During the course of two weeks we facilitated the erection of more than 600 tents to get people out of the camps and back to their own land to allow them to start reuniting their families and rebuilding their lives. Mostly these were in the 'quarters', the working people’ s area closest to the site of the explosion. We walked the streets assessing houses, talking to the 'chef de famille' deciding whether or not they needed a tent and if the rest of the family would join them.

'As we went deeper into the quarters it became clear that everyone needed a tent; everyone wanted to bring their family back from the camp. Gradually we saw white ShelterBox tents going up pitched by our locally recruited teams. Slowly we saw people returning from the camps. We revisited an area where early in the week we had been 'entertained' by a machete-carrying man. Now his shattered property rang with sounds of children arguing.

Photograph taken by Chris Warham in the Republic of the Congo, April 2012.

'Meeting Marina Issu was the highlight. A gentle, calm 35-year-old grandmother, she followed us around asking us when it was her turn for a tent. By the end of the trip, she had her tent, her family back and even a new sewing machine so she could start providing for her family again.

'This was real, vital, a voyage through every human emotion. But what I saw most of all was spirit, a determination to live life no matter what the disaster had thrown at you.

'It was a privilege, an honour to travel part of the way with some of those great Congolese people. They will stay with me forever.

'Next for me – who knows?'

More images from this deployment can be viewed on the ShelterBox Flickr page here.
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