A view from Central African Republic

Photo credit: Reka Sztopa, May 2017, Ouaka province
Photo credit: Reka Sztopa, May 2017, Ouaka province

Concern’s Reka Sztopa speaks about her time as Country Director for the Central African Republic, the world’s least developed country.

A reason why

Part of the reason I was originally drawn to the work I do is that my family left Hungary when I was very little, and we were refugees in a neighbouring country until we eventually re-settled in Canada. I’ve seen first-hand what it means to leave everything behind and the hard work and dedication it takes to rebuild your life from scratch. I wanted to do what I could to make that process easier for others.

Consequences of conflict

CAR is located in the very centre of the African continent, in a fragile and conflict-prone region. It has a beautiful and varied landscape and a diverse - though relatively small - population of just under  5 million. 

In red on the map are the areas where Concern works in CAR.
In red on the map are the areas where Concern works in CAR.

However, CAR has suffered from decades of misrule, coups and periods of violent conflict. The most recent conflict began at the end of 2012 and at its height was extremely violent, causing widespread destruction and forcing millions to flee their homes.

As a result, CAR has seen little development. On the latest Human Development Index it is ranked 188th out of 188 countries. Life expectancy at birth is 51 and a half years; six out of every ten adults cannot read or write; and it has the highest number of maternal deaths in the world. Close to three quarters of the population live below the poverty line – on less than £1.50 a day.  (UNDP HGI 2016)

Those most affected

At the height of the conflict in CAR, fields in many areas were trampled or burned, and food reserves, seed stores and livestock were looted. Equipment for farming and fishing was lost or destroyed. Moreover, health centres and schools often became temporary shelters for armed groups, many of which were damaged to the point of becoming unusable. Safe drinking water, already difficult to come by, became even scarcer. In one area, there were only three hand-pumps for over 45,000 people before Concern arrived. And, as often happens, it is communities - in particular women, children, the elderly and people with disabilities - that suffer the most during times of conflict and upheaval.

What we are doing to help

 Photo credit: Kieran McConville/Reka Sztopa, February 2017, Ombella M’poko province
Photo credit: Kieran McConville/Reka Sztopa, February 2017, Ombella M’poko province

Earlier this year, I met 19-month old Grace-a-dieu, pictured here with his grandmother who has been his sole caretaker since he lost his parents. One of Concern’s community volunteers detected that Grace-a-dieu had become malnourished. Now his grandmother brings him each week to the mobile clinic site where he is weighed, measured and receives treatment in the form of a highly nutritious peanut-paste. His grandmother told me that she did not have many resources to take care of him and had been very worried about his condition. Now she’s grateful for how much healthier he has become over the past few weeks and is feeling more positive about his future.

Concern supports 20 health centres and a number of mobile clinics such as the one attended by Grace-a-dieu.  We’ve treated over 12,000 children with malnutrition and illnesses such as malaria, diarrhoea and pneumonia, and are now beginning a new maternal health programme.

Concern in CAR also addresses some of the causes of malnutrition by supporting farmers with seeds, tools and training, restarting vegetable gardening and fishing activities, improving access to clean water and latrines and promoting good child feeding and hygiene practices.

Looking forward

Many days, I worry about the future of CAR. I worry about the fact that armed groups are once again attacking villages and causing people to flee -displacement is now back at levels not seen since the peak of the crisis in 2013. I worry about how much people might lose again, and how they will feed their families next year if once again forced to leave everything behind. I worry about how little attention is given to the situation in CAR, and how little funding and few resources are available despite the growing needs.  

But I also feel hopeful. People, like Grace-a-dieu and his grandmother, are strong, determined, resilient and succeeding to make a better life for themselves and their families, despite the uncertainties they face. The current situation reminds me why it is so important for Concern to be in CAR – available to respond to emergency needs as they arise, but also committed to staying long-term. Working with people and communities to recover and build a future with new possibilities.

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