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article imageChildren in southern Congo face acute starvation Special

By Miriam Mannak     Oct 14, 2009 in World
With the eyes of the international community being focused on the war-torn northeast region of the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), a human tragedy is unfolding in the south of the country, where thousands of children face death by starvation.
Extreme poverty has been common for many decades in the Kasai, one of the provinces of the DRC - a country where in 2006 the gross annual income per capital was estimated to be ±160. This despite the fact that the former Zaire is one of the world's wealthiest nations in terms of natural resources.
The situation in the Kasai is unnecessary. Like the adjacent Katanga province - which is the heart of the DRC's copper and cobalt mining industry - the Kasai has been blessed with heaps of natural resources. However, the wealth attached to the products is not going to the people but straight into the pockets of the owners of mining companies and the authorities.
Collapse of mining industry
Over the past year, the poverty levels in the Kasai have worsened significantly, and that is mainly due to economic meltdown. As the global demand for natural resources such as cobalt and copper decreased to all-time lows, prices plummeted and as a result mining companies were forced to halt or scale down their operations in order to maintain their profit levels. This led to mass retrenchments. It is estimated that between October 2008 and January 2009 over 350,000 Congolese mine workers lost their jobs. This meant that over one million people were left destitute, as a mine worker on average supports people.
With these mass retrenchments, poverty increased and people grew more hungry. According to the global humanitarian group Action Against Hunger, the situation has deteriorated to such extent that the lives of thousands of people, in particular 6500 children, are acutely threatened by severe malnutrition and starvation.
International neglect
"The area has largely been neglected by international donors, who are focused on the country's war-torn eastern region," the organisation said in a media statement.
"In the majority of the Kasai zones we surveyed, more than 10% of children are suffering from acute malnutrition. We admitted more children into our therapeutic nutrition programs in southern Congo during the first six months of this year than we did throughout the entire country in all of 2008," said Karine Milhorgne, Action Against Hunger's Desk Officer for D.R. Congo. "While the Congo's troubled east continues to receive the bulk of international funding, Kasai is undergoing a silent emergency that requires our attention."
Street children
One of the consequences of the crisis in the Kasai is that people are moving away to other regions in the DRC where the situation is perceived as slightly better, such as Lubumbashi, the capital city of the Katanga province. Although the mining industry in Katanga has been hit by the economic meltdown too, circumstances are slightly better than in the Kasai.
The bulk of the 'economic migrants' who move from the Kasai to Lubumbashi are children and youngsters. More and more parents are no longer able to afford to take care of their offspring, and as a result, many of them are left at their own devices. "Many of them decide to travel to Lubumbashi, where they hope to get some work," says Eric Meert, a Salesian priest who heads one of the 14 shelters and homes for street children. "They come by train, often sitting on the roofs illegally. Train tickets are expensive."
Shoe shining
Many youngsters, after arriving in Lubumbashi, face the hard reality that finding work is almost an impossible task. "Some end up shining shoes or helping off-load trucks," Meert says. "Or they find other small, low paying jobs so they can sustain themselves and buy some food."
When visiting Lubumbashi earlier this year, Digital Journal saw how children in the streets were trying their best to keep their heads above the water. Some however, had given up a long time ago. "Some do not find work, and end up causing trouble, like sniffing glue and begging," Meert said, when he took me for a drive through town. "This is obviously a nuisance to other people. We try to reunite these street children with their families in the Kasai, but poverty makes that sometimes a very difficult task."
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