RUTSHURU, DEMOCRATIC REPUBLIC OF CONGO — Immaculée Raguha lives in a mud-walled hut that’s 3 square meters. Wind and rain sweep in through a straw roof. Sitting on a straw bed covered with a worn-out cloth, she looks after her firstborn, a baby boy she birthed a week earlier.
Raguha, 19, delivered at home with the help of her mother-in-law. But since then, Raguha has felt weak. She drinks herbal juice because she can’t afford a hospital.
“I’m sure the medicines my mother-in-law gives me will help me and my baby feel better,” says Raguha, who lives in Nyongera village in Rutshuru territory, which borders Rwanda and Uganda.
Before the pandemic, Raguha ran a small cross-border business. Now she and the residents in her village scuffle to survive, as the coronavirus takes a devastating economic toll on DRC. The latest travails are due at least partly to virus restrictions, which have been especially hard on those who depend on cross-border trade, many of them women.
In late March, Uganda, Burundi, Rwanda and DRC each closed their borders to stem the spread of the coronavirus that causes COVID-19. A United Nations Development Program report last May, focused on DRC, warned that coronavirus measures imposed by the government and its neighbors would deepen poverty and further harm the economy of a country already shredded by conflicts that have internally displaced 5.5 million people.
Noella Nyirabihogo, GPJ DRC
More than 70% of DRC’s people live on less than $1.90 per day, according to the World Bank.
Coronavirus restrictions, including border closures, caused the demise of nearly two-thirds of DRC businesses that failed in 2020, says Alain Kikandi Kiuma, dean of the faculty of economics and management at the Free University of the Great Lakes Countries in Goma, the capital of North Kivu province on the country’s eastern edge.
Rutshuru territory, with a population of about 1.6 million, sits in North Kivu province. The territory, where numerous armed groups are active, is prone to recurring conflicts. Bars, restaurants and half-constructed houses cram Rutshuru town – the administrative seat of the territory with the same name – as the region tries to rebuild. The Uganda border lies 15 kilometers (9 miles) east of the town.
In Nyongera, many households rely on cross-border trade between DRC and Uganda. Sixty percent of cross-border traders are women, says Geneviève Kwiye, president of the village’s women members of the Cross-Border Traders’ Association.
“The majority of people living here are war-displaced people who, after leaving their homes, are trying to survive through petty trade,” she says.
Alexis Bahunga Malira, one of North Kivu’s representatives for Parliament, says regional border closures driven by COVID-19 concerns have paralyzed DRC’s businesses, slashed tax revenues, and caused prices of imports to soar.
“What I can say is that this pandemic has really destabilized the national income, but more particularly the households of small traders,” Malira says.
Noella Nyirabihogo, GPJ DRC
Cross-border women traders earned between 20,000 Congolese francs (CDF) ($10) and 60,000 CDF ($30) a month, buying chickens, goats, flour, sugar and other items from Uganda to resell in central Rutshuru, Kwiye says. Today, they draw no income from trade.
Simon Mukungu, a leader of the estimated 1,500 displaced people in Nyongera, says he visits the women of the village daily. He worries especially about the health of pregnant women and newborns as the number of home births has risen over the past year. Most are not attended by a trained midwife.
“Home birth carries many risks, including complications during delivery, which can be life-threatening for both the mother and the child,” Mukungu says. “Also, hygiene at home is precarious and can cause infections.”
Most pregnant women deliver at home because they can’t afford a hospital, Mukungu says.
A nurse at the Rutshuru health center, who requested anonymity for fear of repercussions at work, says women are locked in the hospital compound until they pay their bill, usually about 20,000 CDF ($10).
“Given the situation of poverty in which these women live, I have assisted at least 10 women in giving birth at home, for free,” she says. “As a woman, I understand the reason why they cannot come to the hospital, and I do my best to help them.”
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In November, government officials in DRC and Rwanda reopened the border between the cities of Goma and Gisenyi, about 70 kilometers (45 miles) south of Rutshuru, to allow the local populations to resume business while still observing coronavirus prevention measures.
“We hope that other borders will also open up, and that life will return to normal in our village,” Kwiye says.
Pascaline Nyandegeya, 39, was a trader when the borders were still open. She bought salt and soap from Uganda to resell in her village. When the borders were shut, her only alternative was to farm for others to make a living. Instead of making up to 2,000 CDF ($1) a day, as she did as a trader, she now makes 1,000 CDF (50 cents).
As Nyandegeya places her son in a basin for a bath, the 1-month-old cries. He doesn’t like the cold water. Afterward, he calms down, feeling the warmth of his mother as she prepares to breastfeed him.
Nyandegeya gave birth at home a month earlier. The baby, her fourth child, appears healthy, but she doesn’t know his weight, and she has not taken him to a doctor since he was born.
“We simply trust in God who protects us during pregnancy and protects our babies without medical intervention,” she says.
Raguha also fears for her baby’s health. Her husband does odd jobs for money. She used to run a business cultivating fields between her village and Uganda, but the business went bust when the pandemic erupted.
She says the baby coughs a lot, probably because of all the rain. Raguha smiles only when she takes the boy in her arms.
“We don’t even have warm blankets,” she says. “Before COVID-19, we lived in poverty, but today we live in absolute misery.”