Human Rights

In DRC, Devoted Nun and Her Flame of Love Center Help Older People Combat Loneliness


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Elisabeth Mwavita, 54, left, with Generose Yonkurije, 84, right. Yonkurije lost her three sons during different civil wars, in DRC. She says people at the center have become her second family. Mariam Aboubakar Esperance, GPJ DRC
Democratic Republic of Congo

Many of DRC’s elderly have lost relatives in the country’s ongoing conflicts, leaving them to fend for themselves as they grow older and more vulnerable. One Catholic nun invites them to a center where they share meals and make baskets to sell.

GOMA, DEMOCRATIC REPUBLIC OF CONGO — In an enclosure made of rough hardened lava, women sit, some on mats and others on small stools, to weave baskets. They meet in a center owned by a church, under the supervision of Alvera Gahinyuza, a Catholic nun.

“Here in Goma, old women suffer a lot, because most of them live alone,” Gahinyuza says. “Without any support from people who are fortunate and lucky to still be young, our grandmothers and grandfathers will die with pain and sadness and in poverty.”

Gahinyuza’s center operates under the umbrella of the religious organization Mouvement Flamme d’Amour du Coeur Immaculé de Marie, or Flame of Love of the Immaculate Heart of Mary Movement. The center is within a Catholic church.

The center has helped more than 300 elderly men and women, according to Gahinyuza. They meet each Wednesday to weave baskets, chat and share a meal.

Gahinyuza, 56, opened the center as an orphanage in 2007, but as the children found foster families or were taken in by relatives, she shifted her focus to the elderly. Children still sometimes come to the center while they are waiting for foster families.

Here the aged are able to chat and speak to their friends. Sometimes they giggle between themselves and tease one another. We really witness a flame of love and hope in their eyes when they are here.

The men and women at the center learn to weave baskets. When the baskets are sold, often to women who use them to carry goods at the market, the profits help the center’s elderly people take care of themselves financially. Now, they buy their supplies from their profits. The group has a savings fund reserved for emergencies, including medical care and funeral and burial costs, Gahinyuza says.

Many of the people who meet at the center each week don’t have families anymore — they’ve been killed in DRC’s ongoing conflicts. In DRC, as in many other African countries, extended families often live together, sometimes with more than a dozen people in a small home. That community is critical for survival, so when an elderly person loses his or her relatives, daily life can be difficult.

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Sister Alvera Gahinyuza, 56, first opened the center as an orphanage, but now focuses on helping the elderly. She says elderly people in DRC, especially those who lost their close family members, are particularly vulnerable.

Mariam Aboubakar Esperance, GPJ DRC

Some isolated elderly people are forced to beg on the streets.

“The old men and women that we look after here are alone and lonely, since their children were killed in the endless civil wars and conflicts in our region,” Gahinyuza says.

Others have sons who are in the army, and there’s little time for them to care for their families, she says.

The city of Goma and the surrounding area are home to a number of elderly people who live alone, says Olive Katunda, head of the department for the aged at the Division of Social Affairs in Goma.

It’s not clear how many elderly people live alone in the region.

Often, no one thinks to care for the elderly, Gahinyuza says.

“The old people seem to have been forgotten and left to their fate in our country, just because they are strong enough to work,” she says. “But they are our parents and relatives, and we saw the light and grew up thanks to them.”

Gahinyuza, 56, explains the reason why she cares for the elderly.

“I do all this because it is the calling from God,” she says. “The Lord convinced me to engage in this charitable work, and by God’s strength I would do whatever is within my powers and means to help our old men and women.”

Here at the center, I feel useful, since I am paid for the work I do. I feel like living again, despite my advanced age.

DRC’s oldest citizens have experienced a lot of trauma in their lives, says Michel Mugabo, administrative secretary for the Flame of Love center. But when they spend time with other people, they recover their joy, he says.

“Here the aged are able to chat and speak to their friends. Sometimes they giggle between themselves and tease one another,” he says. “We really witness a flame of love and hope in their eyes when they are here.”

Generose Yonkurije, 84, says she succumbed to depression following the deaths of her three sons during different civil wars.

“After losing my children, I almost died also,” she says, her voice shaking. “I did not want to live. But thanks to this center, I have regained my joy.”

Jean Jack Kingombe, 81, believes it’s better to die than to have a childlike dependence on someone else. He lives with his grandchildren, he says, but they don’t respect him.

“Here at the center, I feel useful, since I am paid for the work I do,” Kingombe says. “I feel like living again, despite my advanced age.”

When he has extra money, Kingombe says he buys a smoking pipe and a bottle of local beer, which he shares with his friends at the center.

Gahinyuza says she needs additional funds to expand the center and care for more people. She has started raising money and hopes to find a major donor.

“We have a lot of projects in the future, and thanks to God we shall achieve our goals and have them implemented,” she says. “In this way, our people with advanced age will have a better future, despite the wars that have contributed to their suffering and misery.”

Ndayaho Sylvestre, GPJ, translated this story from French.

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