Category Archives: Africa

Africa’s innovators turn to tech to tackle transport woes

An electric OX truck drives past cyclists carrying heavy loads in Nyamasheke, Rwanda. September 14, 2021. Thomson Reuters Foundation/ Handout via OX.

DURBAN, – After a minibus taxi driver threatened to throw her out on the street for asking him to slow down as he raced down the highway, South African nurse Lebogang Matjila scoured the internet for a safer, cheaper way to get to her patients.

When she found Planet42, a rent-to-buy car company that said it would help her eventually own her own vehicle, she thought it sounded too good to be true.

“I had been scammed once before, but I filled in my details and applied online because desperation can do that to you,” said the 42-year-old mother of two from Pretoria.

“Some may say it’s just transport, so it’s not so important. But you can only say that in South Africa if you don’t care about your safety,” she told the Thomson Reuters Foundation in a phone interview.

About 33% of sub-Saharan Africa’s urban population has access to public transport, in contrast to 75% in Europe and North America, according to United Nations statistics.

To help people get around safely and affordably, Africa’s innovators are looking to technology, from a data-driven company that helps South Africans with bad credit buy cars to an app-based truck service delivering potatoes and more in Rwanda.

“Transport is a very important piece in the puzzle of people accessing jobs, feeling included and realising their potential,” said Planet42 founder Eerik Oja in a video interview.

Using algorithms to detect applicants who have been “unfairly ignored by banks”, the social enterprise has helped put some 8,000 insured cars on the road in the past five years, Oja said.

Planet42’s machine learning tracks thousands of public data points from credit bureaus – such as credit scores – to calculate who is eligible to rent a car from them and eventually buy it at a reduced cost.

“As we get more data, we get better at determining which customer is a good risk to take, so we can actually keep lowering the price of our service,” said Oja.

The COVID-19 pandemic pushed tens of thousands of South Africans into arrears, he said, adding that those are the kinds of “blacklisted” customers Planet42 can help as they try to rebuild their credit scores.

For Matjila in Pretoria, it was unpaid store credit from her student days that destroyed her score and left her unable to get a loan, even after she had paid it off.

Since getting her car, she said her income has doubled as she is able to travel to more patients every day.

“There are so many other blacklisted South Africans stuck without solutions and without safe transport,” she said.

“Tech solutions that they can access from their homes or phones could change their lives, too.”


Transport inequality – the unequal distribution of travel resources such as cars or public transport – reinforces socio-economic divides while impacting livelihoods and safety, transport researchers say.

In Africa, vulnerable groups living in informally developed urban areas on city peripheries can face long, pricey and often dangerous journeys to work, according to a 2020 report by research financing group Volvo Research and Educational Foundations.

While Planet42 focuses on car ownership to advance what it calls the “democratisation of mobility”, OX, a new truck company in Rwanda’s Western province, is helping small business owners move everything from cows to coffins.

Launched in March 2021, OX allows customers to rent a spot in one of their eight trucks on a pay-as-you-go basis, all coordinated through an app managed by the driver.

For many of OX’s customers, previous options for moving their stock were bicycles, donkeys or porters, which limited how much and how fast they could sell.

The company has gained more than 300 customers since its launch and is growing 40% month-on-month in terms of revenue and volume, said managing director Simon Davis, adding that one customer – an animal feed supplier – has tripled his sales since he started using the service.

“If you move stuff, you make more money,” said Davis. “If you make more money, you can afford to access healthcare, send your kids to school, look after yourself … all byproducts of economic progress.”


As in the rest of the world, mobile phone use is rising in Africa, driving a surge in apps designed to help people get around their cities safely and cheaply.

By the end of 2020, more than 45% of sub-Saharan Africa’s population subscribed to mobile services, with nearly 20 million people signing up just in the previous year, according to telecoms lobby group GSMA.

“We’re seeing a massive increase in ride-hailing platforms for motorcars and motorcycle taxis,” said Sam Clark, head of programmes at transport charity Transaid.

In Uganda, where research published in the journal Transportation Planning and Technology estimates there are half a million motorcycle and three-wheeler taxis, SafeBoda uses an app to link commuters with trained and reliable drivers.

Female riders interviewed by the researchers said they felt safer not having to negotiate prices with drivers and being able to identify and track their drive on the app.

But tech solutions are no silver bullet, warned Clark, citing poor connectivity in rural areas and noting that half of the African population still has no access to a smartphone.

More work needs to be done to make regular public transportation more accessible to everyone, he said – and that includes more investment in infrastructure and more women in senior roles.

“Many of the decisions concerning service delivery are made by men, for men,” said Clark, whose work at Transaid includes efforts to boost female leadership in transport.

“When more women are part of the decision-making process, greater consideration will be given to the needs of women as passengers.”

For nurse Matjila, filling in that online application has meant she can now choose whether to be a passenger or drive her own car, which has made her feel safer, increased her income and lets her spend more time with her family.

“To be honest, it changed my life,” she said.

Sisters in Africa debunk myths and educate people to get the COVID-19 vaccine

Sr. Dr. Lucy Hometowu, a member of the Sisters of Mary Mother of the Church, educates the parishioners in Ho Dome, a town in the Volta Region of Ghana. She is also the COVID-19 vaccine campaign coordinator of her congregation’s medical team. (Damian Avevor)

Accra, Ghana — It is noon, and Elijah Nayoo takes his first dose of the Moderna COVID-19 vaccine at Akrofu, a town some 84 miles northeast of this country’s capital. His decision to get vaccinated followed a massive education and awareness campaign by religious sisters that encouraged him and thousands of others to get vaccinated against the virus. Nayoo received the vaccine at Mater Ecclesiae Hospital in Akrofu, run by the Sisters of Mary Mother of the Church.

Before, Nayoo believed that the vaccine was unsafe and had severe side effects on human bodies, thus vowing never to take “the jab,” as it is referred to in many African countries.

“I couldn’t believe that one day I would receive the COVID-19 vaccine because I have always had a negative perception about the vaccines,” said the 36-year-old father of two, who works as an accountant in Accra. He got his first dose at the end of January.

Religious sisters in the West African nation of over 31 million people have been working hard to debunk COVID-19 vaccine myths that are rampant, ranging from denial that the virus exists to various false side effects. As of Feb. 16, just over 15% of the country’s population is fully vaccinated, according to the Coronavirus Resource Center at Johns Hopkins University.

“I am thankful to the sisters for their key intervention towards containing the pandemic,” said Nayoo, explaining that through the education he received from the sisters, he has been able to speak to his family members and friends to take their jabs, which they have willingly received without any fear or panic. A sister who is a nurse administered the vaccine. “The campaign messages changed my mind, and that of other people to avail themselves for the vaccine,” he said. The information provided by the sisters was important in “demystifying the myth about the negative effects of the vaccines.”

Sr. Lucy Hometowu, superior general of the Sisters of Mary Mother of the Church, said vaccine myths in Ghana and other African countries had led many citizens to forego vaccinations as virus cases and deaths are rising fast in the continent amid a fourth wave of infections.

“We have undertaken educative campaigns to demystify the myth surrounding the vaccines,” said Hometowu, who is also an obstetrician and gynecologist. “Our sensitization campaign helped increase the number of people who went for the jabs and got vaccinated with Moderna, AstraZeneca and Pfizer vaccines.”

Hometowu said that when they launched the Catholic Sisters COVID-19 Vaccine Ambassadors Campaign, meant to encourage people to get vaccinated against COVID-19, people were reluctant to get the vaccine despite the government’s efforts to ensure there were enough doses in the country.

The campaign led by the Conference of Major Superiors of Religious in Ghana in collaboration with the Vatican COVID-19 Commission is to create awareness, educate, sensitize and undertake advocacy on vaccine safety and adherence to the protocols. The Conrad N. Hilton Foundation, a U.S. charitable foundation established in 1944 by the hotel entrepreneur, sponsors the initiative. The foundation provides grants to nonprofit organizations in seven program areas, including its Catholic Sisters program for the education and training of Catholic sisters, and to support their human development work in Africa, the U.S. and other regions globally. (The foundation is a major funder of Global Sisters Report.)

Hometowu said the sisters all over the country are using the Vatican toolkit of consistent and factual communication strategies for the campaigns to “combat misinformation and disinformation related to COVID-19 and ensure accurate information is distributed about lifesaving vaccines.”

“The campaign being undertaken by hundreds of sisters from various congregations in designated areas is to complement the government and the National Catholic Health Service

COVID-19 response,” she said, noting that 800 sisters are participating in the campaign.

COVID-19 response,” she said, noting that 800 sisters are participating in the campaign.

The vaccination education effort by Catholic sisters in Ghana is also happening in other African countries.

In March of last year, the Catholic Sisters Initiative at the Hilton Foundation partnered with the Vatican COVID-19 Commission to aid the church in mitigating the devastating impacts of the COVID-19 virus in Ghana, Kenya, Uganda and Zambia. Religious sisters in the four countries started campaigns to encourage millions of citizens to get vaccinated against COVID-19.

The sisters’ initiatives to educate and encourage people to get vaccinated as the best means to fight the virus have paid off. Thousands of people have availed themselves at various centers run by the sisters to receive the vaccine and avoid contracting the deadly virus, said Sr. Jane Wakahiu, associate vice president of program operations and head of the Catholic Sisters program at the Hilton Foundation.

“The project has been very successful. Thousands of people have accepted taking vaccines because they have seen religious sisters themselves taking the vaccines, and nothing bad happened to them, which is a success for me,” said Wakahiu, a member of the Little Sisters of St. Francis.

Wakahiu said the foundation allocated $10 million to the program so that sisters working in health facilities can be imparted with knowledge about COVID-19 and vaccines and disseminate the same message to the communities they serve. The campaigns involved sisters going to homes of vulnerable people, slums, rural communities and market centers, and the mobilization of community leaders, churches and mass media.

“The reason for us starting this initiative [Catholic Sisters COVID-19 Vaccine Ambassadors Campaign] was to advocate and educate people about the vaccine because people had a lot of myths,” she said. The program has since been expanded to other countries including India, Tanzania and the Democratic Republic of Congo. “Therefore, the sisters needed to provide clear education about the vaccine to reduce hesitancy. The other thing we needed was to increase the vaccine uptake so that more people can take in the vaccine, and this is in line with the Catholic social teachings to reach out to the most vulnerable and most poor who could not access the vaccine.”

In Ghana, for example, between Dec. 18 to Jan. 14, sisters convinced more than 1,700 people to get the vaccine. Ghana has administered over 12 million doses of coronavirus vaccines so far.

“Through the education and advocacy by the sisters, the people had a change of mind and were vaccinated,” said Sr. Mary Consolata Ntenye of the Sisters of Mary Mother of the Church, who works with Hometowu. “The government, politicians and health professionals in Ghana have put in much effort and resources in procuring these vaccines for the nation, and as citizens, it’s our civic duty to get vaccinated to protect ourselves and others, our families, friends, loved ones, coworkers and above all to bring an end to the pandemic in the world.”

In Zambia, religious sisters have carried out a vaccine campaign that has helped reduce severe illnesses, hospitalizations and deaths. The program under the Zambia Association of Sisterhoods, or ZAS, umbrella started in June 2021, targeting 1,200 healthcare providers, including Catholic nuns and citizens.

The southern African country of over 18 million people has administered about 2.5 million doses of COVID vaccines so far, with about 9.8% of the population fully vaccinated. Sr. Astridah Banda, a member of Dominican Missionary Sisters of the Sacred Heart of Jesus, said the sisters had contributed a lot to the number of people who have been vaccinated in the country. Many people had been hesitant to take the vaccine because of a lack of adequate information on the vaccine’s safety and effectiveness, she said, adding that the sisters raised awareness among members of the general public to come out and receive the jab.

Banda, the project coordinator of ZAS, said she has been running a show on Radio Maria: Yatsani Voice, dubbed the “COVID-19 Awareness Program,” to share critical health information about the pandemic and also dispel vaccine myths in the country.

“Through our influence, community members have been vaccinated, and because of that, I have seen many of our colleagues get the vaccine, and it’s good that the response is so far overwhelming as people are now proud to state publicly that they are fully vaccinated,” said Banda, who is also a social worker by profession.

In Kenya, sisters through the Association of Sisterhoods of Kenya, or AOSK, have been raising public awareness and fighting myths around COVID-19 vaccines through radio broadcasts, presentations, asking priests to include information during Masses, and the distribution of printed materials to reach around five million people.

The East African nation of nearly 54 million people has administered more than 15.4 million doses of COVID-19 vaccines so far and 13.5% of the population is fully vaccinated. Since the launch, the AOSK has worked through 80 sister-run health facilities with 240 sisters across the country to reach out to millions of Kenyans.

“The vaccine uptake has increased in our hospitals,” said Sr. Regina Nthenya Ndambuki, a member of the Sisters of St. Joseph of Mombasa, who is also a nurse and a psychological counselor. “Before, some of our health care (facilities) could only vaccinate 10 people a day, but nowadays the number has gone up to 50 to 70 in a day.”

The East African nation of Uganda has experienced a low rate of vaccinations due to myths and misconceptions about the effects of vaccines. In a country of over 45 million people, it is estimated that roughly 5% of citizens have been vaccinated. Religious sisters have intensified the vaccination campaign to increase vaccine uptake.

Meanwhile, the foundation’s goal has also been to train and prepare sisters who work in the health care systems in the various countries to deal with other future pandemic and non-communicable diseases.

“We didn’t want sisters to come together just for the COVID-19 crisis,” said Angelique Mutombo, senior program officer, Catholic Sisters (Africa) at the Hilton Foundation. “We are very aware that there are also noncommunicable diseases that sisters could be working on, like high blood pressure, diabetes among others,” she said.

Mutombo said registering a network of religious sisters working in every country’s health care system would help sisters swiftly respond to any other type of pandemic in a coordinated way to protect life on the frontlines without being at risk.

“Our whole idea was to bring the sisters who work in the health care system into a network to respond to future pandemics in a very coordinated way,” she said.

St. Joseph Sisters rescue youths from drug use on Kenya’s Indian Ocean coast

A child sniffs toxic glue from a plastic bottle on the streets of Mombasa, a coastal city in southeastern Kenya on the Indian Ocean. The high rate of youths using drugs has visibly affected their lives and the safety of the region. (GSR photo/Doreen Ajiambo)

Mombasa, Kenya — As he looks forward to his university graduation ceremony late this year, 27-year-old Caleb Kanja can’t forget his arduous journey toward his success.

In 2001, he was rescued from the streets of this coastal city in southeastern Kenya along the Indian Ocean by the Sisters of St. Joseph of Mombasa when he was using drugs, especially glue, cannabis, cocaine and heroin.

“I used every kind of drug to make me go high, and I could not fear anything while on the street,” said Kanja, thanking the sisters for rescuing him from drugs and taking him to school. “The sisters helped me to be who I am today. Life was difficult on the street, and I would today be like other youths whose lives have been affected because of drugs.”

Kanja, who is pursuing economics at a local university in Kenya, said he began using drugs at a tender age due to peer pressure after his mother died and left him with his uncaring father.

“I began using drugs as any other child would do in this region,” he said, adding that his father was always drunk and couldn’t guide him. “I ended up on the street and in dens where the addicts hide to use drugs. I used to beg for money so that I could buy glue, which is cheaper compared to other drugs.”

He is among thousands of youths whom the nuns have rescued from using drugs in the coastal region. With help from volunteers, the sisters find dazed youths in abandoned buildings and shanties dotting the shores of the Indian Ocean. They take them to the Grandsons of Abraham, a rescue center that works with the community to find, rehabilitate and educate youths to make them better citizens.

The coastal region comprises six counties, which are also names of the region’s main towns — Mombasa, Taita Taveta, Kwale, Kilifi, Lamu and Tana River. These towns are known as tourist destinations globally for their sun and beaches. But the tourism industry has not yielded job opportunities for many of the region’s youth and young adults. Rather, tourism — and the free flow of drugs to Kenya’s coast — has led to a culture that has trapped primarily boys and young men in a cycle they rarely escape.

The numbers are low for addiction among local girls and women, whose adherence to cultural norms and fear of rejection by society make it unlikely they would end up on the streets.

Findings from the country’s National Authority for the Campaign Against Alcohol and Drug Abuse show that drug use is rife in the coastal regions and visibly affects the lives of youths. The report, which was released in 2016, indicates that 29.3% of coastal region residents at the time were currently using at least one addictive substance, including alcohol. In a county-by-county breakdown, Mombasa led with 34.4% of residents using at least one drug, followed by Lamu with 32%, Tana River 31.1%, Kilifi 29.7%, Kwale 26% and Taita Taveta 20.7%.

The report by the national authority, which is mandated to coordinate a multisectoral effort to prevent, control and mitigate alcohol and drug abuse in Kenya, further explains that 12.6% of residents in the coastal regions are using alcohol, 14.7% tobacco, 12% khat (a popular stimulant plant that is chewed), 4.5% bhang, 2.3% heroin, 1.3% prescription drugs, 0.9% cocaine and 0.4% hashish.

Sr. Jane Frances Kamanthe Malika of the Sisters of St. Joseph of Mombasa believes that the region’s proximity to the seashore makes it a hub for narcotics, especially heroin from Southeast Asia and cocaine from Latin America destined for Europe and North America, as detailed in this 2018 research report, funded by the European Union, on “the heroin coast.”

“The drugs in this region are too available, and the children get them too easily,” Malika said, noting that illicit substances have addicted thousands of youths in the region. “Drugs are sold on every street here, making it easier for the youths to get them. The youths always say that the drugs help them feel high and happy so that they forget about their problems.”

Government struggles

Gilbert Kitiyo, recent Mombasa County commissioner, admits that the number of people using drugs in the coastal region is high. Minors as young as 10-15 have been swept into the drug menace, he said. Kitiyo led a multi-agency security team to smoke out drug barons, midlevel dealers and street sellers. In a recent reshuffling of 24 commissioners, Kitiyo was transferred to an eastern Kenya region away from the coast.

“Drug menace in the coastal region cannot end overnight. It’s a fight that is going on, and we are certain as a government we will end it,” Kitiyo told Global Sisters Report in an interview last month.

Kitiyo blamed the judiciary for the slow pace of the regional war on drugs, saying thousands of cases involving drug trafficking were still pending before the Mombasa courts.

“In Mombasa alone, we make an average arrest of over 1,000 people per year with drug-related offenses, but it’s now upon the judiciary to expedite court cases,” he said, adding that, in most cases, they have provided enough evidence to prosecute the suspects.

Nevertheless, corruption by police and lack of political will have been cited as the main challenges facing the fight against drug abuse in the coastal region. In 2019, for example, a report by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime showed how Kenyan government officials were bribed for years by the Akasha family drug empire to shield them from legal consequences for trafficking drugs and even from extradition to the United States to face drug charges.

It took the intervention of U.S. agents of the Drug Enforcement Administration to arrest Ibrahim Akasha and Baktash Akasha, the sons of the drug baron Ibrahim Akasha. The detectives extradited them from Mombasa to New York to face charges for trying to import banned drugs.

The two were later found guilty. In January 2020, Ibrahim was sentenced to 23 years in prison for trafficking heroin and methamphetamine in the U.S. His brother, Baktash, had been sentenced to 25 years in prison in August 2019. Yet, those who aided them in Kenya remain free after authorities failed to charge them in court.

Bloodshot eyes, blemished faces

Along the streets of the coastal towns, gaunt youths can be seen seated on stones in neglected structures and shanties. Most of the youths here are a pale shadow of their former selves. Their blemished faces and skin and bloodshot eyes are the ravaged features that exaggerate their age due to constant drug abuse.

Festus Modali, one of the youths, who rolls up heroin into cigarettes or injects it directly into his veins, said his brother introduced him to drugs. “I can’t live without using drugs. I will die,” he said.

Pure heroin is sold to the youths and schoolchildren on every corner of these coastal region towns. The drug is smoked or snorted, but most addicts prefer injecting.

Sr. Veronica Wanjiru, a doctor who is the medical director at Mother Amadea Mission Hospital in a Mombasa suburb, said people who inject themselves with drugs were most vulnerable to HIV and viral infections such as hepatitis C.

A World Health Organization website says 23-39% of new hepatitis C infections and 10% of new HIV cases are among IV drug users. Other adverse public health consequences from those who inject drugs include risk of transmitting tuberculosis, viral hepatitis B, and several sexually transmitted infections.

Health experts in the coastal region have said that drug abuse and depression are the leading causes of mental illness.

“We have the largest number of people [in the country] with mental illness due to high use of drugs, especially khat and cannabis,” said Dr. Charles Mwangome, a psychiatrist at Port Reitz Sub-County Hospital in Mombasa. “The patients are all over the streets because their families have rejected some, but we are treating and rehabilitating them.”

Recent Mombasa County Commissioner Kitiyo noted that the illicit drug business has contributed to lawlessness in the region, adding that youths were also dropping out of school to concentrate on consuming drugs.

“The youths are not going to school. They are busy on the streets engaging in drugs, and they are a threat to security as some engage in theft and pickpocketing,” he said.

Sisters intervene

However, with the help of social workers, religious sisters are battling to end the drug menace in the coastal region. They believe that victims of drug abuse, especially youths, could still be productive in society if they are helped and rehabilitated.

The Sisters of St. Joseph of Mombasa run Grandsons of Abraham, a rescue center in Mombasa and Kilifi. They rescue addicts from the streets and drug dens and assist them in recovering from addiction before providing them with education and life skills.

Malika, the St. Joseph sister who is leading the fight against drug abuse in the coastal region, visits the dens, abandoned structures, alleys and huts where the addicts hide to smoke, sniff or inject drugs. She talks to the youths about the dangers of drug abuse and its likely consequences.

“I visit those places with social workers twice every week to talk to the boys so that they willingly come to the rescue center,” she said, explaining that they give the boys a chance to decide on coming to the center themselves after persuading them about the dangers caused by substance abuse and the importance of rehabilitation.

“We don’t take them by force from the streets, but we do talk to them and convince them to come on their own,” Malika said. “We believe that if the decision is made by oneself, then it’s from the heart, and it makes it easier for rehabilitation.”

Once off the streets, the youths are given a week to rest before they begin counseling sessions and treatment. The sisters said that those who have been on drugs for a long time or are sick are taken to hospitals for treatment.

“We begin by putting these youths on medication and a healthy diet to try and flush out drugs from their system, a process that takes at least three months,” said Wanjiru, whose hospital works with Grandsons of Abraham to treat drug addicts.

Malika said that after recovery, the youths are made aware of the dangers of using drugs. They provide educational scholarships to the children who are still young and willing to go back to school and complete their education. Those who can’t go back are enrolled in vocational training in farming, welding, plumbing, masonry and computer skills.

“After the child has recovered, we try to trace their families and reintegrate them back. Those who don’t have families stay at our center,” she said, citing challenges with the children they reintegrate into the communities.

“We have come to realize that these youths are rejected again by their families and end up in the streets,” Malika conceded, adding that the sisters will try again in such cases.

The sisters have also been conducting campaigns on drugs and substances across the region’s towns to educate youths on their effects and remind parents of their responsibilities. They also have engaged them in sports such as beach soccer and basketball.

“When youths engage in sports, they become busy and avoid drugs. Most of them are influenced by their peers to engage in drugs because they are idle,” said Malika.

In the meantime, Kanja, the current college student the sisters pulled from the streets of Mombasa, is appealing to well-wishers to continue rescuing drug addicts, as many do not even recall how they began using drugs.

“They are innocent, and they need help,” he said. “They should be assisted so that they can become better people in the society.”

In Burkina Faso, Muslims and Christians show how to live as one

Sr. Ojonoka Acheneje, a Daughter of Charity of St. Vincent De Paul, distributes food to internally displaced persons in the Diocese of Nouna, Burkina Faso. (Courtesy of Janet E. Deinanaghan)
Sr. Ojonoka Acheneje, a Daughter of Charity of St. Vincent De Paul, distributes food to internally displaced persons in the Diocese of Nouna, Burkina Faso. (Courtesy of Janet E. Deinanaghan)

Burkina Faso is a landlocked country bounded by Mali, Niger, Benin, Côte d’Ivoire and Ghana. The country obtained its independence in 1960 from France and was then known as Upper Volta. The name Burkina Faso — which means “Land of Incorruptible People” — was adopted in 1984. The capital, Ouagadougou, is in the center of the country.

Burkina Faso is a predominantly Muslim country (61%), with 19% Catholic, 15% following traditional religions, 4% Protestant and about 1% nonreligious. The seat of the Roman Catholic archbishopric is in Ouagadougou, and there are several bishoprics throughout the country.

I am a Daughter of Charity of St. Vincent De Paul, missioned to Burkina Faso in 2017 to work in the Nouna Diocese as an English language teacher. After three months of an intensive French language course in Togo — because I am from Nigeria and knew no French — I arrived on Nov. 28. I was sent to teach English language in our new inclusive school that had just opened in October that year.

I had a mixed feeling of fear and excitement, going to a different country and learning a new culture and way of life totally different from what I was used to in Nigeria. The good thing was that another of my sisters, Sr. Ojonoka Acheneje, was sent to the same school — I to teach and she as bursar — which made the experience more agreeable.

My first surprise in arriving in Burkina Faso as a missionary was the free spirit and simplicity of the people there. Coming from a background in Nigeria where Christianity has become a “badge” people wear around like the scribes and Pharisees of Jesus’ days did, I was profoundly struck with the simplicity of faith practiced among the people here.

To top it all off, I realized that it wasn’t taboo for a Christian to invite a Muslim relation or friend to attend a function in our church, and vice versa! In fact, it is not a taboo for a Christian woman to be married to a Muslim — she can still live her faith fully as a Catholic or other Christian. Many of the staff members of our school are married to a Christian or a Muslim person.

One day, I went on a home visitation in the village with one of my sisters, and we entered the home of a Catholic family. We saw the younger daughter of the family praying outside on her mat. She was a Muslim while her elder sister — whom we were visiting — was sitting nearby praying her rosary. It was such a beautiful and evangelizing sight for me. And our friend said that’s how they have been practicing their faith in the family, without any trouble.

The bank manager of the local Ecobank is married to a Catholic, while he himself is a Muslim. He said he loves the Catholic church and her songs, and that he has no problem with his wife practicing her faith. He further added that in moments of need, he books a Mass for his private intentions and attends when he has the time. His wife, too, goes to the mosque with him whenever she can.

There are so many other families like these in Burkina Faso — where siblings have different faith beliefs, yet they live together amicably. We hear of siblings from both Muslim and Christian backgrounds celebrating a burial ceremony for their late parents in the same compound, and all goes well. I have had the privilege of being invited by Muslim friends for either a marriage ceremony or the Ramadan celebration in their homes, and I found it very evangelizing.

That is why I agree with the words of Pope Francis in addressing the attendees of the John 17 Movement gathering, where he stated, “Division is the work of the father of lies.” Therefore, he said, we should live as one, since we are all brothers and sisters, and disciples of Christ.

Our community arrived in the Nouna Diocese on Aug. 5, 2009, with the first three sisters — Felicia Ezeimo, Esther Ekpo and Toyin Abegunde — who had come to teach, tend the sick and do social work. These were the specific areas of need presented to the Daughters of Charity in Nigeria for which the sisters were sent to work.

The sisters arrived with joy; though they started with nothing on the ground, they worked so hard that after eight years of toil, they identified the need to start a second local community, to run an inclusive school for children with disabilities since in the process of their field work in the villages they had identified many who needed those services.

This gave birth to the new inclusive school that we now have in the diocese. It started with 68 students in 2017 and has now grown to 3,014 in 2022 — out of which 70 are children with special needs, such as autism, Down syndrome, physical handicaps and hearing impairment. Seven Daughters of Charity live and work in two communities in this diocese, in the following ministries: education, social, pastoral and prison apostolates.

However, only one Burkinabe has joined us so far, a young girl from a Catholic family — Amandine Ouedraogo — who is doing her postulant formation in Nigeria now. But in the Province of Algeria there is a Daughter of Charity from Burkina Faso, Sister Georgette, who joined us before the arrival of the sisters from Nigeria. We pray and hope that many other girls will join us in the service of the poor here.

This beautiful way of life is being destroyed by the upsurge of fanatics now in Burkina Faso who want the world under their control and want no other religion except theirs. This is not the intention of God, who gave us freedom to practice whatever religion we wish to practice if it helps us to love him and our neighbors more. They claim Western education is bad and that only Arabic should be taught in schools!

This is the reason we have had several attacks and schools burned in the country. We were attacked on Nov. 22, 2021, and have been displaced ourselves. The school has been temporarily closed but we managed to get some abandoned buildings to continue teaching here.

Life has changed for all of us recently and it is not easy, but we thank God who protected us and kept us safe. Things seem bleak for now, but the government is gradually trying to quell the insurgents, even as the church prays for peace to reign.

Ghana’s farmers arm against freak weather with crop insurance

Adam Fuseina looks at a healthy ear of maize on her farm, covered by crop insurance, in Nafaring village, northern Ghana, October 8, 2021. Thomson Reuters Foundation/Kagondu Njagi

NAFARING, Ghana, – As the sun slid towards noon, Adam Fuseina’s daughter jumped off a bicycle at their home in Nafaring village, northern Ghana, and called out to her mother that she was back from shopping.

Fuseina looked at the basket full of cooking oil, flour, greens and other items on the bike’s front rack and smiled at the agriculture officials who were visiting her farm.

“This will keep us going for a week,” said the 43-year-old mother of five, standing amid the village’s mud-walled shelters with fraying thatched roofs.

Things were very different a year ago, when Fuseina’s family could sometimes only manage one meal a day.

Ghana’s worsening floods and droughts have made growing fruit and vegetables harder, and when the staple maize and rice crops are hit as well, families like hers are left with meagre yields of grains that lack essential nutrients and vitamins.

But in March last year, Fuseina joined a free crop insurance project that tries to ensure farmers aren’t thrown into poverty by the extreme weather, pest infestations and crop disease outbreaks becoming increasingly destructive as global temperatures rise.

Now when long dry spells destroy a share of the crops on Fuseina’s 6.5-acre (2.6-hectare) farm, her family can still eat healthily, she said.

Since joining the pilot project run by social enterprise Roots of Change, she has received two payouts of up to 200 Ghanaian cedis ($33), covering 80% of the value of her crop losses to drought.

Those may be tiny payouts, but combined with low-interest loans of nearly 600 cedis that come as part of the insurance package they have helped supplement the income she makes and carry the family through to the next planting season, she said.

“I cannot wait to plant new crops on my farm because I know I will get returns whether there is bad weather or they are attacked by pests and diseases, thanks to crop insurance. Before the programme I never felt excited,” Fuseina said.

Part of a larger initiative by Roots of Change, under the charity Opportunity International, the insurance programme uses farmland and crop data collected by the agriculture ministry to help provide cover for about 1,360 farmers in northern Ghana.

The Ghana Agricultural Insurance Pool (GAIP), a group of 15 insurance providers, compare data on historical farm yields to actual harvests to verify insurance claims enrolled farmers make.

Since it launched last year, the project has paid out 7,000 cedis ($1,120) to more than 300 farmers, according to Ebenezer Laryea, the Ghana head of agricultural businesses at Opportunity International, which pays the farmers’ insurance premiums.

Some farmers invest the money they get through the programme into community savings schemes, where people pool their funds to be used by individual members when they need it.

“Crop insurance is a game changer,” Laryea said, particularly in a country where about half of people make their living from farming.


As temperatures rise in Ghana as a result of climate change, the country’s northern region no longer gets two rainy seasons of a few months each but one five-month-long wet season, which can flood fields and drown crops, Laryea said.

The rest of the year is dry, leaving crops parched.

Food and agriculture minister Owusu Afriyie Akoto has said crop insurance could make farming a more stable livelihood and attract more young people to an occupation now dominated by the aging.

“It is not just about building resilience against erratic weather but also making agriculture attractive to youth and women by making it a financial asset,” he said at the 2021 African Green Revolution Forum in Nairobi.

Ghana’s Food and Agriculture Ministry did not respond to the Thomson Reuters Foundation’s requests for comment.


GAIP first introduced crop insurance to Ghanaian farmers in 2011, but studies show it has been a tough sell.

Uptake has been slow in rural areas, mostly due to a lack of understanding of how insurance works, according to a study published last June in the BioMed Central (BMC) journal.

It shows 90% of small-scale farmers see crop insurance as a useful tool, but less than a fifth said they had signed up for it.

More than half of farmers responded that they lacked adequate knowledge about insurance, and about 5% said it is too expensive.

Another issue was the farmers’ lack of trust in how companies calculate insurance payouts.

Early crop insurance programmes based payouts on a weather index, with insurance triggered when a preset number of days passed without rain, for instance.

But in Ghana and some other parts of Africa weather data is known to be imprecise, said Hedwig Siewertsen, head of inclusive finance at the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa (AGRA), an agriculture nonprofit.

Newer models make the process of calculating crop loss more accurate.

In the Roots of Change programme, the agriculture ministry uses satellite data to project how much each farmer could produce per acre, then compares that to the actual harvest during a visit to any farm making a claim, said Ibrahim Sulley, an agriculture relationship officer with the social enterprise.

The programme’s officers expect to visit about 335 farms a year to follow up on insurance claims, noted Lydia Baffour Awuah, the Roots of Change senior program manager for Ghana.

Sending people to visit farms is more expensive than a weather-index based insurance model – but the interaction with farmers brings other benefits, backers say.

Siewertsen at AGRA said a face-to-face relationship is vital if insurance is going to gain traction in Ghana.

“The main issue in agricultural insurance is gaining the trust of farmers,” he said in an email interview.

“This can be done through field presence, first to explain how insurance works and second to show that the actual damage is seen and measured.”

Opportunity International is still analysing the impact of its young project, Laryea said, to determine whether it will be extended, with farmers eventually paying a share of the premiums.

Fuseina, the farmer in Nafaring, said she hopes crop insurance will catch on in Ghana.

“I felt like nobody when I did not have crop insurance. But now I feel like somebody,” she said.

Madagascar food crisis: How a woman helped save her village from starvation

A woman and an man standing in a field
Loharano and her husband Mandilimana have transformed the way they farm

Loharano’s effortless grace belies the hard work that she is doing to stave off the tragedy that is unfolding in parts of her region of Madagascar.

A prolonged drought in the deep south of the island has left 1.3 million people struggling to find food and 28,000 facing starvation. Some have called it the world’s first famine caused by climate change, though this has been disputed.

But Loharano’s village, Tsimanananda, where she is a community leader, has been spared the worst.

It is a tough 45-minute drive from Ambovombe, the regional capital of Androy, one of the regions hardest hit by the sharp drop in rainfall in recent years.

The 4×4 vehicle can barely find a grip on the sandy roads. The view through the dusty windscreen reveals a desert-like dune landscape, stripped of trees and exposed to harsh winds.

It is hard to imagine anything growing here. But Tsimanananda stands out in the landscape.

Loharano’s smile lights up the space around her. She is short and gentle – not the first person you would pick out as the leader in her neighbourhood.

But she quickly invites me into her compound, making me feel at home.

“We suffered a lot from hunger. We planted but it failed every time,” the 43-year-old says, reflecting on a previous drought that started in 2013. But with the help of a local charity, the Agro-ecological Centre of the South (CTAS), this time things are very different.

Shortly after I arrive, Loharano leads a short class under the shade of a tree.

Armed with a poster illustrating farming techniques, she talks to her neighbours, and her husband Mandilimana, about drought-resistant crops and techniques to revitalise the soil.

‘We have breakfast, lunch and dinner’

Over the past seven years, CTAS has helped introduce grains like millet and sorghum and local legume varieties, which grow well in the sandy conditions and improve the soil’s fertility.

The villagers were also taught how to plant natural windbreaks to help protect the crops from the ravages of the elements.

“Now, we have breakfast, lunch and dinner,” Loharano says proudly as she shows off her plot of land where she and Mandilimana have grown an impressive range of crops.

On one end there are rows of millet, then beans, peas and sweet potatoes.

“We eat the husk from the ground millet with sugar and this is the favourite food of the children, their bellies are always full of millet.”

CTAS has replicated this work in 14 other villages in the south of Madagascar helping some 10,000 households, the charity says.

But the small organisation cannot reach everyone and there is clearly enormous need.

Back in the regional capital, Ambovombe, is a sight reminiscent of a war zone.

In a small dusty field, dozens of families have erected makeshift tents – a patchwork of torn mosquito nets, rice sacks and plastic sheets.

But these people, around 400, have fled hunger not conflict.

Unlike Loharano, they were not able to grow any food and had to sell their farms and cattle just to survive.

Climate change controversy

However it is more than just possessions that people have lost.

Mahosoa, who lives here with one of his wives and 12 children, tells me four of his youngest children died at the start of the drought three years ago.

“They died of hunger in the village. They died one by one, day by day. We didn’t eat for one week. Nothing to eat, nothing to drink.”

Mahosoa tells me some of his children go out to beg in the town so they can buy food or water.

Promises of aid from the government have not materialised for them, he says.

The government has distributed food aid in the affected area and has announced dozens of long-term infrastructure projects that could transform the area’s prospects.

Nevertheless, President Andry Rajoelina has been criticised for failing to respond quickly enough to the crisis as the impact of the successive years of drought became more obvious.

Some locals put this down to the historical marginalisation of the region.

“During the war against the French colonialist army, the Antandroy [people from the Androy region] were able to fight against the French colonisers, they were able to use guerrilla tactics,” university lecturer Dr Tsimihole Tovondrafale says.

Because of this, he says the French were not interested in developing the region.

“They didn’t think about how to make roads, dig wells for example, and that’s still the politics of Madagascar since independence up to now.”

Many political commentators blame what they see as the government’s slowness to react for exacerbating the hunger crisis in the south, but Madagascar’s environment minister sees things very differently.

Dr Baomiavotse Vahinala Raharinirina says that the famine is “climactic in its origin”. This chimes with the view of the World Food Programme, which says that the crisis is being driven by climate change.

The recent influential World Weather Attribution report on the drought in Madagascar, which included work from Dr Rondro Barimalala, a Malagasy climate scientist, disputed this.

Researchers found that though the recent rains have been poor and the probability of future droughts may be on the rise, the change in rainfall cannot be attributed to human impact on the climate.

Regardless of the exact cause of the lack of rain, there is no doubt that hundreds of thousands of people will be living with its impact for years to come.

Through her work to improve her village, Loharano is happy her community has avoided the disaster many are facing right now.

But it hurts her to see many more cannot be helped.

“I feel sad for them because they could die of hunger. One day, somebody had nothing and I asked her why.

“She said that they hadn’t eaten since the day before. So I told her to take some of my peas and feed her kids.”

Brick by brick, tree by tree, Carmelite Missionary Sisters plant skills to limit Malawi’s deforestation

Women of the Eco Women Group have embarked on a tree-planting campaign to promote reforestation programs to reduce the effect of climate change in Kalumba Forest, 37 miles north of Malawi's capital, Lilongwe. (Doreen Ajiambo)
Women of the Eco Women Group have embarked on a tree-planting campaign to promote reforestation programs to reduce the effect of climate change in Kalumba Forest, 37 miles north of Malawi’s capital, Lilongwe. (Doreen Ajiambo)

KAPIRI, Malawi — Sr. Patricia Chimimba remembers when the forest near her convent in this town outside Malawi’s capital, Lilongwe, was so thick with leaves and foliage that one could hardly walk through it.

Nowadays, Kalumba Forest, 37 miles north of Lilongwe, is degraded, replaced by grasslands dotted with tree stumps. Religious leaders and environmentalists say that Malawians’ dependence on firewood and charcoal as their only source of income and to meet their own energy needs has led them to chop down vast portions of the forest.

The impact of deforestation, including water shortages, reduced crop productivity, and disrupting the hydroelectric power supply has prompted Chimimba, with community groups from the Kapiri area, to protect the Kalumba Forest by planting more trees and advocating to bar illegal loggers.

“I have always loved trees and nature in general, and it pains me a lot when I see people cutting down trees,” said Chimimba, a member of the Carmelite Missionary Sisters. “Whenever I wake up, all I think about is the environment and trees, and I think the best way to protect them is by planting more and working to stop encroachers from destroying the remaining ones.”

More than 97% of Malawian households depend on biomass energy — charcoal and wood — to meet their power needs, according to the country’s National Charcoal Strategy, focused on providing solutions such as promoting substitute cooking fuelsThis is because Malawi is ranked the fifth poorest country globally and accessing electricity for cooking is a rare luxury. The majority of those who have electricity still use wood and charcoal for cooking or heating because of the cost, thus exacerbating the health of the forests.

At 2.8%, the southeastern African country of 19 million people has one of the highest annual deforestation rates in Africa, losing 965 square miles (about 250,000 hectares) of tree cover per year, according to government data.

By contrast, Brazil’s Amazon rainforest lost 5,100 square miles and reached its highest annual rate of deforestation — a 22% jump over the previous year — in 15 years, according to national space research data released in November.

From 1972 to 2009, Malawi lost 36% of its original forest area. Forestation efforts have reduced the net loss to only 5% in that 37-year period, but the biological diversity is not equal to that of original forest. If the trend is not addressed, the nation could find itself without trees by 2079, recent research in the region states.

Deforestation can severely affect wildlife, ecosystems, biodiversity and weather patterns.

Along the highways of this landlocked nation, residents can be seen using bicycle transport to move bags of charcoal for sale as fuel. Women sell charcoal on the streets, and young men and women load large carbon bags for sale to restaurants. Massive deforestation and loss of vegetation due to charcoal production has made many large tracts of land in the countryside lie bare. The land, therefore, offers no resistance against floods and droughts.

Drivers of deforestation

More than two-thirds of Malawi’s population live below the international poverty line of $1.90 a day, according to World Bank statistics. The majority of the impoverished depend on small-scale farming for their livelihoods, Chimimba said, adding that the growing population has forced residents to convert forested land to agricultural land.

“Most of the residents here are poor, and sometimes they are forced to cut trees to survive,” she said. “They cut trees and produce charcoal to generate income so that they can pay fees for their children and buy food in case there is a drought that results in a poor harvest.”

Mary Nankokwe, a Kapiri resident, agreed. Although she knows that it’s illegal to cut down trees for charcoal production, a recent prolonged drought that brought starvation and hunger forced her to give up farming in favor of selling charcoal as fuel, she said.

“I used to depend on farming, but due to extreme weather that leads to poor harvest, it made me turn to the sale of charcoal and wood to survive,” said the 38-year-old mother of three whose husband died in 2017. “Being a widow, I had to get involved in charcoal burning [making charcoal out of burned wood to sell as heating or cooking fuel] to provide for my children and pay for their fees. I’m very poor, and I don’t have other means of providing for myself and my children, so this is the only way. Maybe if I get money, I can start another business.”

Davis Kunkeyani, a village administrator overseeing Kapiri, said most homes in the country are built of bricks fired with wood logged from forests, further contributing to deforestation. Kapiri, like other towns across Malawi, is also in high demand for bricks to construct public structures such as schools, hospitals and trading shops, he said.

Several reports in Malawi show that firing bricks consumes roughly 850,000 metric tons of fuelwood annually. The report said that if the situation is not addressed, the country could lose all its trees in 25 to 30 years from the brick industry alone.

“Bricks require a lot of wood to fire brick kilns, and this leads people to cut down trees to meet the demands,” said Kunkeyani, noting that the practice has resulted in massive deforestation, land degradation and soil erosion.

Weak laws

Chimimba said weak laws and enforcement of existing rules have been ineffective.

The country’s law states that authorities should take away charcoal and timber from sellers and confiscate equipment for those found cutting down trees.

In its National Charcoal Strategy report, the government admits a need to strengthen law enforcement to end deforestation, noting that in recent decades “law enforcement related to charcoal production and marketing has been inadequate, inconsistent and ineffective.”

“The authorities need to do more to save the country’s forests, including introducing stiffer punishment for those found cutting trees and selling charcoal and timber,” Chimimba said. “Unfortunately, those destroying our forests are walking freely with impunity despite the dangers deforestation has brought to us.”

Closing the gap

But religious sisters are boldly confronting the deforestation crisis and taking several critical steps toward a solution.

In 2015, Chimimba founded Eco Women Group, a nonprofit organization that empowers women to save the environment. The group equips women with skills to make briquettes, practice apiculture or farming that does not adversely affect the environment, and plant trees to reduce deforestation in the area.

To ensure that they provide an alternative energy source to reduce deforestation, the organization has trained women to make briquettes as a substitute for charcoal. A briquette is a compressed block made from flammable items, such as charcoal dust, sawdust and clay, with an ability to start and maintain a fire, essentially for cooking, explained Chimimba. Due to the lack of resources, women are now using cartons to make the briquettes, she added.

“The initiative has reduced the cutting down of trees, and we are now saving our only forest in the region,” said Chimimba, revealing that her organization has more than 600 members divided into 10 groups representing every village in Kapiri. “Using briquettes saves time, as women no longer have to walk for a long distance to look for firewood and is healthier because they don’t emit smoke.”

Marlene Usiku is among hundreds of women who have received training from the Eco Women Group on making briquettes. She said the product produces fuel in her household and helps her earn a sustainable income.

“We are now using briquettes instead of charcoal or firewood. I’m making more briquettes every day and selling to other households for an income so that I can sustain my family,” said the 30-year-old mother of two, who noted that most charcoal producers in the region are women. “We have been encouraged to train other women on how to make briquettes and use it as a clean source of energy to save the forests and also earn an income.”

The sisters with the group of women have also planted thousands of trees to replace those that encroachers have cut. For example, early this year, the sisters launched a tree-planting campaign to promote reforestation programs to reduce climate change caused by excess carbon emission in the atmosphere.

Sr. Marieta Makina, a member of the Carmelite Missionary Sisters who works with Chimimba, said they have been training women on plant propagation so that they can establish their tree nurseries, replace trees that have been cut on their homestead and sell the rest of the seedlings to earn an income.

The sisters are determined as well to find the solution to severe drought and hunger. Climate change due to deforestation has significantly affected food production in the country. The sisters are touring villages to train the women’s groups about the importance of farming. The thrice weekly training involves land preparation, planting, weed management and new farming methods that can survive the harsh climatic changes.

The sisters provide the women with seeds and train them to create small gardens, Chimimba said, noting that these gardens are meant to provide household food and help the women earn an income from vegetables sales.

Using small buckets of water, the sisters devised an irrigation method where a water tap and pipe that runs through the entire garden is connected to the bucket. The technique enables the vegetables to be watered despite having little water available, Makina said.

“To have food, you don’t need a lot of water, and that’s why we teach these women that, with little water, they can be able to have food,” she said. “This has enabled them even to earn an income, which is a good thing.”

The initiatives are helping Kapiri residents move out of poverty as they save the environment.

“Today, I don’t think of cutting down trees to make charcoal for sale,” Usiku said. “The sisters have taught us to engage in alternative sources of income to take care of our families and save the trees.”

Kunkeyani thanked the sisters for saving the only remaining forest in the region and empowering residents, saying that was the only way to end deforestation. “It’s important to empower the poor because it’s poverty that is making locals destroy our forests,” he said.

Meanwhile, Chimimba hopes that the programs they are implementing in Kapiri will spread to other country regions to save the remaining forests.

“We may be a few, and maybe our efforts will not change much, but I believe that others will come to defend the forests,” she said. “We will not let Malawi become a desert. It’s our responsibility to take care of the environment.”

Insecurity, lack of resources challenge Congo sisters’ health care work

Daughters of the Resurrection in the waiting room of one of their clinics in the Democratic Republic of Congo (Courtesy of Rose Namulisa Balaluka)
Daughters of the Resurrection in the waiting room of one of their clinics in the Democratic Republic of Congo (Courtesy of Rose Namulisa Balaluka)

Bukavu, the capital of South-Kivu province, lies in the east corner of the Democratic Republic of Congo, bordering Rwanda. We have been plagued by insecurity since 1996, particularly following the Rwandan genocide. Three of our sisters were killed by the Alliance of Democratic Forces for Liberation of Congo in 1998, and another was abducted in 2017.

Massive displacement of populations and alarming emergence of disease, poverty, malnutrition and starvation continue for most families. Sexual violence is rampant and abandonment of families by fathers is common, leaving women particularly vulnerable.

These human-made problems are only worsened by those of nature, as this region of Congo is prone to volcanic eruptions and earthquakes that send people running for their lives.

When COVID-19 arrived, the blanket of insecurity and fear increased as it now had a new face. People were traumatized as family members began to die, for apparently no reason. They still feel that if someone tests positive, life has just come to an end. Bantu people love life and so have a strong desire for it, the longer the better!

Our local congregation, the Daughters of the Resurrection, founded in 1966, had developed many health centers in South-Kivu province, but continuing insecurity and COVID-19 closed them down. Now, we have only two centers operating, but with extremely limited resources. The government offers no assistance to us, so it is up to us to find ways to finance all we do.

We lack electricity or generators that would allow us to perform preclinical and biochemical examinations, X-rays or scanning. We have too few beds or even latrines for the numbers of patients, and our protocols for water, sanitation and hygiene are also limited.

Our focus is women’s health, as this was the intent of our foundress. We do our best to offer ante- and post-natal care for pregnant women, and delivery services, including cesarean birthing, but our operating rooms are not properly equipped. We deliver up to 12 babies in a day.

Women, in general, are very vulnerable in this region. Rape is common, as is domestic violence, even against very young women. Girls are led into prostitution to help alleviate family poverty, as there are few ways to earn money. Women are frequently abandoned, leaving them as sole providers of their families.

These conditions have led us to offer marriage and trauma counseling, including instruction for wedding rite preparation. It is our hope we can help prevent broken marriages.

Limited resources of finance and personnel and common concern for maternity care motivated us to work in collaboration with two congregations that also have health centers in this region: Sisters of St. Dorothy of Cemmo and Sisters of Mary Queen of Apostles from Bukavu. We share supplies and equipment and programs to educate the populations on prevention of diarrhea and diabetes. We also teach hygiene and COVID-19 prevention and refer patients to one another’s facilities.

All three communities have nutrition centers in which we assist families and children in addressing malnutrition, which is rampant. The constant insecurity prevents families from farming and storing food.

To fight malnutrition, we first treat those already suffering from it by giving them nutritional supplements, antibiotics, and antimalarial and dewormer drugs. For pregnant and breastfeeding women, we offer additional food with sosoma (bone) broth.

Then as preventative strategies, we try to sensitize the population, teach them self-management in best food practices, and show them the importance of growing vegetables, doing small farming and raising livestock. Since most of the malnourished people come from poor families, we teach them some business practices so they can begin some revenue-generating activities for family autonomy.

This collaboration among our three congregations attracted the attention of a nongovernmental organization, Medicines for Humanity, from the United States, with an office in Cameroon. It has been assisting us now for some months, as its focus is also maternal and child health. It has helped us with equipment, educational COVID-19 materials and protective gear.

Although we keep trying to educate the population on the value of scientific methods that bring real results and well-being, encouraging childhood vaccinations, deworming and providing nutrition supplements, it is challenging, as we are confronted daily with the dangers of traditional healing methods.

The people turn to these because of ignorance and the high cost of modern medicine throughout the country. These alternatives are often in the hands of traditional, religious charlatans who set up pharmacies for consultations and unsafe drugs.

Their methods of healing often depend on witchcraft and sorcery. Prophet-healers promise healing by combining African medical traditions and Christian prayers and Bible readings. They preach mystical ideas and beliefs to discourage the use of modern health care methods, to get money for their services.

Diseases that people cannot explain are blamed on “child sorcerers.” These children, sometimes selected by the church “preachers” or even schoolteachers, are diagnosed as a witch, and their families are required to pay money to have them exorcised or even killed. At other times, the children, once identified in this way, both girls and boys, are just abandoned and become street children, surviving on their own.

Some of the high national medical costs result from neglect by our national leaders. Government hospitals and health centers lack equipment, medicines and even water for treatment and care. Working conditions for nurses and doctors in these facilities are deplorable. Even though civil law requires that staff be paid fairly, salaries are extremely low or not paid at all.

Patients pay the price for these conditions, and are often held like prisoners in the hospital for weeks and months even after recovery, unable to pay their bills.

We, as sisters, are committed to serving our people to the best of our ability. I don’t think our situation here is very different from what other sisters experience in other areas of Congo. Our hearts remain faithful to our charism and mission of care for families since 1966, when we were founded by Mother Hadewych to help the people — particularly the women — suffering the effects of the war of Mulele, an uprising that was part of the Congolese movement for independence.

Her own congregation was reluctant to do this work, so she sought permission from the bishop and began recruiting young women of the area, forming them into a religious community to serve those suffering families of Bukavu. Our spirituality of love of Christ in his passion, death and resurrection strengthens us to give hope to the suffering among us.

One in eight children found at risk of becoming child soldiers

A unit of child soldiers march February 6 through the streets of Goma. Some 5,000 newly trained rebels from the Democratic Alliance for the Liberation of Congo Zaire participated in the exercise before being deployed to one of four active fronts.

One in eight of the world’s children – more than 300 million – live in conflict zones where they are at risk of becoming child soldiers, a charity warned on Tuesday, saying boosting school access was vital in fighting forced recruitment.

The United Nations called for a global ceasefire last year to help fight COVID-19, but armed groups have continued fighting in countries including Afghanistan, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Nigeria and Yemen.

Tuesday’s report by charity Save the Children said that during 2020 some 337 million children were living near armed groups and government forces that recruit children.

Nearly 200 million of them live in the world’s deadliest war zones, up 20% from 2019, the report said.

“It’s simply horrifying that in the shadow of COVID-19 and the U.N.’s call for a global ceasefire, more children than ever before are caught in the crosshairs of the deadliest war zones … and more likely to be injured, recruited or killed,” said Inger Ashing, Save the Children International’s chief executive.

The exact number of child soldiers is unknown, but in 2020 more than 8,500 children were recruited and used as fighters or in other roles by mostly non-state armed groups, according to U.N. data, a 10% increase from the previous year.

That number is likely to be only a fraction of actual cases, the charity’s report said.

“Millions of children have known nothing but war with appalling consequences for their mental health, ability to go to school, or access to life-saving services. This is a stain on the international community,” Ashing added in a statement.

The forced recruitment of children for use in armed conflict is considered one of the worst forms of child labour, alongside abuses such as trafficking for sexual exploitation, according to the U.N. International Labour Organization (ILO).

Children are more vulnerable to recruitment as fighters or in roles such as cooks or for sexual exploitation if they are poor or not able to attend school.

Girls, who made up 15% of U.N.-reported cases of recruitment in 2020, often act as spies or suicide bombers and are especially at risk of abuse, according to Save the Children.

The report laid out recommendations for stopping “this war on children” including holding perpetrators of grave violations to account and ensuring access to education to protect children from forced recruitment.

U.N. Special Representative for Children and Armed Conflict Virginia Gamba said earlier this month in a joint statement with the ILO and charity War Child UK that governments must put the needs of children at the centre of COVID-19 recovery plans.

She highlighted the need to put in place child reintegration programmes and support community-led initiatives and organizations working at the frontline.

But Sandra Olsson, reintegration adviser at War Child UK, which works to help children affected by war, said funding remained a major hurdle.

“Many reintegration programmes today only receive funding for 12 months or even less, a period far too short when it comes to building resilience and community action,” Olsson said, urging states and donors to “prioritise this critical work”.

Bridging Africa’s digital divide: The rise of community internet

Students gather around a computer during ICT training for South Sudanese refugees in the West Nile region in Northern Uganda. Thomson Reuters Foundation/Handout courtesy of BOSCO

JOHANNESBURG,- As a child growing up in war-torn northern Uganda, Daniel Komakech’s education was interrupted every time he had to flee rebels and hide in the bush for days to avoid being abducted.

Today, Komakech, 34, helps run a locally owned internet network that ensures villagers in the former conflict zone can study and stay in touch with each other – without unwanted interruptions.

“Accessing the internet was a turning point in my life,” said Komakech, programme coordinator for the non-profit Battery Operated System for Community Outreach (BOSCO), one of a growing number of community-led internet and phone networks in Africa.

“I study courses online, found jobs online … I even learned how to bake cakes for my children. That is the power of the internet, it is my teacher,” he told the Thomson Reuters Foundation by phone.

Decentralised networks – where internet or communication services are localised rather than monopolised by government or corporate giants – give users more control over their data and privacy, researchers say.

Such networks could play a significant role in Africa where internet access is scant and censorship and internet shutdowns pose an increasing risk of “digital authoritarianism”, they say.

About 80% of Europe’s population is connected to the internet, but in many parts of Africa access remains the preserve of a minority, according to the International Finance Corporation.

In Uganda, only 26% of people have online access – one of the lowest rates in sub-Saharan Africa, according to research site DataReportal.

BOSCO, which has grown using a solar-powered system linking satellites to portable computers and internet phones, is funded by donors, but hopes to start selling internet access in the future and becoming a revenue source for communities.

“Decentralised networks are helpful in allowing people to communicate at a local level and they are less prone to surveillance,” said Hanna Kreitem, a senior advisor at the Internet Society, a U.S.-based digital rights nonprofit.

In a report by the Internet Society, 37 community networks initiatives were identified in 12 African countries, from South Africa to Somalia.


Digital rights campaigners say there is space for many more local networks – from rural Africa to internet surveillance hotspots in Australia.

But local groups wanting to launch one face many challenges including cost, policy and regulatory barriers as well as a general lack of awareness about them, according to the Internet Society report.

Getting a commercial licence can be costly and time-consuming, said Sol Luca de Tena, acting chief executive of Zenzeleni Networks NPC, a South African organisation supporting community-owned wireless internet service providers.

“We have shown that community networks can bridge the digital divide but it is difficult to navigate the current regulatory framework,” said Luca de Tena.

“A licence is not easily accessible to rural, lower-income communities,” she added, citing the rural Eastern Cape province where her organisation is based.

Despite the challenges, Zenzeleni has grown each year, serving tens of thousands of devices with each device likely used by multiple family members, she said.

It is also supporting several communities to design and strengthen their networks in different provinces across the country.


Another benefit of community networks is that users can be more confident that their data is not being sold or used by big tech companies without their consent or knowledge, said Komakech.

“We have no intention of monetising our users’ data … we don’t want to lose the trust we have built over 14 years or take advantage of them,” he said.

Growing concern about how tech firms use personal data partly explains the growth of community networks in more developed cities around the world including Barcelona or New York City, digital rights groups say.

Local networks are also less likely to be targeted by surveillance operations, and mesh Wi-Fi messaging apps could allow users to keep talking even if there is a total internet shutdown.

Understanding the legal risks of attempting to bypass shutdowns through tools like VPNs is important in ensuring the safety of citizens, Kreitem told the Thomson Reuters Foundation’s annual Trust Conference on Thursday.

“In Sudan, within the latest shutdown, people who were active online were targeted offline and imprisoned for being able to bypass restrictions,” he said on a panel about the human impact of internet shutdowns.

In Cape Town’s Ocean View township, the iNethi platform uses mesh routers, open-cellular base stations and open-source software to allow residents free access to study material, file sharing and chat rooms.

Local servers in community networks allow people to access and share content even when they have no internet connection – a valuable resource when the cost of data and a fiber connection is prohibitive for many, said Luca de Tena.

Accessing offline content could become more relevant across the continent as internet blackouts increase, researchers say.

There were 25 internet shutdowns in Africa last year, up from 21 a year earlier, according to the African Digital Rights Network (ADRN) think-tank.

In one of the most recent, in the landlocked Kingdom of eSwatini, a government-ordered internet slowdown took hold following pro-democracy protests in July.

Melusi Simelane, a consultant working with the Southern Africa Litigation Centre (SALC), recently took the government to court for shutting down the internet.

He said lifting regulatory barriers was key to fostering more community internet initiatives.

“We need governments to ease up regulation so people can create local, independent network lines, then no one can infringe of people’s rights to express themselves or access information,” Simelane said.