Reference : V-P-CD-E-00966
Date : 02/01/2009
Caption : Goma. Mama Bona, a volunteer for the Congo-Kinshasa Red Cross, with her children, grandchildren and the unaccompanied children and orphans in her care.
Photographer : HAVIV, Ron
Confidentiality level : public
Publication restrictions : reserved users only
Copyright : ICRC/VII
Description : At each new conflict in her country, Mama Bona has taken care of unaccompanied or orphaned children. Often, she puts them in the care of foster families. When none is available, they are welcome to her own house.

"Each time there is a war in Congo, women get raped and children are left on their own. They are homeless and live like vagrants." Sitting in the small hut which is her house cum office in Sake, a North Kivu town, Mama Bona, 49, spoke with her usual decisiveness. For 15 years now, the Congo Red Cross volunteer had been looking after the lost children of repeated conflict, Congolese as well as Rwandans. She knew what she was talking about.

"Take little Baraka", she said, showing a very tiny baby girl who was feebly crying at the breast of another woman, seated opposite her. "I was going with other volunteers to bury the people who had been killed by armed men and left on the road and in the fields, last November. I met this woman. She told me she had found the baby on the body of her mother who had just given birth - before being killed. She asked me what to do. I said: you are breastfeeding your own baby, aren't you? So keep this little one, and I will help you."

It all started in the early 1990es, when the war in Rwanda had spilled over to the Eastern Congo. Among those fleeing, those dying, there were the thousands of children left on their own. "The Red Cross opened an orphanage in Kirotshe. We would register the children, try to reunite them with their families whenever possible. But soon, we realized an orphanage was not the best solution, the children felt abandoned - and then we did not have enough space. So we turned to foster families."

This was a natural solution in the local culture, where the notion of family is flexible and the children are often raised by a whole village. Mama Bona would contact the local chief and together, they would identify suitable foster families, who would then take care of the child. In the best case, until some relative could be located. Often, until the child would grow up.

"God has given me this gift, to help children. In all, there have been 158 until now. Everybody around here knows about Mama Bona, and they bring me the unaccompanied children." Typically, Mama Bona will supervise a number of other Red Cross volunteers who, in turn, are in charge of ten to 15 foster families. And when things go wrong, it is to her that everybody turns.

"When the child is sick and needs medicine, when there is not enough food, when there is no money to pay for the school, they come to me. It is difficult. I am myself a widow, with little resources. But I somehow always manage to help. People trust me, and are ready to give used clothes, food, whatever it takes."

That day, Noella Senawema, who looked after little Baraka, had come with a serious problem. The baby was sick, and she had no food for her, Noella said. Actually, the baby looked seriously malnourished. "The foster mother does not have enough milk for two babies, said Mama Bona. She is a war widow with six children of her own, and cannot afford baby formula."

The Red Cross volunteer handed to Noella money for formula, and told her to come the following Thursday to the local feeding centre for malnourished babies. "Baraka will soon improve", she said confidently.

When no foster family was available, Mama Bona has opened wide her other house, in a crowded Goma neighbourhood. Four Rwandan children, aged eight to 16, have now lived with her for years, "and they all go to school", she said proudly. At her initiative, her own brothers have fostered lost children

There was also little St├ęphanie. "She was just three days old when her mother died from a bullet wound, said Mama Bona. Just like baby Baraka. My eldest daughter had just delivered. So I gave St├ęphanie to her, and now she is a beautiful little girl of 18 months." With her own 12 children, her grand-children of whom she had momentarily lost count, and all those she had dispatched right and left to foster families, she looked like Mama Africa herself.

Original material : digital
Resolution : 5616x3744
Orientation : landscape
Colour/B&W : colour

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