For one African, good life is helping others
One Congolese man forgoes life of luxury to help fellow Africans in some of the continent's worst hot spots.
Kerfi, Chad — The climate is brutal. The situation is tense – the country is teetering on the edge of a humanitarian disaster.
For Germain Lubango Kabemba, this is just another day.
The Congolese humanitarian worker leads two other foreigners and more than 30 national staff for Médecins Sans Frontières-Holland in the market town of Kerfi, Chad, which is now home to thousands of refugees who fled nearby villages after Sudan's Darfur tragedy spread into Chad months ago.
His job is to provide basic healthcare and services to a population that has been cut off from all other international aid since the rainy season began here in July. He has also become skilled in the subtle diplomacy needed to help both te area's black tribes and Arabs whose tit-for-tat raids wrought havoc in the area and caused the current dilemma.
Mr. Kabemba has done similar work in some of Africa's most deadly and remote conflict areas, including Sudan, Somalia, northern Uganda, Nigeria, and, his native country, the Democratic Republic of Congo. And, as an African serving among mostly Western aid workers, his role as a leader has helped bolster the credibility of frontline aid missions on the continent.
"When they see me sharing almost the same life as them, [the local people] respect that," he says. "Still, if I compare my own condition to that of the people here, it's 10 times better, so I won't complain. For me it's not a big burden. It's part of my commitment to MSF."
Kabemba is one of nine children who grew up in Goma, one of the epicenters of fighting in eastern Congo, that has resulted in hundreds of thousands being killed in the past 10 years. "Where I was born – in the bush – my father couldn't pay our school fees," he says. But Kabemba worked hard and was the only child to go to university.
He could've gone into a lucrative field, emigrated to the West, and lived a prosperous life. But, Kabemba says he always felt driven to give back.
"I'm from a country where people suffer a lot, so I feel compelled to help."
One of the toughest experiences of his life, he says, came in 1994 when nearly half a million Hutu refugees involved in Rwanda's genocide fled across the border to Goma in one day. Nearly 50,000 died within days after an outbreak of cholera in what became infamous as "the camp of death."
One night, he was stranded alone in a sprawling camp of refugees. As people queued up by the hundreds, he treated patients as well as he could, forgetting for the moment that many of them were the same people who had slaughtered more than 800,000 Tutsis in Rwanda just days earlier.
He says the strength to treat hundreds of patients throughout that night came from the thought that he could have been one of the sufferers. After all, it happened in his hometown. "The hope in their eyes gave me strength."
To cope with tragedy, you have to remain positive, he says. "You have to laugh and keep smiling."
In Chad, Kabemba has been a bridge between the national and foreign staff members, who tend to be from the US or Europe, says John Fiddler, an Irish-American nurse form New York who runs the local health center. "When working in an African context, you have to understand it," says Kabemba.
But working in conflict zones and witnessing the suffering has taken its toll. "Sometimes it becomes too much," Kabemba says. So he takes breaks to go to Europe or Kenya. "I go alone so as not to stress out the family," he says, explaining how he demands a minimum of three months back home with the family before going to the next mission.
Still, such a lifestyle is hard on his wife and four children back in Congo. They miss him, but they understand the importance of the work he's doing, he says. His eldest daughter, in particular, looks forward to e-mail updates of how he's helped people.
Another way he deals with stress, he says, is to pressure other aid groups to help. "The rainy season made this place forgotten," he says. "Some people say: 'Forget about helping them, it is not possible [to reach them].' This is unacceptable. If we are here, others should be here," explaining that MSF-Holland often goes to places other groups don't go and pressures them to help.
Although MSF-Holland has no religious affiliation, Kabemba says his Christian faith forms part of his desire to help.
"From my faith I realize that the people suffering are the same as me," he says, explaining that he attends any Christian church available wherever he happens to be. "Every Christian should have the same mission."
"Giving help to others is more than everything to me," he says. "I hope God will multiply the efforts so others can see that we can change our lives if we wish."