“My children are without a father today because of war. If all these dangerous items left over from war are not cleared, the people are afraid to cultivate their fields, to go search for food or wood in the forests, to go to school, even the trucks can’t circulate, there is no commerce. For this reason, I want to do this job."
The Democratic Republic of Congo has a long history of suffering and misery, and is only now taking the first tentative steps down a long and rough road to stability and development. Much progress needs to be made on all levels of society. Female deminer Mami Mapala Mongongwa, for one, has her feet on the ground and is moving forward...
"In our country, women are often considered like a hindrance to men. They are treated like slaves. There are women who have studied and who have many degrees, but they don’t work because they are women."
- Mami Mapala Mongongwa
[Photos: JB Russell]
Thirty two-year-old Mami Mapala Mongongwa is a female deminer working for MAG in Equateur province. She is part of the technical team currently in Gbadolite clearing the remnants of war. Demining is not a profession usually associated with women, but Mami is one of three female deminers working for MAG in Equateur.
She is also the mother of two girls: eight-year-old Benedicte and four-year-old Kesthia. Four years ago, during Congo’s civil war, a stray bullet killed the father of Mami’s children. Mami was pregnant with Kesthia at the time. She suddenly found herself alone and having to care for two young children.
Mami says, “In our country, women are often considered like a hindrance to men. They are treated like slaves. There are women who have studied and who have many degrees, but they don’t work because they are women. Women in many other countries work though, and I believe that women can do anything a man can do. Women have to work and prove that they are just as good as men and that men should not treat women as inferior.”
Your donation to MAG helps us to employ people like Mami. MAG invests in, trains and employs staff from the local population in order to build a robust and sustainable national workforce. Around 96 per cent of our 3,000-strong staff around the world are natives of the countries in which they work.
Mami studied social humanities and has a state diploma. Following the death of her companion, Mami found temporary work as a cleaner at the MONUC in Bandaka and at the Independent Electoral Commission.
“During the electoral process [2006 presidential elections],” she explains, “I saw many women from other countries coming to work in the different international organisations. I became friends with some women from Ghana who were in the military and who worked for MONUC.
A technical demining team removing a stockpile of munitions and weapons stored by the Congolese Armed Forces (FARDC) in an abandoned Coca-Cola factory in Gbadolite, Equateur Province, earlier this month.
“I thought to myself, they are women and they work in the military which is usually only men and now the work for an international organisation. That motivated me to work as well and they encouraged me.”
“When MAG came to Gemena, I heard that they were recruiting deminers, but people said that the work was reserved for men, but I wanted to apply anyway. When I arrived at MAG, they encouraged women applicants and wanted more women to apply, but many women were afraid to go because they thought the job was too dangerous. They thought they might lose a leg or an arm, but I wanted to work and accepted the risks that came with the job.”
Gbadolite: a sleepy town with a violent past
The sleepy town of Gbadolite lies along the Ubangi River in the far Northwest of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), near the border with the Central African Republic. Gbadolite is the hometown of Mobutu Sese Seko, the former President of Zaire (now the DRC) who ruled the country for 32 years from 1965 to 1997.
From a small village, he built a town with concrete buildings, paved roads, several extravagant residences for himself and the largest airport in Africa, capable of receiving the Concorde. Although Kinshasa is the capital and seat of power, Mobutu often ruled over the country from his sanctuary in Gbadolite.
In the spring of 1997, during the first Congo War, the forces of Laurent-Désiré Kabila and a coalition of allied forces from Rwanda, Burundi, Uganda and Chad arrived in the town on their march west to overthrow the Mobutu regime. Heavy fighting and looting ruined Mobutu’s town and his palaces. Today, Gbadolite is isolated and somewhat forgotten, but the remnants of its violent downfall remain scattered across the region in the form of landmines and unexploded ordnance (UXO) – a legacy that continues to represent a significant danger to the population.
A Community Liaison team from the Congolese NGO Humanitas Ubangi, who are supported by MAG, and a technical demining team from MAG are currently working in the area conducting Mine Risk Education, collecting information about dangerous areas and ridding those areas of mines and UXO.
When MAG established its base in Gemena, 2,016 candidates presented themselves for the job of deminer. Sixteen were chosen to take the training course. Four of the sixteen selected were women. In the end, eight deminers, including two women, were offered contracts with MAG.
Asked if she had second thoughts during the training about being able to do the job and facing the risks, Mami says, “Because of what happened in my life, I didn’t have a choice. I gave my all, body and soul, to this work. I wasn’t married and there was no other work. I had to do the training and for this reason I wasn’t afraid of the risks.
“Mr. Roly Evans [Technical Field Manager] trained us. It’s thanks to him we are what we are. We can’t forget him. Even during the training he always said that we have to give priority to women in this work so that they can progress too. During the training I was able to understand the dangers, but since we were well trained and we followed the procedures that we were taught, the risks are reduced. I’ve been working as a deminer for eight months now and we haven’t had any accidents.”
Nevertheless, the work is demanding. To complete their tasks, the teams are often on long deployments in difficult circumstances around region. Despite her growing confidence, it’s not always easy for Mami.
“With our new boss Arnaud, the work goes well. He considers us all members of the same team. Sometimes though, with the other members of the team, it’s a bit more difficult. They don’t want to give the same responsibility to a woman and don’t consider us the same as them. That can be discouraging at times, but I’m determined to keep going and I hope to train to become an EOD: 2 [Explosive Ordnance Disposal training level].
“That would be quite an accomplishment for us who work in the field. It would be an honor for MAG too if an African girl, or a girl from Congo, could reach higher levels. I’ve gained a great deal of knowledge working for MAG.
“Before, I didn’t even know what a mine or a grenade was. Now if I find something on the side of the road, I know exactly what it is: if it’s a Chinese-made anti-personnel mine or a Russian-made grenade. It’s as if I was blindfolded before and MAG opened my eyes to so many new things. I’m really interested in learning more, going further.
“My children are without a father today because of war. Because of my personal history, I can’t accept that the population suffers the same thing that I have. If all these dangerous items left over from war are not cleared, the people are afraid to cultivate their fields, to go search for food or wood in the forests, to go to school, even the trucks can’t circulate, there is no commerce.
"I’m proud that women work in the society. I want women in the whole world to have the courage to work. Even if they are married, they can help support their families. I’m against those who say that women shouldn’t work."
“For this reason, I want to do this job. For us, the teams who work in the field, we have the will to keep working. There is a lot of work to be done. If the donors keep supporting the teams in the villages and around the country, we’ll keep going until the job is finished and we can cultivate our fields and produce our food and return to a normal life.”
Professional experience and ambition is not the only thing that Mami has gained from working with MAG. “Today, now that I have this work, I depend only on myself. Before, when I didn’t have work, if I needed to buy something for my daughters, I was dependent on a boyfriend or others.
“Now I can take care of my children and I’m self-dependent. I can pay their school fees. I can feed them and clothe them. I manage to live correctly. For me it’s not difficult to balance being a mother to my children and working at the same time. My mother lives with me now and helps take care of the girls when I’m away. I can afford to hire a housekeeper to help with the cleaning and cooking and that also gives a job to another woman.”
The Democratic Republic of Congo has a long history of suffering and misery. In recent decades, a series of civil and region conflicts have devastated the nation and its people even further. The vast country has fabulous wealth and potential, but it is only now taking the first tentative steps down a long and rough road to stability and development.
Much progress needs to be made on all levels of society. Mami Mapala Mongongwa, for one, has her feet on the ground and is moving forward.
“I’m proud that women work in the society. I want women in the whole world to have the courage to work. Even if they are married, they can help support their families. I’m against those who say that women shouldn’t work. We can’t just sit back with our arms crossed depending on the men to work.”
By J.B. Russell
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MAG's work in DRC is supported by: Belgian Ministry of Foreign Affairs; DFID (UK Department for International Development); Dutch Ministry of Foreign Affairs; Guernsey Overseas Aid Commission; Office of Weapons Removal and Abatement, U.S. Department of State; Sida (Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency).