Social work in the Congo: interview with Jean Marie Barhakengera Sigareti

Translated from French to English with Google Translate.

Social work practices do not only concern France, Europe and more broadly rich countries.


We also have to learn from developing countries which are facing severe crises such as food insecurity, child exploitation, political and economic instability or global warming which is hitting the countries of the South hard. from Africa and Latin America.


I invite you to discover and perhaps also support the work of professionals and volunteers engaged in the protection of children and vulnerable people in the Democratic Republic of Congo.


Indeed, I had the opportunity to discuss with Jean Marie Barhakengera Sigareti who is an expert consultant in monitoring resilience activities at the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO). He is also and above all coordinator of the Uthabiti association which has supported 15,568 families in the regions of South and North Kivu, and the province of Tanganyika since 2018.


This map allows you to better locate the country and where the association operates in the eastern regions of the country which border Rwanda, Burundi and Tanzania.


It is also a way of properly measuring the position and size of the country which is four times the size of France. It is the second largest country in Africa after Algeria, and the third most populous country in Africa. It is also the most populous French-speaking country with approximately 95.2 million inhabitants.

The country faces many torments with a complex colonial and political history that I invite you to discover here


The vulnerable population: women, children, but also prisoners


The social situation in the country is very tense. There are major inter-ethnic conflicts, territories that are difficult to access and dangerous if you are not Congolese. Moreover, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in France indicates that North Kivu and South Kivu are "formally not recommended" (in red on the map of levels of vigilance) due to the presence of different armed groups, responsible for atrocities against civilian populations. This does not mean that we cannot act!


Yet this is where the Uthabiti association comes in.

Every day, we see the presence of the association in unstable areas that are even dangerous for the local population.


Also, since last January, Okapi radio has indicated that 324 schools in North Kivu are not accessible to educational activities, based on a report by the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA). This situation has affected the schooling of approximately 100,000 children. Schools have been destroyed during the fighting or damaged by natural disasters and in all cases occupied by armed groups.


Today, let's give the floor to Jean Marie Barhakengera Sigareti to learn more about his commitment and the projects carried out and to come within the Uthabiti association.


What difficulties do you face?


They are multiple, because the situation in the country is very difficult. There are armed militias in the territory where the association operates. Children are often out of school, especially girls because priority (of education) is given to boys, which is not fair. There are many street children in the country who need educational supervision. Poverty and the lack of resources also pose serious difficulties, if only to eat one's fill. Single women with or without children and the elderly are also a priority audience. This leads us to act in several directions by combining charitable action and social work. One does not go without the other.


In concrete terms, who is concerned by social support?


We provide assistance to different communities in 4 directions: education and child protection, health but also agriculture with environmental protection and finally peace and human rights.


On the education and protection of children, there is this reality of street children who absolutely must be protected and educated.


For example, we contributed to the reconstruction of 4 schools which were particularly dilapidated. Because it is the school that brings education to girls and boys.


In terms of health, there is a problem with the lack of drinking water. There are also the deleterious effects of malnutrition.


There are 27 million people in the country, or about a quarter of the population, who have been facing acute food insecurity since September 2021. The association is trying to act to bring urgent and lasting assistance to 15,000 households in the South Kivu. Unfortunately, today, the financial means available have only been able to help 235 families. It is really too little compared to the needs, but we lack the means.


photo: children welcomed and accompanied by the Uthabiti association


Agriculture is a driving force in the fight against malnutrition.


The population is in a very precarious situation. The precariousness for us is first of all food with the protection of children in distress, malnourished children, especially street children, or even children selling water in exchange for cassava. In the Democratic Republic of Congo, it has been estimated that 3.3 million children under the age of 5 suffer from acute malnutrition.


Peace and Human Rights.


There is of course the right to education, but it can only exist if the communities live together in peace. Thanks to the support of the association for the supervision of peasants in Congo (AEPCO), Uthabiti has succeeded in bringing together communities and groups in conflict to analyze together possible mechanisms to promote peace and community cohesion. We also organized peace circles, peace games to sensitize communities to reconcile and cultivate peace. We must also fight against child labour.

How are you funded?


We are a recent association which was born from a desire to act in the face of interethnic conflicts in the areas where we operate.


We receive local funding from individuals and businesses as well as development aid through the UN. We work with the authorization of government authorities in the 3 provinces. For this, our actions must be “aligned” with the social action policies of the State, which is the case. Our country has standards in connection with the Ministry of Social Affairs, Humanitarian Action and National Solidarity (MAS). For example for the training of social workers.


The National Institute of Social Work (INTS) provides initial and continuing training in the social field.


It aims to develop action and applied research in social work. It offers a varied range of training in the professions of social service assistant (contributes to preventive and protective actions, to social expertise by fighting against exclusion); specialized educator (qualified professional capable in a socio-educational approach of helping children, young people or any individual in difficulty to develop their potential); local social development facilitator (qualified professional who participates in the design and implementation of collective actions).


What are your priorities today?


We need to work with several distinct audiences. A major priority concerns child protection and the integration of children who live on the streets, but there are also people who live in prison.


Many of them are neglected and the state does not pay enough attention to them. Some may die of starvation and malnutrition. Their situation is very problematic. We also need to support senior citizens. They are without social protection and only their families can possibly help them. But with the conflicts, there is also a need to protect in homes widowed women who are old and without any means of subsistence. Finally, there is all the work to be done with the communities. There are about 450 tribes in our country, almost all of whom use a different dialect. We must help them to live together in peace.


Some conflicts are tribal conflicts with communities wanting to grab land from another.


For example, breeders who need spaces used by farmers. Solutions are possible through the dialogue and negotiation that we promote. But this is unfortunately not always the case and violence can quickly come, especially in areas where armed groups operate. Each time, it is the most vulnerable who are in danger. We are trying to enhance their security through mediation. But I remind you, the standard of living of the population is very low. Going back to our priorities, I think it is first and foremost the street children. We have to look for places of reception or create them, because the needs are really great and there is a lack of structures.


And your needs?


Of course, we need support, this requires donations, but also support allowing us to better carry out our mission with the population. All initiatives are good when they go in this direction.


To support the Uthabiti association: Help the populations of North and South Kivu


Contacts :

Jean Marie Barhakengera Sigareti (jeanmarie.barhakengera@uthabiti.com)

Virginie Rapin, correspondent for France for the Uthabiti association (virginie@uthabiti.com)

discover the team on the association's website