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In Congo, Many Can No Longer Afford to Eat Every Day

The New York Times reported today that many residents of Kinshasa, capital of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), have adopted strict food rationing schedules—some family members eat one day, other family members eat the next.

Extreme measures such as this one, called délestage (French for “power cut”), have become necessary in poorer households in the DRC, a nation that, according to the report, is suffering from record-breaking food insecurity:

Ten years ago, even poor Congolese could expect to eat one substantial meal a day — perhaps cassava, a starchy root, with some palm oil, and a little of the imported frozen fish that is a staple here. But in the last three years, even that certainty has dropped away, said Dr. Eric Tollens, an expert on nutrition in Congo at the Katholieke Universiteit Leuven in Belgium, where he is an emeritus professor at the Center for Agricultural and Food Economics.

Dr. Tollens blamed the “total neglect of agriculture by the government,” which is fixated on the lucrative extraction of valuable minerals like copper and cobalt. Less than 1 percent of the Congolese national budget, he said, goes to agriculture. Foreign donors finance “all agricultural projects,” he said, and “massive amounts of food” are imported in this rich land, so food is expensive.

In fact, as Bread for the World Institute reported in its 2011 Hunger Report, in the years since 1997, when longtime dictator Mobutu Sese Seko was deposed, the country been suffering through a terrible cycle of violence and food insecurity:

Despite a large peacekeeping presence, sporadic violence continues to threaten the lives of tens of thousands of people in the DRC. Economic growth has been slow but positive since 2002, a welcome sign given the connections between conflict and growth rates. Yet enormous challenges remain. The country has the highest rate of hunger of any country in the world: Seventy percent of the population is undernourished. Violence against women, including rape, is pervasive.

Most disturbing is the effect of délestage on the children of the DRC, particulary because malnourished children under 2 years old suffer irreversible damage to their physical and cognitive development. Ghislaine Berbok, one of the parents interviewed for the Times story, demonstrates grim resolve when asked about how her children are coping with the food restrictions. “Yes, sure they ask for food, but we don’t have any … at night they will be weak … But there is nothing we can do.”

Jeannie Choi is associate editor at Bread for the World.


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