DR Congo

A small bridge delivers big benefits in eastern DRC

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Maibano is a small town in the South Kivu Province of eastern Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), hardly big enough to show up on a country map. But to 8,000 local residents, it is a vital marketplace and a major economic hub, providing staple foods for vulnerable families and cash incomes to help pay for children's education and health care.

It is also the site of the Maibano Maternity and Referral Health Center, one of only a handful of operational health centers in Bunyakiri Health Zone, an area in desperate need of primary health care services.

From late 2000 to early 2005, however, one of the town's two bridges was impassable, and the absence of this single link in the chain of local support systems had a devastating impact on residents' economic and physical well-being.

DRC is the third largest country in Africa, stretching from the Great Lakes in the east to the Atlantic Ocean in the west. The mountainous eastern side of the country is blanketed by thick jungle, which numerous rebel groups have used for years to evade capture by government and UN troops.

As in many parts of Africa, access to health services in eastern DRC is hugely hindered by a lack of transportation infrastructure. In fact, isolation from food and basic medical care contributed to 90% of the estimated 3.3 million deaths resulting from DRC's 1997 to 2002 war, helping to make it the deadliest war in modern Africa's history.

When IMC initiated activities here in 2002, only a footpath connected Maibano to Bunyakiri town, home of the nearest referral hospital, eight kilometers away. In collaboration with the local chief and the district health office, IMC soon mobilized the local community to widen the path into a road, thereby connecting the two towns by automobile.

But food and medical supplies could still only be delivered as far as the bridge, at which point locals would have to transport the goods on their heads for the remaining five kilometers. Likewise, patients in need of emergency referral to Bunyakiri Hospital suffered a lengthy and dangerous detour.

So in February 2004, IMC helped the local population initiate a bridge reconstruction project. IMC provided materials, transportation and technical expertise, while the local population performed all of the construction, even continuing the work when IMC had to temporarily suspend its DRC program in 2004 because of rebel attacks on relief agencies.

The new bridge, which is only a few meters long, has already transformed life for Maibano's residents. It has facilitated the flow of essential vaccines, medications and medical supplies into town and expedited IMC ambulance service between the Maibano Maternity and Referral Health Center and Bunyakiri Hospital for complicated pregnancies and other cases that cannot be handled by health center staff.

In addition, the bridge has shaved kilometers off the commute to market, contributing to the economic development and nutritional well-being of the local community. It has also helped children commute to and from school more safely and improved the general security of the area, as government forces are now able to more freely circulate.

At a cost of less than $4,000 to build, the bridge will support health care and livelihoods activities in Maibano for many years to come.