A single Congolese mother finds her feet after returning from exile

Telling the Human Story, 29 July 2009

© UNHCR/D.Nthengwe
Mawuwa (in orange top) chats with her colleagues at the Matata vocational centre.

BARAKA, Democratic Republic of the Congo, July 29 (UNHCR) Mawuwa felt confused and scared when she returned to the eastern Congolese province of South Kivu after spending a decade in refugee camps across Lake Tanganyika in Tanzania. "It was like diving into the deep blue sea without a life jacket," the 22-year-old recalled of her arrival in December 2006 by ferry at this lakeside port.

Mawuwa's concern about the future in a country she had fled 10 years earlier was understandable, but she had more reason to worry than most she was pregnant and unmarried at the time. "I worried most about the future of my child who had come too soon for me, without a husband to support us," the soft-spoken young woman said.

"My parents decided it was time we went back home. So I had to leave school again," Mawuwa said, adding: "I was 19 with a baby on the way, and without any education or skill. I was a liability."

The baby, a girl, was born in March 2007, three months after their arrival in Baraka. The father, a fellow refugee in Tanzania, went his own way and Mawuwa found herself a single mother, with no qualifications, in a remote region of the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) that lacked basic infrastructure and employment opportunities after years of conflict. Things looked grim.

"My parents are old. They were not working and I was not working. So, when the baby arrived, I did not have enough money to go to hospital for the delivery. I did not even have a piece of cloth to cover her," Mawuwa recalled. "Food was hard to find. I was breast-feeding and I needed to eat a lot to have milk. But there was never enough for me to eat. I was always waiting for food and help from the World Food Programme."

© UNHCR/D.Nthengwe
A refugee returnee learns how to bake bread in a brick oven.

She and her family also received aid packages from UNHCR and other humanitarian organizations on their return home, but Mawuwa realized this would not last forever and that they must try to become self-sufficient. "I had to do something about my fears, or return to Tanzania."

But just as Mawuwa was fighting the temptation to go back across Lake Tanganyika, her luck and her life changed when she was told about a vocational centre set up two years ago in Baraka by the international organization, Women for Women International, with funding from UNHCR.

The Matata Vocational Centre helps the most vulnerable women those with disabilities, victims of sexual violence and single mothers like Mawuwa to learn a trade that will enable them to find employment or open a business, and so provide for their families. Courses include baking, soap making, embroidery, knitting, agro-business and animal husbandry as well as adult literacy.

Mawuwa was accepted for the adult literacy classes and the baking course 15 months ago. She was such an excellent student that the centre asked her to become a trainer. "I do not just bake. I also train newcomers to acquire skills in baking. I teach them how to organize a bakery and how to knead dough."

She also uses her skills to earn a living and provide for her infant daughter, who will soon start school thanks to her mother's hard work. "I sell bread in the markets around Baraka and other towns," explained Mawuwa, who lives just outside Baraka. Her parents help in the burgeoning bakery business.

Mawuwa, who was aged eight at the time, does not remember much about her flight to Tanzania aside from the fact that she and her parents crossed Lake Tanganyika, one of the world's deepest and largest freshwater lakes, by boat. The family found shelter in Lugufu camp.

"At first, it felt normal, like it was our home. But then, when I was older, I realized that we were called wakimbizi [refugees]," Mawuwa said, adding that she always remained optimistic about the future. "I realized that I was not going to stay in Tanzania forever, that some day we would go back to our country."

Today, Mawuwa has got over her initial fears, thanks largely to her new life as a small-time businesswoman. Despite the challenges ahead she is upbeat about life back in South Kivu, which remains volatile but more stable than North Kivu.

She may no longer have the safety net of the refugee camp, but she is free, back in her own land and making enough money to lead a relatively comfortable life. "Now, I am eating very well, my child is also well fed . . . and when my child or parents are ill, I have enough to take them to the clinic."

By David Nthengwe in Baraka, Democratic Republic of the Congo