Fighting poverty is a passion for a Nanaimo couple trying to make a difference in the Democratic Republic of Congo.
Mike and Amy Boomer visited the country for a year on a business visa, starting in October 2010, to work with the poor.
Mike, a former youth pastor for ET Family Church, began forming the Wezesha Project, a micro-finance charity, to enable women to work for themselves and grow their business to support their family.
Amy, a registered nurse in the emergency department at Nanaimo Regional General Hospital, took unpaid leave of absence and volunteered in local clinics, mentored young staff members and learned about treating tropical diseases.
“The Congo is one of the poorest countries in the world and we just wanted a chance to use our skills,” said Amy. “We saw the need for aid and help in the region.”
Amy volunteered at two clinics, the Nguba and Mudaka clinics and taught for a day at the Institut Supѐrier des Techniques Mѐdicales, in Kinshasa.
Her emergency medical skills helped save the life of a boy who was struck by a truck outside the Mudaka clinic.
Clinic staff heard the impact of the truck hitting the child outside and a crowd of people ran in clinic with the boy.
Staff panicked because they didn’t know how to handle the situation, they were used to dealing with disease treatment. Amy leapt into action and took the boy for treatment.
“Two of the nurses were running around screaming – there was no one in the room with the child and myself,” she said. “The doctor thought it was his responsibility to track down the vehicle and left the clinic.”
The boy had facial trauma and lacerations, but treating him was difficult because he only spoke Swahili and there was no translator. Once the doctor returned and she was able to treat the child better, he did well and was taken to a local hospital to continue recovering.
After the incident, Amy taught the staff what to do in an emergency situation.
She was struck by the number of preventable diseases left untreated because of lack of education, unsanitary conditions and poverty preventing people accessing medical care or medication.
Although clinic visits were about $1 to $2, even that sum was out of reach for many residents, she said.
Mike Boomer’s Wezesha Project enables people to earn money for food and proper medical treatment.
The project is modelled after Grameen Bank model, created in the mid-1970s to provide credit to the poor.
Mike, who graduated from Vancouver Island University in 2009 with a Bachelor of Arts majoring in global studies, worked on a similar project during an internship in Uganda.
The Boomers launched the Wezesha Project last January, volunteering with Emergency Relief and Development Overseas to initiate the effort.
The loan system started small with about 20 women applying and now has 425 participating.
It’s meant to empower women to use their skills to expand their businesses, whether they sell a few bags of coal in the street or own a shop, and better support their families. Interest is a 10-per cent flat rate – a loan of $50 is repaid at $55.
ERDO saw the potential for future work on the Wezesha Project initiative and Mike was hired as micro-finance coordinator last October.
ERDO is a registered Canadian charity that works in more than 35 countries to provide short-term relief during crisis situations and long-term development in communities affected by severe poverty.
Gillian Rumney, ERDO program officer, said the needs of people in the Democratic Republic of Congo are overwhelming and many people suffer in poverty.
“People are smart, inventive, willing to work and often simply need an opportunity to turn their lives around,” said Rumney. “This program allows women, who have the ability and desire to build small business, access the funding they need to do it.”
Wezesha’s first lending post was established in Bukavu, a city in the South Kivu Province. Bukavu was chosen because it is a relatively safe city that receives a steady influx of refugees who struggle to get by after leaving everything behind.
There are now two in the city and one in Kiliba village near Uvira in the south.
“All of these families, especially women and children, are flooding into the city for safety,” said Mike.
He said many of the women are struggling to pay for rent, food, medical supplies and schooling for their children.
Mama Nzigiri, who lives in Muhungu, was one of those women.
She lives in a small home with her husband, who suffers from diabetes and is paralyzed on the left half of his body because of a stroke, and eight of her 14 children.
The loan enabled her to expand her small kiosk where she sells salt, sugar, soap and fresh cakes. She now has enough money to buy medication for her husband and send her children to school.
The goal is for Wezesha to be locally run and driven, with the loan interest paying for the local staff and office and funding future demand for loans. Within the next two years, Mike said he hopes it becomes self-sustaining and eventually the local lenders can manage without input.
Mike is returning to the Democratic Republic of Congo at the end of this month. Rumney said ERDO appreciates the dedication of the Boomers.
“We look forward to year two working with the Boomers and trust that many more women and their children are touched by the opportunity to be part of Wezesha,” said Rumney.
Initially, the Boomers raised $70,000 through fundraising and their own money to start the project. This year, they need to raise another $180,000 to meet the needs of growing loan demands.
For more information on the project, please go to www.wezeshaproject.org or to donate go to www.erdo.ca.