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Opala in DRC’s Eastern Province is a district that includes many scattered villages along the Lomami River, a tributary of the majestic Congo River, deep in the equatorial forest. The only viable way in or out is by river, crossing the Equator each time.
People live by subsistence agriculture and fishing. Opala’s rice fetches premium prices in towns like Kisangani, 550 kms down-river, and faraway Kinshasa, but transport is limited to overloaded dugout canoes ('pirogues'), lashed together. The 'rice-boats' make the 2-week journey to market in Kisangani and take a further 3 weeks for the return journey against the flow of the rivers.
Opala's forest communities still suffer from the after-effects of the recent civil war, which destroyed what little infrastructure they had - including their hospital. Average life expectancy is about 40 years, and infant mortality in the area is close to 30%. Hygiene is a major challenge, as are tuberculosis, neo-natal tetanus, malaria, water-borne disease and — in the aftermath of years of civil war and the Rwandan-Burundian-Ugandan occupation — HIV/AIDS.
Slideshow of journey to Opala, Eastern Province, DRC, October 2011.
Six competent and energetic young Oblates are responsible for developing various health and education services in Opala, including a maternity unit, located beside a clinic (also managed by the Oblates) in the village of Yaoleka. The village community provided the site and the Oblates undertook to construct, equip and staff a small maternity hospital. They are doing so in partnership with local authorities and are answerable to the chief medical officer. The nearest hospital to Opala is 280 kms away in Isangi, and can only be reached by river.
Today, thanks to a grant of €80,186 (75% of the total cost) from Misean Cara, work on the new maternity hospital has been completed, and the unit was officially opened at the end of February 2012. (The photograph was taken 4 months earlier, during construction.)