Peter Mosher, PEACE Executive Director
As someone who previously lived in nearby Cameroon as a Peace Corps volunteer, I had always been curious about the Congo DRC. The country is massive, by area the largest country in Africa and eleventh-largest in the world. It has one of the world’s richest stores of natural resources, including commodities like oil and rare minerals. Yet it is also plagued by underdevelopment, even by African standards. It has the ninth lowest GDP per capita in the world and, despite its size, doesn’t have a single road that runs from one side of the country to the other. Some of the country’s underdevelopment undoubtedly traces back to its uniquely brutal colonial history under Belgian rule (per a pillar text of African history, King Leopold’s Ghost by Adam Hochschild). My interest in the DRC made me all the more excited to meet Gloria Mwenge, the coordinator of Uwezo Wetu, a local nonprofit in the county’s Eastern Kivu province back in February.
As a government conservation worker in the Congo DRC’s Eastern Province of Kivu, Gloria regularly leaves the comfort her home in the city of Bukavu to venture deep into the jungle of Kahuzi-Biéga National Park, sometimes for weeks on end. Congo’s jungles are the largest remaining safe havens for some the world’s most treasured endangered species, such as African elephants and gorillas. Gloria has a deep passion for protecting the country’s forests and its inhabitants, both to prevent their extinction, and also, as a byproduct, to promote Congo’s tourism industry.
While venturing into the country’s interior, however, Gloria has also developed deep passion for another issue: low living standards in some of Kivu’s most rural villages. As resources from international organizations like the WWF pour into the national park, Gloria feels that people in these communities have been neglected. “There has been a lot of conflict and war for these people. Many of them feel hopeless,” she told me in our first meeting. “Congo is rich in natural resources, but many people don’t see any of the country’s wealth. They end up destroying the environment for resources like lumber with the government’s approval. People don’t know what else to do.”
What Gloria saw in Kivu’s rural villages eventually inspired her to found her own nonprofit, Uwezo Wetu, with three other founders in 2019, “to provide a solution-based response to local problems,” she told me during our first meeting. Gloria is full of ideas: “We are interested in teaching people income generating activities, like waste management, and also want to focus on idle youth.” In 2019, Uwezo Wetu also quickly succeeded in implementing a small project, funded by a local church, to provide feminine hygiene products to several dozen girls in a rural village, and also give them a training on peace building and environmental education.
However, building a nonprofit from the ground up is challenging, particularly in a country like Congo. “I have a full-time job and have several children at home” Gloria told me. “It has been a challenge to get other people on board with the project. People may say they’re interested but don’t always end up being as committed as I am. All the money and time we have sunk into this organization comes from the founders’ personal contributions. Everyone is busy, and has bills to pay, so it’s difficult to ask them to do too much work.” Despite the founders’ efforts, they have yet to succeed with attaining another funded grant. “What is most frustrating is seeing that there’s a possibility to make a difference in the community, but bureaucracy or people’s egos get in the way,” Gloria confides.
The COVID crisis has added onto these challenges. Gloria told me that she’s felt angered by raising death figures in local hospitals, and frustrated with national lockdowns: in a country where many people live hand-to-mouth, many had little choice but to eschew local lockdown rules and risk exposure to the virus to put food on the table. COVID also impacted Gloria’s work, leading her to feel caged at home while poachers set snare traps for the gorillas in the national park, and as some of Uwezo Wetu’s funding streams were interrupted. PEACE’s partnership with Gloria was also impacted, as national lockdowns prevented us from holding training sessions on Zoom and messaging regularly over WhatsApp.
PEACE’s partnership with Gloria in 2020 focused on her needs to get a small grant proposal funded, a goal that we established together during early work planning meetings in February. This spring and summer, we held five training sessions on the topic of proposal writing, including specific modules on SMART goals, developing project evaluation plans, and identifying funding sources. While our partnership unfornunately moved slowly due to Congo’s COVID lockdowns and poor internet access, Uwezo Wetu succeeded applying for two grants. While neither was approved, we continue to learn from our experience and improve accordingly. This month, we will hold two more training sessions; one on project design with a focus on sustainable impact, and the other on project marketing, continuing to work towards our original goal.
“I’m satisfied with the trainings, and appreciate the patience and understanding,” Gloria told comments. “We will reframe our objectives and goals to be more realistic, and have practical project monitoring plans. We will use what we learned when drafting new projects and collaborating with partners.” Gloria tells us she’s eager to continue the partnership, and says that, in the future, the partnership can focus on trainings on NGO management, and on helping Uwezo Wetu to gain funding.
I also look forward to working with Gloria. She is a charismatic, hardworking, and trustworthy leader, and I can personally sympathize with the challenges she faces while starting a nonprofit. I believe that if Uwezo Wetu can succeed with a small, well-executed funded project, it can be a major stepping stone that can give Uwezo Wetu the credibility and experience it needs to scale up and woo donors going forward. Onwards and upwards, Gloria!