The news coming out of the Democratic Republic of the Congo is seldom positive. "Africa's World War" has plagued the country since 1960, when the DRC gained independence from Belgium. Through the ensuing decades, Congolese have lived in near-constant fear of displacement, rape, and death at the hands of militias or newly ousted armies.
In such a volatile region, access to basics such as routine health care has been difficult. Now, doctors, international NGOs, and privately funded clinics are working to change that.
Goma, eastern DRC: A nurse checks on a prematurely born baby at Heal Africa, a private hospital financed by international donations. | (Monique Jaques)
Bulengo IDP (Internally Displaced People) Camp: Hundreds of thousands of IDPs live at the camp, which hosts health facilities mainly staffed with Doctors Without Borders volunteers. | (Monique Jaques)
Photographer Monique Jaques visited a number of medical sites after speaking with health care officials in Goma, the eastern capital of DRC. She spent several days at each location, getting to know the doctors, meeting with patients, and documenting health care providers in action.
"I was interested in [finding out] what was working, what wasn't, and what the major impediments still were to reaching goals like basic health care for all," says Jaques, who covered the assignment as a 2014 reporting fellow with the International Women's Media Foundation.
One of the biggest challenges for health care providers, Jaques says, is transitioning from war-time trauma care to everyday, basic assistance for patients who often live in rural areas.
"Many of the women I spoke to traveled for days to reach a clinic or hospital," she says. "(Another) obstacle is rural medicine, in which local elders use herbal remedies to treat serious injuries. By the time the patients reach a Western medical facility, it is often too late."
Goma: A woman waits at Heal Africa's outpatient house to have a fistula surgery. Congolese women with fistulas are often ostracized by their families. | (Monique Jaques)
Goma: A mother and her baby wait for the Heal Africa free clinic to open. | (Monique Jaques)
Such challenges are often exacerbated by the still-constant cloud of conflict in the country. And yet, Jaques says, she was surprised to find a pervasive optimism about the future.
"After years of conflict, the Congolese are amazingly enterprising and forward-looking, not mired in the past," she says. "Those living in refugee camps told stories of malnourishment and lack of education during the leanest years. They said they were glad to leave those times behind and look toward development and stabilization."
Bulengo Camp: A Doctors Without Borders teacher explains the benefits of proper personal hygiene to a class. | (Monique Jaques)
Goma: Women pose for a portrait at Heal Africa's outpatient house for fistula surgeries. | (Monique Jaques)
Jaques says she hopes her project will infuse some empathy and positivity into the global perspective on the DRC. Viewers can now put faces and stories to the broad headlines. They meet mothers patiently waiting with their children for a doctor's appointment — refugees who have survived unspeakable horrors, yet are looking ahead with hope.
"The news coverage coming out of the DRC is based on violence, and it perpetuates the cycle of negative ideas about the region," Jaques says. "(But) a very important element of this story is that at-risk nations can and are trying to develop."
Bulengo Camp: A woman looks into the Doctors Without Borders clinic area. | (Monique Jaques)
Goma: A mother and her son, who was born malnourished, rest in Heal Africa shortly before being discharged. | (Monique Jaques)