CAMME’s story begins with the story of one family.
Known in Congo as the ‘AFDL War,’ the 1996-1997 conflict that deposed Zairian dictator Mobutu Sese Seko brought Laurent Kabila to power, with his son, Joseph, continuing as president following his assassination in 2001. In Congo in the early 1990s, despite being under the fist of a corrupt tyrant who defrauded his country of billions of dollars, there was at least a sense of stability. People lived normal lives, and in some of the larger cities, a true middle class had begun to emerge. At the time, Christine Lunanga and her family, part of that middle class, were living in Bukavu, South Kivu Province. With the conflict approaching Bukavu, Christine’s father lost his job at Bralima, the local brewing company, where he’d worked as an accountant for many years. Looking for another job, he moved his family to Goma, North Kivu province, and left for Kinshasa, in an attempt to find another job, which he never did.
In 1998, living in the midst of a war, Christine’s family experienced hunger and destitution for the first time; just as they were beginning to recover, Mt. Nyiragongo, one of the world’s most active volcanoes, erupted in 2002, obliterating the city of Goma. The family fled to Rwanda as refugees, going without food or water, and sleeping in shelters made of nothing more than plastic sheets. Returning to Goma, they found that the volcano had destroyed their home, leaving nothing behind. Family photos, birth certificates, diplomas and so much more had been incinerated in an instant.
In the aftermath of the volcano, Christine’s mother lost her job as a nurse, and the family struggled to support seven children. Not long after, a new conflict began, led by a rebel leader named Laurent Nkunda.
Struggling to get by, the family that had once been prosperous, experienced true hardship. Through the experience of sleeping outside, not having food to eat, and being unable to pay even basic school fees, at 19, Christine understood the reality confronting vulnerable children in North Kivu on a daily basis. As she and her family’s living situation slowly improved, in 2005, Christine tried to interest people in the idea of creating an organization to help vulnerable children. Christine’s own mother didn’t understand at first. Why, after all they experienced, would they focus on helping the vulnerable children of others, rather than themselves?
A few believed though, and with the support of her brother Stewart, and her uncle, Pascal, CAMME became a reality in 2007. Each of them were working, and provided a monthly contribution to help children and establish an organization to provide food and education for abandoned and vulnerable children.
Today, CAMME is a registered Congolese NGO providing a safe place for more than 450 children in Goma and in nearby Masisi Territory. Children at CAMME have been orphaned, abandoned, conscripted as child solders, and sexually exploited. The children are offered a variety of vocational training opportunities, psychosocial assistance, and nutritional support. CAMME specifically seeks to help children who have not found help in more traditional rehabilitation centers.
Born in Bukavu, South Kivu in 1985, Christine earned a Bachelor’s Degree in Management Development and Finance, and after interning at a local organization promoting mother and child health, she became an auditor in a local microfinance organization in Goma. After two years, she was promoted and became the organization’s deputy director. After growing up in a relatively prosperous family, a series of conflicts and disasters gave her a sense of the reality faced by vulnerable children on a daily basis, and at the age of 22, she, Stewart Lunanga, and Pascal Bashombana were inspired to create CAMME.
“I understand what suffering means for a child; I lived it myself,” she says. “Experiencing this made me want to fight to improve the lives of those who haven’t had the same opportunities as I have.”
Christine was selected in July 2011 to represent young Congolese women leaders through the Moremi Initiative’s MILEAD Fellows program, attended specialized leadership training in Ghana. Today, she divides her time between Congo and California, and continues to work to expand CAMME’s outreach to children in need, while caring for her two sons.
Pascal was born in South Kivu in April 1977, and after finishing primary school in Bukavu pursued secondary school in Goma. Growing up in a stable family, it was at that point that he first encountered street children, sleeping on the street, sniffing glue, and dependent on alcohol. Seeing these children, he dreamed of doing something to help, and with CAMME, his dream has become real.
Even before working with CAMME, Pascal trained street children in photography, a skill he learned from an American friend.
“I carry CAMME in my heart wherever I go,” he says. “The children we take care of are my family, and my friends, and I love them all.”
Now living full-time in the San Francisco Bay Area with his wife and their son, Pascal is the American face of CAMME, speaking regularly throughout the country on the organization’s work, and helping to expand its services to other children in need.
Originally from Bukavu, Stewart graduated with a Bachelor’s degree in Rural Development from the Higher Institute of Rural Development, in Goma. Following the eruption of Mt. Nyiragongo, ongoing wars, and the devastation in the wake of these events, Stewart worked with Pascal and Christine to develop the idea behind CAMME.
“I first experienced war as a child in the Eastern Congo when refugees came from Rwanda in 1994 and 1995; no child should ever have to see the things I saw during that time,” he says. “Why do children deserve to be victims of things they know nothing about?”
Stewart turned this experience into a desire to make a positive change in the lives of children, children with the same rights to education, food, and health care as children anywhere. In addition to his work with CAMME, Stewart is the founder and director of the Amani Language Center, a school in Goma where he tutors Congolese and foreign students in English, French, and Swahili.