Christine Lunanga is a slim, soft-spoken young African woman. When she dresses in her traditional, colorful garb, she is beautiful. And when she speaks about CAMME, the nonprofit she founded when she was just 22 years old, she is fiery and passionate, and one can glimpse the determination and heart it has taken her to be a strong, successful woman fighting for others in the midst of her war-torn country.
CAMME is a French acronym that translates to "The Center to Support Exploited Youth." Christine started the organization, she says, because of what she lived through as a child. Growing up amid the trauma of war in the Democratic Republic of Congo, her family was constantly at risk. When her father abandoned them while she was still a young child, her mother struggled to support seven kids on a nurse's salary – and nurses are rarely paid at all in Congo.
When Mount Nyiragongo erupted in 2002, Christine's hometown of Goma and all of her family's possessions were destroyed. The Lunangas became refugees, fleeing to Rwanda and scraping by for years to find a way to support themselves in a place with constantly escalating violence, poverty and human rights atrocities.
The Democratic Republic of Congo is a nation that has seen its incredible potential and wealth shattered by decades of dictatorship, corruption, war and natural disaster. CAMME's website points out that the young victims of all of these are often an afterthought.
As Christine transitioned from childhood to adulthood, she noticed the children whose lives were ruined because of the fights of others. Girls raped and left for dead, babies dying from hunger, young boys forced to become soldiers, to kill and die too young.
"Seeing all of this made me think it was time to do something for these children, who were living in such a difficult situation," she says. She founded CAMME in 2007.
Launching the organization was not easy. Christine met with resistance from pretty much all sides. At first, her mother could not understand why she spent her time and hard-earned money on other children. Christine explains, "She was like, ‘Instead of helping us at home, you're helping these children when you don't even know where they're from!'" Slowly, her mother came to understand and be supportive. Now she volunteers her professional skills as a nurse, providing medical care for the CAMME children.
Things were even more difficult because she is a woman. Men in Congo tried to use her desire to raise funds for CAMME as a way to take advantage of her – emotionally and sexually. Fortunately she was too smart for that. People in her community called her a man, because they felt she was doing man's work. And they did not say it in a proud way.
In addition to providing food, medical care, counseling and a place to stay, CAMME helps its children get a basic education. The organization also runs vocational programs in sewing, carpentry, mechanics, and more to enable them to create a brighter and more stable future. Currently Christine and CAMME are helping approximately 400 children succeed, amid close to impossible circumstances.
Her favorite story is that of a girl called Nadine, who now supports herself as a mechanic. "Which is really weird for women in Congo," Christine explains. "Things like mechanics and carpentry, women just don't do that."
When Nadine was six, her parents died, and she was raped and left for dead. By chance, someone found her and helped her get to the nearest town of Goma.
A host family close to Christine's home took Nadine in, and she spent her adolescence taking care of this family's children.
"One day, she asked me ‘I heard you help many people to study. I want to study,'" Christine recalls. "She told me she doesn't even know how to write. She was crying when she said to me, ‘I need help.'"
Christine used her influence as an educated, respected young woman (university-educated women are few and far between in Congo), to convince Nadine's host to let her go to school. Nadine came to CAMME and chose the mechanics program.
Success stories like Nadine's prove the impact that can be made when young people are given opportunities to make a better life. This is the vision Christine has for CAMME.
"The more people that join me," she says, "The more I feel I'm doing something important for the lives of these children."
Christine is able to entice around six volunteers per year to come from overseas. They teach the children, work with the local community, and work to find funds in the U.S. and abroad. Additionally, there are 15 Congolese staff people that work for free full-time.
Volunteers who come from other countries help bolster the spirits of the local staff, in addition to the other work they do. "They feel stronger because they see that other nations are supportive of what they're doing," Christine says.
Christine wants to see CAMME become an example for similar centers that could be established across the developing world. "We believe that by helping youth, we are educating the entire country," she says. "It's changing Congo, and it's changing Africa, and it's changing the world."