Social Work in the time of COVID-19: Msenwa Oliver's Story

Monday, August 31, 2020

Msenwa Oliver and some of the children he works with, gathered for a selfie.

Msenwa Oliver Mweneake never should have lived to adulthood. Born in the Democratic Republic of Congo and surrounded by cholera, malaria and other childhood diseases that too often steal away young lives, Msenwa’s mother considered it a miracle that he lived to see his first birthday.

After a happy childhood in a communal village, war erupted and a 15-year-old Msenwa was thrust into an unimaginable and scary reality: his parents fled for their lives, leaving Msenwa as guardian to his two younger sisters. The next thirteen years of his life were a constant struggle: in and out of refugee camps in Tanzania, Kenya and Burundi. Later, Msenwa would return to DR Congo on a peace mission; even when struggling for his own survival, Msenwa always focused his attention on improving the lives of others. It was undoubtedly this commitment to service to others that led Msenwa to Renison’s Master of Social Work program.

Msenwa now works in child welfare in Kingston, Ontario. When the COVID-19 pandemic took hold in Canada, his daily life changed dramatically. No stranger to disease outbreaks, and accustomed to working under extreme and harsh conditions, Msenwa adjusted to this new reality and continues to provide a high level of service and attention to the families that he helps to support.

Msenwa’s work focuses on the safety of children, investigating concerns of child abuse and neglect, and creating strategies to support the wellbeing of children and their families. Within the context of COVID-19, he has to be much more creative with his visits and uses video conferencing tools to engage with families. Where there is evidence that a child is physically hurt, social workers go into the home in full personal protective equipment, but Msenwa has done most of his work with families online, teaching them how to use new technology like Zoom or WhatsApp to help maintain safety for children in the home.

Much of what he does, Msenwa says, involves empathizing with families and ensuring that they recognize their role as the protectors, responsible for their children’s safety. “We have never lived these moments before. It’s hard,” Msenwa comments. “How can we do what we need to and still keep everyone safe?” One of the techniques he uses is to brainstorm ways for families to connect with their community and find support that would have typically been provided in-person. One example he gives is a family with a child who has behavioural issues and the parents are struggling with how to manage. After brainstorming, the child’s grandfather offered to read to the child over video chat for a period of time every week, to give the parents a bit of space, and maintain a routine for the child. Msenwaalso brings in family members or other supports into the brainstorming conversations via video. These additional people are often from further afield, and able to help support families in a virtual way – and may not have been able to provide in-person support prior to COVID-19.

One of the reasons that Msenwa was drawn to Renison’s MSW program was because of its focus on health and the social determinants of health. COVID-19 has, Msenwa says, revealed the inequities in our society, and it is easy to see the impact of social determinants of health. COVID-19 is not the great equalizer, he says, those who are disadvantaged continue to struggle, and those who are privileged continue to do well. Inequity can be seen in the rates of fatality, Black people are dying at much higher rates than other groups. Though the statistics are grim, for Msenwa COVID-19 is presenting an opportunity to rise up and say “enough is enough,” and structure policies in a way that is more equitable.

Renison is privileged to have Msenwa as a member of its alumni. In addition to his work as a Social Worker, Msenwa and his wife Miriam run the Msenwa Foundation, which provides support to disadvantaged African widows, children, and youth. The Foundation was born out of the ministry of Msenwa’s grandfather, who was dedicate to the care of widows, vulnerable women, and orphans in DR Congo and in the Nyarugusu Refugee Camp. Msenwa not only embodies all of the values of Renison, “One Sky Over All,” he demonstrates how perseverance and determination can make a positive impact on the world.

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