VOICES FROM THE FIELDTHE IRC BLOG
Congo: Empty classrooms
January 24, 2009 by The IRC
|An empty classroom in eastern Democratic Republic of Congo Photo: Emily Meehan/The IRC|
Emily Meehan is part of an International Rescue Committee team working in eastern Democratic Republic of Congo, where an upsurge of violence has uprooted hundreds of thousands of people.
On the road through Kiwanja on a weekday in December, the only sound was a toddler sobbing. I was accompanying IRC’s North Kivu education team on a school assessment. The school was empty.
My colleague, Lisa Bender, paid sharp attention to the crying child, who was running down the road after her mother, also running, with a big sack on her back. “They’re running out of town,” Lisa said urgently. “Why are they running out of town?”
The school principal responded to Lisa’s question, saying the mother and child were probably returning home after fleeing the area on Monday because of rumors of another attack. That also explained why the school had no students; they were probably displaced, living in tents beside a nearby U.N. base, he said.
The people of Kiwanja have been traumatized by violence in recent months. IRC returned to the area in December, starting work again after having evacuated the base in early November.
Lisa, who still has scars on her upper arm from the day that IRC staff were caught in an angry crowd, is back in the area with her team to scout out schools for an education development project. The project aims to engage parents and community leaders in their local primary schools to reinforce education, as well as boosting the role of children in their schools and eliminating corporeal punishment in classrooms.
Communities where a large proportion of the population has recently returned after displacement have a higher number of children absent from schools. Families are still struggling for money, or to re-establish their homes and livelihoods. Lisa and her team are working with those families to get children back to school. Her team will also train teachers at 15 schools.
The IRC education team tried to assess several other schools in Kiwanja. To reach one school, we wound through a maze of dirt track, over deep drainage ditches and passed children of school age dressed in tattered clothing. They ran alongside the truck hooting and trying to climb on as we followed directions to the local primary school. In the forest we found a compound of empty, mud buildings. We got out and looked in the classrooms, which were furnished with frail plank benches. “No one has been here in a long time,” said one of my colleagues. At schools that remain open, administrators explained that parents haven’t been able to pay teachers for their work. As a result, teachers are working for as much as half their salaries.
“A large part of our students are orphans, more than 50 percent,” said one school principal in Rutshuru. Principal Dancille’s pretty stucco school is set in a lush forest off the side of the road, where a young shepherd watched his cows graze. “They live with whoever will take them – grandparents, aunts. They don’t have money for school fees. The teachers suffer with less money, but they can’t abandon their cadres.”
Principal Dancille had a bemused, war-weary expression that Ive seen on the faces of many in eastern Congo. They seem to be thinking, What next?
“Even if you don’t choose our school to be part of your teacher training program, we thank you for checking on us,” she told my colleague. “Every time someone comes to see how we are doing, it lightens the weight of our suffering.”