International Rescue Committee (IRC)

A dream of learning comes true

Brigitte stdies at her desk

At 28, Brigitte found herself at a school desk for the first time, thanks to an IRC program teaching the basics of reading, writing and math to young people in the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Photo: Sinziana Demian/IRC

TABA CONGO, Democratic Republic of Congo - Her entire life, Brigitte dreamt of the moment she would be able to spell her name. When she was a little girl, her parents separated and she was sent to live with an aunt and babysit her cousins. They all ended up going to school, but she was kept at home. 

From her aunt’s house she moved to her husband’s, when she was 17. Although he knew how to read and write, he never taught his wife the alphabet. 
 
“I was kept in the dark,” Brigitte says. “All I really wanted was to take a pen and write down B-R-I-G-I-T-T-E, and I couldn’t.”
 
She had difficulty at the market, too, forced to perform her calculations using her fingers. It took time and it brought shame. 
 
This year at long last change has come for Brigitte and dozens of other illiterate youth in the Lake Tanganyika region in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Brigitte’s village, Taba Congo, is now the center of a literacy program initiated by the IRC. Thrice a week, two hours at a time, boys, girls and young adults from neighboring villages gather at the local primary school to learn, for free, the basics of reading, writing and math. 
 
It was a close call for Brigitte, as the age limit was 25, and she was by now 28. But she fought to be part of the program.
 
“We told her we could not take her, but she would just come and sit outside, in the sun, and peek through the window to see what we were writing on the blackboard,” recalls instructor Françoise Kondo Mwayuma. “She would plead with us until she would start crying, and just would not take no for an answer.” When she was finally accepted, Brigitte found herself sitting at a desk for the first time in her life, sharing the spacious classroom with 43 others, all but two of whom were girls The same striking gender discrepancy was characteristic of the other three literacy classes as well. 
 
“We are seeing this for two major reasons,” explains Mwayuma. “First, parents are much more likely to send the boys to school and keep the girls at home, so many more boys would have been educated in the regular school system. Second, some of the boys who were left out and now have jobs feel rather ashamed to be seen going back to school at the very basic level.”
 
That was not the case for 15-year-old Bernard Mukalai, who jumped at the opportunity the program presented. He is an apprentice to the village tailor, and hopes that one day he will be renowned in this trade “all the way to Kalemie,” the area’s main town some 15 kilometers away.
 
“My parents never had the money to send me to school,” he says, referring to the $2.50 monthly fee that families are expected to contribute for each child’s education. “I am so happy now with this free program.”
 
Bernard is particularly excited about the math class, which he believes will help him better serve his customers. But the work is hard. It takes Bernard three minutes to subtract 72 from 183, the problem on the blackboard. But when he solves the problem correctly, his classmates cheer and applaud his effort.
 
The six-month class concluded at the end of September, when all participants underwent a final evaluation. Another 100 students enrolled in the same program in October.
 
In Congo today, an estimated 7.6 million children go unschooled. The state offers limited informal educational opportunities for adolescents and teenagers, and virtually none for adults. According to statistics from 2010, 51% of adolescent girls are illiterate. The rate among the poorest households soars as high as 72%.
 
The IRC is running the literacy program as part of a major education effort in three provinces in eastern Congo. In a comprehensive approach aimed at improving access to quality education for 500,000 young people, the IRC trains primary school teachers in new methods and supports centers for accelerated learning programs and vocational trainings, as well as builds, renovates and equips schools and classrooms. 
 
The IRC literacy program in Congo receives funding from the United States Agency for International Development.
 

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