I write this from the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) during the last week of June. I have spent the last two days visiting Jewish World Watch’s educational assistance programs in Mumosho and Nyambibwe, where our support helps send more than 400 impoverished students to primary and secondary schools.
Two years ago, when I met with secondary school students in Mumosho, they had a clear message for me to take back to the U.S. They told me, “We need New People, with New Actions, for a New Congo.” Sadly, two years later, the struggle for a new Congo seems elusive.
Congolese President Joseph Kabila—in power since 2001—has already exceeded his constitutionally mandated term limit and despite agreeing late last year to step down from power at the end of 2017, Kabila doesn’t seem to be going anywhere.
The students I spoke with were much more frustrated than they had been two years ago. They angrily stated that Kabila must go. Orelie, the young girl who first sparked the, “New People, New Actions, New Congo” slogan now told me that, “the leaders of Congo have no love for the country or the people.”
June 30th will mark Congo’s Independence Day. I asked the students if they would celebrate, and they replied, “There is no independence. There is no reason to celebrate.”
It was clear that the students had no love for the current administration and were outraged by the violence and poverty plaguing the majority of their country, but they could not say how change will come. This is a problem shared by many Congolese and the governments in the international community that stand against Kabila — they are unwilling to take decisive action to pressure him into stepping down.
Out of the Mines and Into the Classroom
In Nyambibwe, located near the Kalimbi tin mine, I met with students who are extremely grateful for JWW’s support. Many of these children were previously working in horrific conditions in the mines, forced to carry heavy loads, breathe in mineral dust, and work for very little or no pay at all.
Kalimbi has been certified as ‘conflict free’ and as such children are no longer able/forced to work in the mine. But for many of these children, the mines were the only way they could earn money to pay for school fees. JWW has been supporting these students by paying for their school fees, uniforms, and school materials, giving them the chance to attend school.
But amid their many statements of gratitude for JWW and all of our donors, one-by-one the students, parents, teachers, and principals reminded me that there are still plenty more young children who are on the streets and not in school. They requested that we find a way to enable more kids to go to school. The students spoke of the challenges they face — insecurity, war, and poverty — and requested that I advocate for the U.S. government to help improve Congo’s leadership and security issues.
One teacher spoke up and said, “It is wrong that partners from other countries are taking up our government’s responsibility to provide education for our children. They don’t even realize that education is a right!”
I told them that we will do what we can, but America isn’t able to solve all the problems. Together we must find ways to address the poverty preventing so many students from going to school, and the issue of poor governance that allows the state to abandon its people and neglect its responsibilities.
Where does the money go?
The classrooms of the school we visited were falling apart. Walls were barely held together by a mix of wood and plastic tarps; holes in the roofs make holding class during the rainy season difficult, and some classrooms had only a handful of desks for 45-60 students (many have to bring their own stools if they want to sit).
The students, parents, teachers, and principals all pointed to a clear issue in Nyambibwe: their community is mining tin, a profitable mineral, but they aren’t seeing the profits in their community. Tin is used in the solder of all kinds of electronic devices’ circuit boards. From smartphones to laptops, TVs to cars, tin is a widely used commodity in modern-day electronics. Everyone wanted to know where the profits are going, because they sure are not staying in their community.
This is not only a problem in Nyambibwe, but across the DRC. The DRC is estimated to have $24 trillion in mineral wealth in the ground, but very few Congolese actually see the benefit of the riches. Those profits are kept by a small elite group in the government, military commanders, militia leaders, and multinational corporations. A country that has $24 trillion in mineral wealth should have the basics such as roads, potable water, and a far reaching electric grid. Instead, across Congo those basics go unrealized.
The Next Step
I also spoke with some of the secondary school graduates who were so thankful to have graduated thanks to JWW’s support, but they were concerned with the next phase in life. They all want to go to university, but do not have the money to afford it. And now that they have graduated secondary school, many are worried they will not find jobs.
I asked them what jobs they would want and what is preventing them from getting those jobs. They replied that they needed some vocational skills training and startup capital to form businesses. I asked them to provide me with their top three business ideas. After they conversed among themselves they came back to me with some very well-articulated ideas including, a small computer and printing facility (one doesn’t exist in the town), and a transport business to bring goods into the town (the roads leading to and from the town are EXTREMELY bumpy and difficult to travel on so some goods are scarce)It may be impossible for donors to endlessly support children’s education from primary school through university, but there may be ways to support these students and help them succeed in creating small businesses in their communities.
It is extremely important to ask local communities what their needs are, instead of just developing programs without consultation. These students’ ideas will likely be successful because they understand the context they are living in way better than we ever could. That’s why JWW’s grantmaking model prioritizes partnerships with local community organizations that understand the needs of the community and the operating context.
The need is great, the challenges are many, but despite their frustrations, fears, and anger the students I met with remained hopeful for their future. They believe change has to come, because keeping the status quo is just not an option.