– Jun 15, 2011
War Child began the access to education program in 2008, and it immediately resonated with me, right from the beginning. Quietly, it became the program that most intrigued me because, while studying at university, my intention was to become a teacher. Not too long ago, during a presentation at a high school that holds an annual War Child fundraiser, a student asked me what, in my opinion, was the greatest impact the humanitarian movement could have on the world. A great question, and indeed, a loaded one. Without hesitation, I shared my answer: to ensure that all children are given the gift of education. Before children can go on to become peacemakers, they must first learn the meaning of peace. How else can we build a more just and equitable world? My time in Baraka breathed life and certitude into my answer.
From the time I stepped off the tarmac in Burundi, to the thirty minutes spent wiping the red dust from my clothes before boarding the plane home, my days were filled with innumerable moments of curiosity, joy, and, most surprising of all, unabashed delight. I left not feeling depressed or overwhelmed as one might expect, but thankful to have met and spent time with such beautiful people, who have endured and overcome the horrors of conflict.
For me, everyone, from the little girl (no older than three) who I passed on my way to the office every day, manning her family’s curbside cassava stand, to the elderly woman, most likely in her sixties, who I saw hauling at least twenty pounds of firewood atop her head somewhere near the hills of Lubimbi, were heroes. They are all stronger and more resilient than I will ever be. Millions of their stories will never be told. But in the few moments we shared, even if just a fleeting second to exchange a smile or wave, my life was changed. My hope is that you, like me, will be inspired by their courage and will to create a brighter future for their country.
The Congo is a country that has been besieged because of its natural beauty. Dating back to colonial times, its lands and people have been terrorized by scores of dictators and militia groups. In South Kivu, where War Child is one of the only Canadian humanitarian organizations implementing programming at the community level, the effects of conflict are felt daily. Stories of violence, rape, and attacks are commonplace. In fact, the day my colleague and I arrived in Baraka, the small town where War Child’s Congo office is located, the community was reeling from the recent murder of a fourteen-year old. However, he was not killed in a random attack by a rebel group, but by a family member. In the neighboring town, a group of local youth attacked and raped a mother and daughter during the first few days of our arrival. This is the reality of living with conflict; this is how the seeds of impunity take root. This is why War Child’s work is needed.
Every day spent in Baraka was a lesson in resiliency and humanity. My most treasured moments are those that seem insignificant in the grand scheme of the country’s story. Given my short time there, I did not have the opportunity to work with or spend ample time in the schools War Child has rehabilitated, or speak at length with community leaders. It took a few days for our own staff to speak with me or greet my morning hellos with a smile. Understandably so — who was this sprite muzungu? (muzungu means white person) Why did she seem so overjoyed to be in what has been coined the worst place to be born a woman? I did not meet any child soldiers. No children recounted their horror stories about war. But, at every turn and fork in the road, exuberant children with infectious smiles greeted me.
Youth who had completed War Child’s radio training and journalism programming wanted to talk politics. Faida, a young girl not older than sixteen, whom I met with three times to talk about the challenges Congolese youth face, looked me square in the eyes and implored me to let everyone know that girls must be included in every activity, opportunity and program that is offered to boys. Mulindwa, an eloquent and soft-spoken young man, who is only fifteen years old, repeated the same line over and over in every conversation we had, “les droits des enfants au Congo sont bafouées!”: (in the Congo, children’s rights are repudiated).
This small sentence, only eight words long, had so much power, because, months prior, before participating in War Child’s youth journalism training and before anchoring his own radio show on Radio Baraka, Mulindwa would not have had the confidence to tell a muzungu like me something so personal. Before participating in War Child’s program, he wouldn’t have been able to rhyme off all fifty-four charters in the Conventions on the Rights of the Child. Come to think of it, I don’t think children in Canada can do that.
So no, in the twenty-two days spent in Baraka I did not cry. I never shook my head in disbelief at the poverty or grief I thought I would see. Instead, I was part of a community on the verge of something incredible: transformation. Since starting work in the Congo in 2005, War Child’s Baraka staff (all twenty-one of whom are Congolese, a rarity among humanitarian organizations) is nearing the completion of its thirty-ninth school near Nakalisa. These communities are only accessible by boat as there are no roads, not a single one. Their students have been learning in makeshift schools atop rubble. By the year’s end, over forty schools will have been rebuilt, hundreds of teachers will have returned to work, and thousands of students will have successfully completed another year of school in buildings rehabilitated by local masons, woodworkers and bricklayers.
What’s next, you may ask? In September, War Child will be opening, in partnership with our newest local partner Féderation des Femmes pour le Développement, the first community centre in Baraka. In this space, women will meet to share their common experiences and participate in literacy classes, so that they, like their daughters, will be able to read and write. Faida and Mulindwa will be able to meet and organize youth events. And most importantly, it will be a space where Baraka can converge, learn and collaborate in the creation of a brighter future. My only regret is that I won’t be there for the opening celebration (the Congolese know how to throw a party).
I have never been so proud to be a part of such a remarkable team. A huge thanks goes to Linda, my colleague and Congo program manager (if you are looking to bond with a colleague, travel to Africa with them). I also have to say that if I had not been a French speaker, this trip would have never happened, so thanks to all of my French teachers and professors.
I went to the Congo to share stories in the hopes that the strength and courage of the people we work with can touch others. Now that I am home the most important story that I want to tell is the following: in South Kivu, little by little, the tides of conflict are ceding. Please show your support and make a donation in celebration of our amazing program, talented staff and dynamic partners.
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You can also read more about my time in the Congo on my blog and in the coming weeks I will be posting away so stay tuned!
* Also, as a disclaimer for the photo, I refused to take the typical "humanitarian with children photos" so this photo, along with others, were taken by the kids themselves using my camera during a quick photography lesson on my way home for lunch *
From The Field,
Tags: congo, africa, education, war, conflict, community,