9 December 2010 – UNICEF correspondent Vivian Siu reports on an initiative to help educate children displaced by conflict in the Democratic of Republic of the Congo.
By Vivian Siu
WALIKALE, Democratic Republic of the Congo, 20 December 2010 – Ujumbe Kiwabantu and her family were displaced by the conflict in DR Congo two years ago, when they fled their home and came to live with distant relatives in Walikale, a remote rainforest territory.
“We came here because the military would always come to our village and loot,” said Ujumbe, 12.
“We ran away from where we were because there was war all the time,” added her mother, Bawli Apoline.
State of uncertainty
DR Congo, a vast country the size of Western Europe, has been mired in war and political unrest for decades. The United Nations has kept its largest peacekeeping mission here since 1999. It is also the world’s second poorest country, with 59 per cent of the population living below the international poverty line of $1.25 a day.
Congolese families live in an unpredictable environment and a constant state of uncertainty. At any moment, their lives could be disrupted again. As a result, quality education for children has suffered immensely.
“It’s very difficult to teach in an insecure situation like Walikale,” said one of Ujumbe’s teachers, Bernard Zirhumana Muzirhu. “An armed group can crop up and you are obliged to flee with the schoolchildren and stop the class.”
A protective environment
The gross enrolment rate for primary school in DR Congo – that is, the proportion of children of any age who are enrolled in primary school – decreased from almost 100 per cent 30 years ago to 64 per cent in 2005. Gross enrolment for girls today is at 58 per cent. The net enrolment rate – which measures the proportion of primary school-age children enrolled in primary grades – is even lower. And many more boys than girls are in school.
With support from the Government of the Netherlands, UNICEF and the Italian non-governmental organization AVSI are collaborating on an education-in-emergencies programme to help children in DR Congo continue their studies – and to provide them a sense of normalcy during this tenuous time.
The programme is part of an initiative to place education in emergency and post-crisis transition countries on a viable path in order to achieve quality basic schooling for all children.
“The school provides a protective environment,” UNICEF Goma Education Specialist Elena Locatelli said, noting that a few hours spent in the classroom each day also keeps children “occupied with activities that don’t let them think of the difficulties of their past.”
Change in teaching philosophy
By participating in group activities, children can express themselves and channel their trauma through song, poetry and dance. With this in mind, AVSI has been training teachers to nurture displaced and vulnerable children. The training has produced significant changes in the philosophy and practice of education in Walikale.
“In the past, we would whip the children,” said Mr. Zirhumana Muzirhu. “But thanks to the psycho-social training, teachers and schoolchildren are now friends, so we don’t use the whip anymore.”
The education-in-emergencies programme is also rehabilitating schools and providing school supplies and recreation kits, so that students can participate in regular activities that are crucial to their physical, mental, psychological and social dev. In addition, the programme has provided more than 130,000 children with education kits in conflict-ravaged North Kivu Province in recent years.
In search of stability
Still, Ujumbe worries about her future. She’s concerned that she and her family will be uprooted again by violence. “I like going to school and hope to finish it, but I’m not sure if another war will break out and make me displaced again,” she said.
“My biggest fear is, I don’t know if my children will finish school one day,” admitted her mother.
Ujumbe and her family hope eventually to be able to return to their village and have their own home again, with the hope of a brighter future. “I would like my country to be a country of peace,” said Ujumbe, “for everyone to be able to go back home and live well.”