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Congo Challenge: Food or School

By Lane Hartill

Jolie has a problem.

Many problems, actually. But let's start with her mom.

Jolie with cassava

Jolie, center, prepares cassava leaves for dinner. She was forced to drop out of school many times because she couldn't pay school fees. Photo by Lane Hartill/CRS

She's in the hospital with stomach cysts. Or at least that's what she told Jolie. She also told her that things are getting better, that the cysts in her stomach are calm today. But from the look on Jolie's face, she doesn't believe her.

Problem number 2: that bag of flour sitting in the dirt outside Jolie's mud shack. Jolie walked 2 hours down the road to buy it. She paid about $8 and turned around and hiked back with it on her head. Now it's sitting in the sun, and nobody is buying. But even if it sold, the 5-cent profit on each cup she sells doesn't go far.

"If people don't buy," she says with a shrug, "we don't eat."

Or pay for school fees. And that brings us to problem number 3: The principal at her junior high. He kicked her out of school because she is behind a few months in tuition. But that's not unusual. She's getting used to being "chased," as she calls it. It happened in 2002, 2004 and 2007.

But she always found a way to go back. It doesn't bother her that she's 22 years old ("There are girls older than me!") and only in her sophomore year of high school. Staying in school is what's important. And taking care of her siblings. But this time, it's going to be harder than usual.

Money, Marriage and Mines

"When I run out of money, I'm really going to be in a bind," she says. "I might have to marry." A guy has already shown interest. He gave her a few bucks and followed her home. Jolie took the money and ignored him. She knows former classmates who accepted the money and the man, and are now stuck in a life they detest.

Jolie's life mirrors that of hundreds of thousands of young people across the Democratic Republic of the Congo who can't pay school fees. It's especially bad here, in this part of Walikale province. Close to 90,000 displaced families live near Ndjingala where they can find work in mines. Entire villages picked up and moved here from surrounding areas after militias rolled in and destroyed their homes. Almost all of the displaced people are poor and struggle to pay school fees.

Half the children who start school in Congo don't finish. The numbers for girls are even worse. In Ndjingala, most girls who run out of money do one of two things: Join the ranks of the women in Ndjingala's booming red-light district, or marry a miner, who usually has an income, and hope for a better life.

Jolie has seen girls do the latter. And it's nothing close to a dream.

"I don't envy them," she says. "Most of their husbands don't support them. Their wives live in a bad way. I look at how they were before they married and how they are now, there's a big difference."

Take Solange. She's sitting in a hut next to Jolie. She's lived the kind of soap opera that many women here do. As a freshman in high school, she dropped out. Life at home was deteriorating, and money was becoming a problem. She also fell for a man.

A miner, he wooed her with cash and comfort. Soon they had a baby boy, Fidèle. But the man she fell for, who promised her a better life, changed. He started smoking marijuana, started verbally abusing her.

Now they're separated. Fidèle is 2 years old, wearing only red underpants, and crying in Solange's lap. As bad as it was, Solange wants her old life back, especially her schooling.

School Without a Roof

Jolie absorbs Solange's story. She says nothing. Later she admits that she'll never marry a miner. She has bigger plans: She wants to be a nurse.

That's always been her dream. In many countries, many women Jolie's age are already in medical school, studying late, wearing scrubs and thinking about a specialty. But Jolie, coltish and shy, is wondering how she'll afford soap to wash her uniform and debating whether to spend money on food or leaves to patch the hole in her leaking roof (she chose leaves; the hole was over the bed).

The deplorable conditions in Congo's schools have led Catholic Relief Services, along with several other international humanitarian organizations, to urge the Congolese government to double its education spending to 16 percent of its national budget. This will not only help meet the 2015 Millennium Development Goal of primary education for all Congolese, but also help decrease the burden on families who can't afford school fees.

Kennedy with Ndjingala primary school students

Students at the Ndjingala primary school with principal Kennedy Ndjiadako-Vita. CRS joined other international humanitarian agencies to urge the Congolese government to double its education budget to 16 percent of its national budget. Photo by Lane Hartill/CRS

Kennedy Ndjiadako-Vita knows about this firsthand. The principal at the primary school in Ndjingala says students' parents contribute money to pay teachers. But that's not his biggest challenge; keeping teachers from leaving the primary school is.

"On average, I lose about 2 teachers a year," he says, adding that most of them go work at the mine where they are paid better. Hauling 110 pounds of tin ore from the mine to Ndjingala, a two-day, 25-mile hike, can net $25. A month of teaching pays $35, if they're lucky.

He lost his only female teacher last year. She moved away, tired of the lousy pay and conditions. Kennedy was lucky to have her. Few women study to become teachers. In one year, more women go to Penn State University than attend public universities in the entire country of Congo (roughly 39,000). In Congo, a country of 68 million people, only 24 women are enrolled at private teaching education colleges.

It's easy to see why teachers leave. The Ndjingala grade school, where children sit on the dirt floors of 6 classes, doesn't have a roof. A storm blew off the corrugated iron sheeting last year and scattered it around town. But that didn't stop Kennedy. He rallied his students and they gathered the sheets and stored them in Kennedy's office.

Older Students Leave School

Now, every morning, the students climb up in the rafters and line up the iron sheets. Then they sit on the dirt floor and huddle in the shade. When the wind kicks up and the sky turns leaden with clouds, they take down the sheets and hustle home.

Kennedy says conditions at the school are a far cry from when he was a student here in the 1970s. They had microscopes and books and the teachers were paid close to $100 a month. While some statistics say that the average teacher pay in Congo is $50 a month, that's not the case here.

All of this—a school without a roof, unmotivated teachers—doesn't make for high retention rates. In blue felt-tip, Kennedy has written out his enrollment for the year on a sheet of paper tacked to the wall in his mud office: 350 students total. First grade has 72 kids. Then it's a slow slide until the seventh grade where there are only 8 boys and 7 girls.

"In fifth and sixth classes, the students start to disappear," says Kennedy. "The girls are abandoned. Why? Because at the schools many fees are required. And they aren't able to pay them. That's why some give in to the temptation of the mines. Others give in to the temptation of marrying before their time."

"And others become village walkers," says Kennedy, employing the euphemism for prostitutes.

Lane Hartill is CRS' regional information officer for central and western Africa. He is based in Dakar, Senegal.

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