Early 2002, my annual appointment with a UN development agency was not renewed for one year. Then one day, I went out of my compound and saw a good number of school boys and girls, with sad faces, walking back from the nearby school. Asked why they were going back home at that time, they said they had been expelled from school, because their parents had not paid required school fees. I went back in my compound, but the image of those children kept knocking at my mind. I knew we had a transition government facing many problems, but something needed to be done.
In the Democratic Republic of Congo, even public schools are not free. The education system was stable when the Belgians were the colonial power and when they left, independence brought great disorder and a breaking down of government systems. Very few native Congolese were college educated, or even high school educated at the time of independence. Since then, Kinshasa has grown from 1 million people to 6 million with no planning for the need for increased infrastructure or services like education. Civil war and the collapse of the economy ensued.
Beginning in the late 80s, owing to mismanagement and widespread corruption, the dictatorship then in place, could no longer deliver basic social services. Prices soared as refugees from eastern filled the city.To survive, public schools started charging a fee. Widespread unemployment, very large families, very low wages in the public sector, all those factors combined drove down school enrollment. Available data from UNICEF (2001) tell the story: Rate of enrolment: boys: 55%, girls: 49%. Children who enter first grade and complete fifth grade: 54%. These data tell the magnitude of the problem facing children. Many of those who get a chance to enroll in first grade drop out of school even before reaching fifth grade.
There is now an elected government and some promise of stability, but there is much catching up to do. Two generations of children have not been properly educated and there is a shortage of good teachers and good schools. Many older students need still to be educated as well as teachers needing to learn to teach.
I had a large enough room I could divide in three classrooms, but where would I get the money to furnish them? The following summer, while in the United States, I shared the idea with a few friends. One, a Principia College alumnus, offered to send me $100. This I used to buy a few chairs. Then another Principian offered $200. I also wrote a project document which I shared with friends. By December 2002, one room was furnished. The same month, a dear friend from Europe I had informed about the project, promised to introduce me to a friend of hers who could help us. Then, one Monday, that friend of my friend sent $500 for the school, along with kind words of encouragement.
January 2003, the school opened with a class of 15 children. At the end of that year, we had 26 children of single mothers. In 2004 – 2005, the school population reached 57 students. Among these students, special groups: women aged from 21 to 62, enrolled to learn how to read and write; single mothers aged from 16 to 28, and of course boys and girls aged from 11 to 20. Ecoles du Coeur also serves some street children whom he befriended. They began to tell him about police
rounding up street boys and taken to prison, where food is scarce and they are often sent to the war zone to act as human shields for the Congolese army fighting there. In order to protect these older boys, he opened a home for them to sleep at night and tries to provide at least one meal a day for them.
The school year 2009-10 started in September, and the classes are crowded. We have five groups: young boys and girls : 100; women up to 68 years: 20, single mothers: 10 and homeless boys 15.
Owing to the accommodation problems, we had to turn quite a few away. The many students did not go to the regular school because their parents could not afford the school fees all schools charge. Therefore, we cannot ask them to pay a fee. Mayal’s school is a remedial school. It has a three year program and can only be attended by students who are dropouts from regular school, so they must be age 9 and above. Mayal also provides a sewing class for single mothers and a woodworking class for older boys to learn a trade. They aim to teach literacy in three years, rather than the regular six year format of elementary school. The students at his school live with families, although some of them are orphans and live with relatives. The families cannot afford to send these students to school and they would otherwise be uneducated if they were not at Ecoles du Coeurs. When parents have to choose between education and food, food wins. 65% of his students are girls, who aren’t sent to school as muchas boys in DR Congo–some provinces do not educate girls at all.After operating the school for 6 years, the students who go through the remedial program are getting high scores in their secondary school entrance exams. Since many teachers in Congo are themselves not well educated, many students in other public or private schools and not preparing students to be able to read and write and therefore pass exams.
“Ecoles du Coeur” is a small, but great idea. There are so many children out of school, and many adults who are illiterate. Even if the contribution Ecoles du Coeur is like a drop of water in a desert, it is worth continuing and supporting.
Ecoles du Coeur now has two “campuses”, one next to Mayal’s home, where the young adults are taught, and one several blocks away, where the younger students are taught. The small building which was found on the new property has been fitted into three classrooms and a small office. Refurbishing works are in progress. The building was quite old, and it took sizable cash to fix the roof (corrugated iron sheets), break partition walls and build new ones, open windows, put in new doors, build the toilets and septic tanks, etc. Furniture is in short supply.
150 students are in the remedial program and 100 new students were added to the school in 2009. They teach both a morning and an afternoon shift. They have three new teachers for the afternoon shift who, per agreement, are to receive $75/month each. They must also spend $150/month for guards assuring security of the new school location, because it is a rough neighborhood. Expenses for salaries amount now to $1600/month.
Mayal writes, “Each day, before I take off for work at the UN, I visit the classes and make sure all teachers are at their posts. The school has made tremendous growth over the last four years. All students who have made it through the three remedial classes are passing their literacy tests and becoming eligible for secondary education. We now have two each of the young adult sewing classes, carpentry classes, and remedial literacy classes.” When donations do not cover expenses for the school, Mayal pays what he can from his own UN salary. He also houses up to 16 family members, including sisters, nephews and nieces who come into the city to be educated.
• $1600 will support the entire teaching staff for one month
• $500 a month will purchase food for the homeless boy’s shelter
• $75 a month will pay for one teacher’s salary
• $50 will pay for teaching materials/ books for one month
• $40 purchase much needed desk and chair for three children
• $25 covers one student’s costs for one term
• $10 will pay monthly tuition for the single mother literacy class