JWW Board Member Diana Buckhantz and Director of Policy and Programs Mike Brand are traveling in the Democratic of Republic of Congo’s eastern provinces to work with survivors of the country’s decades-long conflict, which has claimed nearly six million lives. They are meeting with JWW’s partners on the ground, with whom JWW works to create innovative programs and projects that change lives and transform communities. This is Diana’s sixth trip to Congo with JWW, and Mike’s first as a staff member of JWW. For more information on supporting the projects described, please contact Jewish World Watch at [email protected].
As always in Congo, today was a day filled with excitement and hope and excruciating sadness. We visited our Educational Assistance Project in the village of Mumosho where Jewish World Watch pays the school fees for 200 primary and secondary children — the $12 a month fee is often more than their family can pay. Even if a child is able to start school, the child may be forced to leave school because that month they could not pay the fees. In addition, many of the children are orphans -their families ravaged by the conflict or HIV. These children rely on the willingness of a neighbor or family member to take them off the street and allow the child to live in their home. These families often do not have enough money to send their own children to school let alone a relative or stranger.
Three years ago, our partner, Amani Matabaro, significantly expanded this program with our assistance. These are bright, articulate children who need and deserve a chance. Amani works hard to find the most vulnerable and yet motivated children in the area for the program. Today, we had an opportunity to speak with the secondary students and hear how they felt about their country and their future. It was fascinating.
We first asked what subject interested them at school. The responses ranged from English to chemistry, physics and psychology. When I asked Shukuru why he wanted to study psychology, he replied that he wanted to help the children who had been traumatized by war. (In fact, Shukuru was himself traumatized by the death of his father in a gold mine landslide.) At 12-years-old, Daniel wants to be a minister because, as he said, “Congo is sick and I want to fix it.” Congo being “sick” was a prominent theme. The children were amazingly aware of the problems in their country – poverty, theft, lack of leadership, and gender inequity – and angry that nothing is being done to correct them. When we asked how they knew about these things they replied that they listen to the radio and “courageous” teachers discuss them in class. One boy’s answer was the most poignant “We live it.”
They discussed the fact that women are not given a chance – even if they are smart. Several discussed the fact that the U.S. does not do enough to help the situation in Congo, not only in terms of money but in terms of speaking out against the atrocities. They were articulate and passionate and they even came up with a slogan: “New Congo, New Actions, New People.” We were blown away – inspired and hopeful.
But in the course of the conversation, Amani called on Nadine, a young girl whom he said is always very outspoken and was today sitting quietly. “Why are you not speaking?” he asked. She replied that she was hungry. After the session was over (and the children were given a good lunch), we asked about Nadine’s response and discovered the terrible truth. Nadine was not hungry because it was close to lunchtime. She had probably not eaten for a day or two. Nadine is an orphan. Her grandmother, with whom she lived, died two weeks ago and now she stays with an impoverished family who cannot afford much food. And Nadine is only one story. David, who is at the top of his class, almost collapsed on the road a few days ago because he had not eaten for two days. Most of these children are lucky when they have one meal a day. Many do not eat for days.
We were devastated to learn this. We had been laughing and talking with these bright young people and had no idea about these new dire circumstances under which they were living and trying to attend school. Amani says that as a result of this program, the children know that no matter who they are, they have a right to dream. Dream yes but while we are working to feed their minds, we must find a way to feed their bellies too. And we will.
This piece is also featured on Diana Buckhantz’s Huffington Post blog.