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Education provides a way out for indigenous children in Republic of Congo

© UNICEF video
And indigenous Baka boy holds up his chalkboard for inspection at his school in Impfondo, the capital of Likouala province in the northern Republic of Congo.

Tosangana, Republic of Congo, 7 October 2009 – It’s a sunny morning, and Rufin Kokolo, 8, is getting ready to go to school. He lives in Tosangana village on the outskirts of Impfondo, capital of Likouala province.

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Rufin and his younger sister, who has just started kindergarten, hug their father, Gerard Kokolo. Mr. Kokolo, a father of seven, encourages Rufin to pay attention in class.

As the two children set off for school, they are joined by friends who will walk the route together with them.

Bullied and ridiculed
Two years ago, this could not have happened – not because the children lacked schools to attend, but because as members of the Baka ethnic group, one of the country’s indigenous hunter-and-gatherer communities, they were bullied and ridiculed. Better known by their colonial label, pygmies, the Baka are considered by many to be inferior and backward.

For the large majority of the Republic of Congo’s indigenous children, discrimination by both students and teachers is too much to bear. Most of them have never entered a classroom.

In response, the Catholic Church, with support from UNICEF, has opened 14 preparatory schools in Likouala province, a huge area in northern Congo. Built with support from Baka parents, the schools provide a safe and welcoming place for their children.

Cycle of bigotry
The initiative is led by a Swiss missionary, Father Lucien Favre, who is committed to using education to break the cycle of bigotry.

When Baka children go into a classroom with other students from the majority Bantu ethnic group without being prepared, he says, they quickly become discouraged. “Bantu children will attend class, while the Baka children will cut the grass outside. So the child becomes less interested and prefers to go back to the forest rather than to be a slave in school,” Father Favre explains.

For Rufin’s family and others in the community, leaving their forest habitat and moving to town has been extremely difficult. Escaping discrimination and abuse from the local population is almost impossible.

Still, many Baka hope the next generation can finally escape poverty and marginalization. “I want my children to go to school,” says Mr. Kokolo. “This is the only way we can succeed in being treated like the Bantu. The children can no longer survive as we did in the forest without education.”

Looking towards integration
After a half-hour walk, Rufin and his friends arrive at their school. Local residents built its two classrooms out of bamboo and tin on land owned by the Catholic Church.

Head teacher Jean Baptiste Ruzinadaza, a Rwandan refugee, begins the day by leading the children in the national anthem as the flag is raised. It’s their first lesson in citizenship and learning about their rights.

The curriculum is designed especially for the mobile indigenous children of Central Africa, with an eye towards helping them integrate into the public education system.

“We have found that the solution to discrimination is preparation,” says Mr. Ruzinadaza. “It’s a sort of pre-school for them, to teach them the habits of students. The ones that have gone on to government schools have adapted well.”

Mr. Ruzinadaza seeks to make classes, which include drawing and language, as creative as possible. The intent is to instil confidence and a love of learning in children like Rufin. “I am go to school so I can be president … and help those still living in the forest,” Rufin says proudly.

Laying the foundation
With Baka communities spread out, often in remote areas, reaching every child is an enormous challenge. Getting land for the schools also has been difficult.

In many cases, schools have to rely on local authorities or churches to donate land. And since the schools are not yet part of the public system, money must be found every month to pay teachers.

Yet the evidence so far clearly demonstrates that the preparatory schools are helping to make education available for indigenous children in the Republic of Congo – and laying the foundation for their future learning.

By Guy Hubbard

 

 
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