In Zambia, a Congolese refugee determined to fulfil her dream

Football and maths keep one Congolese girl smiling in Zambia

Ruth Ayisi
A teenage girl holds a football and smiles
23 April 2018

NCHELENGE - Barefoot and wearing long skirts, Congolese teenage girls dart across the sandy pitch, skilfully tackling each other for the football. Yet they fail to beat goalkeeper, Jilie, 17. “Even the boys want me on their team,” Jilie says smiling during the post-match celebrations. It’s like they have just won a major championship.

Jilie says she loves football and the other activities at the child-friendly space at the refugee transit centre in Zambia. But Jilie also wants to return school, so she can follow her dream to become a doctor.

“Even the boys want me on their team” – Jilie, 17

“I’ve always wanted to be a doctor so I can make people well,” says Jilie, again with a smile. “My parents fell sick and died when I was young and so my brother brought me up,” she says with no trace of self-pity. “I had to drop out of school for three years as we had no money for school fees.” At the time, her brother Kaimba who was able to earn some money, financed her education. Jilie explains that he moved out to a town to become a priest. “My neighbours had a phone, so he would phone them and I could speak to him and he would tell me when he had put money in the bank for me to collect for my studies.” Jilie says she had a small plot of land which she farmed and had her own latrine, but had to fetch water from the lake.

Yet her life and her studies were disrupted when fighting broke out in her village. “They were killing people even in their sleep, so I fled with my neighbours. 

We ran together, but then I lost them, and I don’t have my brother’s number. He doesn’t know I am here,” she says. “I miss him.”

A football match
Jilie plays in goal during a football match.

“Getting children who are uprooted from their homes back into school is important for their wellbeing and their future” - Tara O’Connell, UNICEF

Jilie has been at the camp in Zambia for three months. She walks to her small tent which is near the child-friendly space. Inside the tent there is a reed mat that she sleeps on, and she has a few pots and clothes piled in one corner. A woman greets her as she cooks nshima (pounded maize) and soya beans in a pot over firewood. “When I feel lonely, I go and eat with the friends I have made here,” she says. One of her neighbours has neatly done her hair into tiny braids.

Soon Jilie, like the other around 15,000 refugees in Nchelenge, will move to Mantapala resettlement camp where she will have the opportunity to study. It will mean switching from French to English, although fortunately on both sides of the border they speak the same local language, Bemba. The Government of Zambia has already trained 28 Congolese and 14 Zambian teachers. UNICEF has supported the construction of 24 classrooms as well as latrines with washing facilities.

“Getting children who are uprooted from their homes back into school is important for their wellbeing and their future,” says Tara O’Connell, UNICEF Zambia Chief of Education. “School can bring some normalcy back into their disrupted lives and can give them hope.”

Jilie cannot wait to start school, particularly to study maths, her favourite subject. “When I fled, I took my maths book and whenever I miss Congo, I just study maths. My maths book reminds me of home.”