"Suffer the little children… to come unto me"
"Suffer the little children… to come unto me" is a Bible verse we have all heard.It reminds us that children are dear to God and how we care for them reflects in part, our involvement in the Lord's business.
A team of educators from USAID-Washington recently came to Congo to assess the condition of primary school education in Congo.They were particularly interested in elementary schools in the interior of Congo; areas plagued by war, isolation and neglect.
As a medical missionary, currently representing Interchurch Medical Assistance in the management of a health relief and development program (SANRU III), I am sometimes called upon to meet such teams and debrief them on humanitarian conditions in Congo.They wanted to see it for themselves.So for one week, aboard a chartered MAF flight, we toured elementary schools in four provinces of Congo; state schools, protestant schools, catholic schools and private ones.What we saw was, of course, sobering.
There is almost no public support for education in Congo.Teachers, whether they work in government, church or private schools, are largely supported by fees paid by their students.It is not uncommon for families to put half their disposable income into educating their children…and for teachers to earn less than eight dollars a month. Such is the current state of the economy in Congo today.As a result competent and well-trained teachers have fled the system to become laborers in factories or plantations (where they may earn $15 a month) or domestic workers in the homes of UN personnel or other foreigners, where they can earn four times the amount as teaching. The children are left with those who cannot find other types of work.
Existing school buildings have not been maintained for over a decade.School administrators we visited cited, "wooden benches" and" tin-roofing" as amongst the greatest needs.School lessons cease when it rains as water pours through the cracks of roofs.Children typically sit on dirt floors; using their thighs in lieu of desktops for their notebooks while straining to see the blackboard in dark, unlit classrooms.Teachers are given one piece of chalk a week to get by.During our weeklong trip we visited over forty elementary schools in six towns and four provinces…and did not see a single student with a book.They simply don't exist.
We asked the children…if they could ask or wish for anything for their schools…what would it be?A gymnasium, a library, a soccer field (or ball), pens and paper, transportation to get to school(the average child walks one to two hours each day), free tuition(most families can afford to send only one or two children; usually boys) …or a school lunch program?By far, food, held the greatest appeal for every child we asked.
School aged children in this part of the world, wake up hungry, and often have no breakfast.They walk up to an hour to get to school.They are given a 2-hour break for lunch while their teachers go home…but the children stay, without food, sitting in a dark class room, thinking about dinner that evening.Hunger pangs punctuate afternoon sessions…and finally the children return home.Few have the energy to play soccer or other games; most have no shoes. None could imagine the concept of a school cafeteria or a lunch provided, mid-day, to students.They endure such conditions, day after day, year after year, their parents, knowing that education is the only hope of escaping their current way of life.
I have heard it said, that if you "throw a dart at a map of Congo…wherever it lands, will be a place of crisis and great need".This is true in all aspects of Congo; health, security, human rights and most certainly in education.As difficult as life is in Congo….it is far worse for children…silent victims of the war, poverty and deprivation in this largest of African nations.
God has called us to Congo to be"instruments of peace, messengers of hope, and a light in darkness."It is not difficult to do something noteworthy in Congo. Wherever you turn there are great needs.For children who dream of a mid-day meal; expectations are not high…and what it would take to make a difference, not great.When all is said and done, we would rather be dim candles of light in a dark, dark place than a source of light (back home) where few may notice.
This is our 7th year in the Democratic Republic of Congo.We have been involved in various ministries from providing medical care, to training doctors and nurses, to teaching, and church development.We have lived through two rebellions, one coup d'etat and several evacuations of family members.But it is the plight of Congo's children, their perseverance, their current needs…which motivate us to stay…. likely for the duration of our career.
We may never be able to fill the immense needs in this country, or make a difference measurable by Washington standards….but we will remain, through the support of our American Baptist Churches and by the grace of God….to serve these,loved by God and drawn to Him…our heavenly Father…..the only true light and hope in the life of a child in Congo.
With love from Africa,
Bill and Ann Clemmer