Sunday, September 28, 2014

The difference that engaged Christian believers can make

Alphonse Bashiya (left), PRODEK's Community Health Endowment coordinator, in a 2013 discussion with a CHE group in Bena Tshiadi, Western Kasai

You are salt for the whole human race.” Jesus sets a challenging standard for his disciples. Salt preserves and gives savor to food. It is essential, indispensable. Do we live up to that description? We claim to have the Spirit of Jesus living in us and leading us into all truth, righteousness and goodness. Still most of us barely distinguish ourselves from the broad spectrum of humanity that doesn’t even flirt with these claims. However, from time to time we see behavior that gives a glimpse of God’s goodness. This past week Christian partners stood apart, showing what the world might be like if we allowed God to remold us more completely.

Three weeks ago Miriam and I appealed for prayer. The Community Health Endowment (CHE) program has encouraged more than 400 community groups in Western Kasai province to plant a community field in support of the health center that gives primary health care to their village. Income from the field pays the subscription fee for a health plan that reduces out of pocket fees at the health center, making health care more accessible at times when family cash is scarce. This year the project is distributing seed of high-yielding varieties to participating groups with the idea of boosting productivity while improving access to affordable health care. 
The glitch is that the rains have started and people want to (and should) plant right now. But the project bureaucracy remains oblivious to such nasty details as optimum planting dates and human needs, despite repeated reminders of the absolute necessity of distributing seed on time. The group distributing seed (PRODEK) still has no contract, nor any funding to ensure that seed gets into the hands of community groups. The project bureaucracy shows no signs of urgency. Even the prospect of failure (significantly reduced yields, loss of community group respect, and ineffective demonstration of the new varieties' potential) seems to have no motivating effect on the local project  managers.

In the midst of this bureaucratic indifference (some might say all-too-human indifference) PRODEK, a health and development initiative of the Presbyterian Church of Kasai, has made a Christian statement. This week I heard part of the story. PRODEK agreed to advance its own (very limited) funds to get seed out to CHE groups. In a courageous statement, its agents agreed to work without a contract. They paid with their own money to arrange transport of seed. They worked from dawn to dusk for two weeks, putting community groups’ needs above their own. When others faced with difficult circumstances and possible failure were preparing excuses for why the operation couldn’t be done, the PRODEK team was figuring out a way forward. They still do not have a contract, but literally hundreds of CHE community groups may still salvage something from this year because of their sacrifice. They have nurtured hope instead of allowing hope to die.

Aid projects are big business in Congo. But spending money on activities is often very different from making a very real difference in people’s lives. Progressing from the first to the second usually takes a special extraordinary dedication. We can be the salt for the whole human race. But I think it takes the living Spirit of God dwelling in us, prompting us to love our neighbors as we do ourselves, leading us to dedicate ourselves to showing Christ. Thank you, Lord, for Alphonse’s willing sacrificial spirit sowing hope as PRODEK distributes seed.

Monday, June 16, 2014

Kikongo pastoral students glimpse God's provision for Congo

Fidji Kifufu has brought new life to the agricultural
program of the Kikongo Pastor's School.
Almost every rural pastor in Congo has a second or third job to make ends meet. (Rural parishes are not known for providing a living wage for their pastor.) Pastor Manunga at Lusekele is a tailor. Family fields, gardens, livestock and fish ponds put food on the table and pay for health care and school fees. Life is a scramble for pastors just like it is for people in the parishes they shepherd.

That is one reason that the Kikongo Pastor’s School (IPK) made agriculture a key part of its program. Leaders wanted to make sure that candidate pastors and their families could make a decent living off the land. But their vision extended further. They knew that better varieties and improved agricultural techniques could improve rural people’s production. (It is not unusual to be able to double production with varieties and techniques available today.) They also knew that people had few opportunities to hear about and try out agricultural innovations. They reasoned that if young pastors could see the potential of agricultural innovations while preparing for rural pastorates, when they started their ministries they would be equipped to share God’s provision for more productive farming, more secure food supply and better livelihoods.

Rita Chapman and Fidji Kifufu inspecting student fields with me in May.  Manioc is robust, with health green leaves and no sign of mosaic virus.  This variety is called Obama, one of the highest yielding varieties to be identified to date.
Despite its importance, the agricultural program had been neglected for years. Students began to wonder why they should even have to cultivate fields at all. In 2013 that changed. IPK engaged an energetic and organized young agronomist, Fidji Kifufu, to work with students. During a short visit last spring, we worked together on a calendar of activities with an emphasis on high-yielding varieties of peanuts, manioc and corn, simple ideas for improving soil fertility, and a strategy for dry-season gardens (a supplementary food source during the “hungry season.”)

At the end of May I spent a week with Fidji and the IPK students. What has happened in the last year has been remarkable. I hope that the change in these families’ prospects (both during their study years at Kikongo and in their future parishes) is equally remarkable. The shift in direction was not easy.

Students started off grumbling a lot. Cultivating fields is hard work. Juggling classwork and fieldwork, especially during planting and early weeding, requires intelligence and persistence. Under Fidji’s guidance, the students planted two new varieties of peanuts and manioc. The rains didn’t cooperate – three weeks of drought just at flowering time). The peanut harvest was disappointing … until students compared their yields with the even more disappointing yields of neighbors cultivating the current traditional varieties.

The manioc fields I saw this week are the best fields in years. Manioc plants are tall and vigorous. Disease-resistant varieties dominate the student fields for the first time ever, I think. This may be the first year that student families can supply most of what they eat from their own fields rather than having to buy food on the local market or maybe even go hungry.

Second-year pastoral student getting started on a dry season garden.  This garden will keep a family in nutritious greens for four months, crucial extra food particularly important for growing children.
Fidji encouraged students to plant riverside gardens during the dry season last year. In past years, students maintained their gardens only through the last marking period of the school year. But in 2013 many families continued to plant and harvest vegetables through the long vacation. According to Rita Chapman mothers were astonished at how well they ate during the dry-season break because of those gardens.

Fidji standing in waist-deep soil-enriching cover crops at the site of the pastoral school's dry-season gardens
Students have been experimenting with cover crops this year too. Vining plants in the bean family help restore nitrogen and organic matter to the soil. After eight months the gardens are ready to give another crop of nutritious vegetables. I found the students clearing and shaping the new planting beds. Rita says that many students remarked on how easy it is to clear and prepare the site covered in a cover crop (as opposed to natural woody bush fallow.) Renewed fertility and less effort to prepare the next year’s garden – cover crops are beginning to make practical sense to students.

Students still grumble about the work in their own agricultural fields. But after a year the grumbles are somewhat muted by surprisingly healthy crops and improved production. Two weeks ago Rita wrote again after an evaluation of student fields.

“What really wowed us all was the impressive number of manioc tubers under each sample we looked at from each field. With only gentle digging, we counted 17 tubers on one plant - and there were probably more underneath that we didn't see. An Nsansi plant [improved manioc variety] had 15. The students are thrilled. . . . The third year students are saying that when they leave next week, they are going to tell everyone along the way that there is no more hunger at IPK."

Every once in a while we get a chance to be part of people catching glimpses of provisions that God has made for people here in Congo. Seventeen tubers on one plant is not a fluke; it is the regular production of superior varieties planted at the right time and cared for throughout their production cycle. God created those plants and created inquisitive scientific minds that “discovered” them and the techniques that make them highly productive. Who better to tell people in impoverished communities about them than a new pastor who has literally tasted the fruits of God’s handiwork?

Thursday, April 3, 2014

The Twa of Inongo : Trying to establish their place in a modernizing Congo

For some followers of our journals this may be a little too dry.  But we think it helps to understand more about the circumstances that shape the lives and outlooks of the people with whom we work.  This short piece complements Miriam’s recent blog about the literacy team’s recent trip to Inongo.
-- Ed and Miriam

Pygmies in Congo are people living between two worlds.  They live in clusters but are scattered in nearly every province of the country.  For generations the government has wanted to see them settled in towns, abandoning itinerant life in the forest.  Some Pygmy groups have settled voluntarily, hoping for a more stable and prosperous life.  While some succeed, most find only poverty, malnutrition and marginalization outside the forest.

The Twa living around Inongo encounter multiple barriers to progress in life outside the forest.  Many of the majority Bantu have deep prejudices against them that lead to abuse and exploitation.  Legally they are full citizens of the Congo.  However, even for Bantu citizens enjoyment of legal protections and rights is not automatic; for the Twa, prejudice often eliminates any rights they have.  They are often forced to work without pay or for half of what a Bantu would get.  The law does not recognize traditional Twa forest-use rights and Twa bands hold land only at the sufferance of a Bantu land chief.
Bantu prejudice excludes or severely limits Twa access to education and health care available to the majority population.  Teachers and fellow students disapprove of Twa students sharing classrooms with Bantu students.  Extreme poverty makes it hard for Twa parents to pay school fees.  Health service workers are often unsympathetic and unwelcoming.  Public health outreach (vaccinations, well-baby clinics, deworming and nutrition campaigns) often pass them by, forcing the Twa to rely exclusively on traditional medicine.  Poor education and poor health have predictable effects on their ability to earn a living, and ability to influence the social and political structures that define their opportunities.

Of course Pygmy tradition and the dysfunctional adaptation to settled life impose their own limitations.  Seasonal hunting and gathering remove children from school, interrupting learning progress.  Lack of proper attention to hygiene, poor nutritional practices, early marriage and motherhood : all contribute significantly to poor health.  The stresses of life on the margins of Bantu society also lead many Twa to seek relief in alcohol or cannabis.

In making the transition to settled existence, many Twa have not yet fully adopted permanent agriculture: when they have fields, they're often very small.  Becoming a farmer requires hard-to-obtain land, unfamiliar seasonal planning, food stores in reserve, and assurance that the harvest will belong to the family rather than the landowner.  It is a long and daunting list.  Cutting fields for others, and working as hired labor for Bantu farmers is often a more familiar (if much less lucrative) decision for people with the day-to-day mindset of hunter-gatherers.
Facing barriers every day of one’s life can crush the spirit, suck away hope.  The Twa don’t need any do-gooder’s pity.  But they do need constant reminders that they are cherished by God and bear His image.  They need inspiration, knowledge of how others facing similar challenges in a changing world have transformed their circumstances.  They need imagination and creativity that help them to understand and protect the distinctives that make up their essential identity . . . and help them to adapt to the modernizing world.  We ask the Lord to be their guide, their refuge, their strength.

Wednesday, April 2, 2014

A return visit to the Twa community in Inongo

 Rose and Raymond on the tarmac on the way to Inongo

blog entry from Miriam Noyes
In February, Rose Mayala, Raymond Mafuta and I packed up for a 10-day trip to Inongo, a medium-sized town on the northeastern shore of Lake Mai-Ndombe. The lake is 500kms northeast of Kinshasa. People in western Congo know it for dried fish. The regional fishing industry exports tons of dried fish every month. Inongo is also the home of many groups of the Twa, originally hunter gatherers who call themselves the Original People, or "O.P." (though even that is a name borrowed from outsiders and it has a distinctly bureaucratic ring to it.) [Note 1]   They have largely abandoned hunting and gathering in the equatorial forest for settled agriculture and town life like that of the dominant Bantu [Note 2]  people in the region.

Our literacy group has been working with the Twa in Inongo since 2007, when UNESCO paid for our first outreach. This was my first trip to see the work myself. I wanted to see what progress they have made in literacy, but we had a wide-ranging agenda: agricultural help, discussion with Twa leaders about community life and aspirations, the growth in Christ of Twa believers.

Ten Twa communities ran literacy classes and French classes for all their people, under our leadership. But many had run out of steam since the literacy team’s last visit. Two factors seem to have contributed to this decline. First, irregular supervision makes it hard to help groups in Inongo maintain focus and enthusiasm. We can't afford frequent trips and had lost phone contact. Second, as literacy groups advance, they need to begin using reading and writing skills in some practical way to satisfy their needs and interests. The Inongo person who was to help did nothing. Many of the groups lost interest, floundered and gave up.

This visit was the literacy team’s first foray into addressing the practical needs of the community. The Inongo Twa groups had asked for machetes and hoes, and “help” to plant fields and vegetable gardens. But it is knowledge used strategically, that really helps, not one-time gifts of a few tools. We brought with us seed cuttings of the best-producing manioc variety from Lusekele, garden seeds, chaya seed cuttings and Moringa seed. We spent much our time with them planning manioc multiplication and distribution to all their communities, sharing knowledge about the new plants, and teaching how to plant more effectively. We talked about the changes this could bring to Twa communities. For example, chaya3 and moringa4 trees provide lots of high-value protein in a very limited space – a boon to under-nourished people with little land. Manioc and its nutritious leaves, can be harvested year around, unlike crops they depend on now.

Paul Bokola Nkanda, one the Twa literacy teachers, divvying up the garden seeds

One of the Twa literacy teachers had continued his studies and become an experienced agricultural technician. He helped with the teaching and agreed to follow-up the manioc and garden multiplication plots after we left. He was hungry for literature on the new plants. This created the opening for functional literacy which we are always looking for.

Now that I know what they need, we can send them useful agricultural information to be read and disseminated through literacy classes. We, of course, encouraged them to restart their literacy classes. In terms of goals, we asked the teachers to send us lists of their most advanced students, and prepare them for graduation. Rose thinks she can get back there this summer to hold the graduations. This should encourage them immensely.

We also had two immediate recommendations for further programming for literacy classes. First, use public health education materials for reading and class discussion. The materials are very good. They are adapted to several levels – from simple to more advanced, often in the regional language or in French. Many times they are barely used by health workers. Health and nutrition education will help their communities in big way.

Second, in the advanced French literacy class, use the devotional lectionary from the Bible Reading League (Scripture Union). Our French program doesn't have a Bible component built in; this would add it. The Bible reading, reflection, and application exercises will help students grow spiritually. They will also help their reading fluency, French understanding, and build comprehension and analytic skills for texts of all kinds. The lectionary will also help their church leadership.

Rose gave the church a Lingala hymnal, and teachers are looking forward to copying off its hymns to teach in their Lingala classes and for worship. The students should love that. Then, when we finish producing the functional literacy program we're making for our teachers this spring, we will send them copies, to help them get and use even more relevant material for their students' lives.

Rose noticed that everyone's health had declined. They told us there had been a lot of deaths recently. She also noticed that latrines, adopted after our advocacy, were disappearing, and that there were children with bellies full of intestinal parasites. Leaders were pessimistic that the health system would send them a de-worming team without Bantu advocacy. Fortunately Rose's son, a doctor due to visit Inongo this month, can investigate, instigate a de-worming campaign in their communities (which reminds them to build and use latrines more), and get the health literature we want for them.

Our Twa friends have also had a setback in formal schooling. A local politician promised them free schooling if he got elected. So when he got elected, they stopped paying school fees. Their students were kicked out of school, their primary school classes shut down. Obviously he was not able to make good on his promise. So we've encouraged them to pay again and get their primary school classes going again.

We discovered a curious fact: most Inongo Twa high school students are in the teacher-training or French literature tracks, despite the facts that no one will hire them to teach and far more practical options (business skills, biology & chemistry, wood-working and agriculture) exist. Why? Teacher training and French lit are the cheapest options available to poor people. We suggested that more practical programs would help their communities more. Will they change? We don't know. A positive development was seeing married young mothers continuing their schooling.

 Martin Ngonde, a young pastor in the Disciples of Christ community, is new to Inongo.  He has close ties to the Twa community and agreed to mentor leaders of the Twa Baptist congregation.

To Rose's sorrow, the cooperation of Bantus and Twa achieved during their 2012 visit has not continued. In fact, Bantu who were previously friendly have soured. We don't know what has happened. However, by God's grace, Martin Ngonde (pictured above) arrived as a new Disciples of Christ pastor to Inongo. He says he has had Twa friends since childhood. His church is quite close to the main Twa community. He has agreed to help them, and oversee the development of the church they have started, despite it being in a different denomination. It is he that had the field ready to plant, where our manioc cuttings have been planted for multiplication, for distribution next planting season.

 Jean Longomo, the Twa evangelist who leads the Baptist congregation in Inongo

Visiting gave us ideas for how we could help their new church grow as a community of Twa believers, even at a distance: with prayer, letters, like Paul, and some specific materials. It has a leader, Jean Longomo, leader of the Twa church of Inongo, a man who went through a week of Campus Crusade training, Bibles, and now a Lingala hymnal. That's a beginning. And they know what other CBCO churches do. Now it's a question of helping them to learn how to commit themselves to Christ, leaving all other allegiances behind, and follow him as only Twa can do, under the guidance of the Holy Spirit.


1    The original inhabitants of the Congo basin were identified by the early European explorers as "Pygmies" because many groups of forest people first encountered were short-statured. The Original People don't accept this label themselves, but it has come to be a useful term when talking in general about the original forest peoples of central Africa. The designation "Twa" is a Bantu word meaning "hunter-gatherer". In the Inongo area this is the term the Bantu use to designate the original inhabitants of the forest. (Other main Pygmy groups are identified as Mbuti, Cwa and Aka.) 

2    The Bantu are the people you think of as ordinary Central Africans. Their ancestors immigrated into West and Central Africa, pushing the original inhabitants, the Pygmies, into the forests and taking over land rights. There are many tribes. Over the centuries Bantu and Pygmies have intermarried (though there are many traditional taboos against mixed liaisons.) 

3    Chaya is a fast-growing vegetable bush from Central America whose leaves are tasty and rich in protein, vitamins and essential minerals. It is fast becoming popular everywhere it is introduced. 

4    Moringa is the tree to have if protein-deficiency threatens or you're forced into a vegan diet. Its leaves are rich in rare meat-like protein, complementary to other vegetable proteins. Reportedly, severely protein-deficient children return to normal after two weeks of moringa leaf therapy. It is also rich in iron, calcium and vitamins. The immature pods cooked, are compared to asparagus, the flowers to mushrooms. It has many important medicinal properties as well. Moringa processing industries are springing up all over the developing world to serve a growing demand.

Wednesday, February 19, 2014

The young man on the right recovered from meningitis, but the illness left him struggling to remember things. Learning is a slow process.  In this church literacy class, he gets both sympathetic teachers and extra help, that may help him to recover more than his health.

Since the beginning of the year, I've been circulating among the churches in the west end of Kinshasa with our new supervisor, Esaie (Isaiah.)  We've struck up conversations with literacy teachers, pastors, church school principals and women's leaders, probing to find out more about their needs and hopes for their churches and communities.  In the process we have opportunities to share a new vision for literacy in Kinshasa.
Our conversational journey has taken us to Baptist churches in the neighborhoods of Lukunga, the WWII Veterans' Camp, Djelo-Binza, Malweka and Pumbu Cité so far.  Today I bent the ear of the pastor of Livulu Baptist Church.  In the next few weeks we will repeat the exercise with Sanga Mamba, Bwadi, and the two churches in Kintambo, close to where I live..  Only 70-odd churches to go in order to cover every CBCO congregation in Kinshasa.  And that doesn't begin to think about sharing the vision in rural areas.

The message we're bringing the churches this time is "Look for the opportunities in your communities that God gives you."  Invest seriously in those opportunities.  Think about building dedicated classrooms for literacy outreach.  Forget that old idea that literacy is pastime for a few old ladies from the village meeting in a back room of the church.  Literacy classes are an incredible resource for your church and neighborhood:
  • not only for teaching women what they have missed, and helping them to a richer life,
  • not only as a way to get more people reading the Bible and equipping them for ministry,
  • not only for bringing new people into the church. 

Literacy classes are an incredible resource for your families' kids.  Many of our own kids aren't doing well in school because they don't have a solid reading foundation.  How about our nieces and nephews newly arrived from the village unprepared to live in a literate world.  And what about those kids recovering from a long catastrophic illness that robbed them of school time and compromised their ability to pick up new knowledge quickly.  Schools here are crowded and don't have tutoring.  Teachers have little time to give struggling kids the help they need.   

These young women have finished Lingala reading and writing classes and moved on to French.  This not only widens the scope of sources of information but gives them a key to open new doors of opportunity.

Literacy classes are different.  We can give struggling youth the individual attention they need to really learn.  While they may start by learning to read and write in a local language, this builds skills and confidence that often leads them to learn good French too.  For a church with a vision, literacy classes can be buzzing with teenagers morning and afternoon, just like those at the Lemba-Matete Baptist Church or the Second Baptist Church of Bandal's.  A church with a vision might even start thinking about where to put vocational classes for its post-literacy students.  What trades might they teach them?

I tell schoolteachers and principals that they can recommend literacy classes to the parents of the students they notice are not doing well.  It is no honor to a school's reputation to have bad students and low percentages of graduating seniors, and principals are happy to hear of an alternative.

It's a dazzling set of new ideas for most of the people we're talking to.  From our perspective as literacy teachers, this vision gives us the scope to touch many more people.  But it also means that our classes begin to do a better job meeting some deeply felt needs in our communities.  And that gains respect: from our host churches, from our communities and from the people we teach.   

Teachers in this kind of a center work harder.  But sharing a valuable skill and doing it well makes it much more likely to be able to make a living from it.  Serious teachers, with serious investment in space and materials by host churches, creates a dynamic that attracts more students, serious students, students willing to pay the voluntary monthly fee for classes they agreed to pay.  That makes for happier, more dedicated literacy teachers.

Trusting in God's vision,

Thursday, January 16, 2014

Community ownership: The local health center is our baby

In theory, community health committee (CODESA) members are respected community representatives with responsibilities for co-managing their area health center. IMA World Health and the ASSP (Access to Primary Health Care) Project are encouraging these representatives to explain to community groups the need and the benefits of community ownership of the health center and partnership with health center staff. To prepare for the information campaign, IMA and ASSP partner CARITAS Congo have organized a series of orientation workshops for CODESA members in six health zones.  

The aim is for these men and women to become key agents explaining the Community Health Endowment initiative and recruiting community groups to provide modest, but crucial, supplementary support to their health center.  Support will lower out of pocket costs for users, making it easier for cash-strapped villagers to get health center services when they need them.  It will also help the health center to ensure that medicines, key supplies and personnel are available to serve when people need them.

I just spent eleven days with colleague Pastor Ruben Ngalubenge in Kindu working with CARITAS Congo partners, coordinated by Dr. Cyprien Masaka.  Ruben led or directed 3 workshops while I observed and worked with CARITAS community development agents.  Frankly I keep expecting community leaders, health service workers and community groups themselves to be skeptical after years of humanitarian "projects" that seem to foster dependency and dysfunction.  Rather than offering material goodies, we are encouraging local communities to discover the resources and power that God has already given them and take the initiative themselves to stabilize and improve local health services.  People's enthusiasm continues to surprise me; they are ready to give it a try.

These pictures give a bit of the flavor of the CODESA workshops for the Alunguli, Kindu and Kailo Health Zones.

 One of the Sokolo Health Center nurses (left) shows Dr Masaka (center) and Jules Kepange Kaleka the beginnings of a model garden. Promoting modest home gardens for families with malnourished children has proved to be a simple, cheap, sustainable and very effective way to reduce malnutrition.

 Participants in the Alunguli orientation workshop for community health committee members.

Pastor Ruben Ngalubenge, IMA World Health consultant, leads a session of the Alunguli Health Zone orientation workshop. About 30 people representing 6 health center areas participated in the workshop.

Pastor Ngalubenge (right) asks a clarifying question as a health committee spokesman (left) presents his groups conclusions during a session of the Alunguli workshop.

Dieudonne Masumboko, principal community participation specialist for the provincial public health office, leads a session of the Kailo community health committee orientation workshop.

Dieudonnee Masumboko advises one group of community health committee members as they work on a Community Health Endowment information campaign for the health center area. IMA World Health and ASSP partner CARITAS Congo aim to help provincial health services to reestablish an effective positive leadership in provision of primary health care services.

 One of the Kailo community health committees puts on a skit depicting the first contact with the chief and community leaders in the Community Health Endowment information campaign. ASSP encourages community groups to organize small income-generating activities to supplement inadequate government and international aid support.

The composer of a jingle promoting community ownership of and involvement in the local health center leads the combined participants of the Kindu and Kailo Health Zones in singing at the end of the workshop.

Tuesday, October 1, 2013

A real education for life

by Miriam Noyes
Helene Bengi (r) is a lead literacy teacher at the Lemba Matete Baptist Church

“Do you see that girl?” Mama Helene asked.  “Her friend brought her.  She’s a high school graduate, in our beginning reading class.  And she’s not alone.  We have several of them.”  Helene and Rose, our literacy coordinator, were talking in front of the Lemba-Matete Baptist church during our recent teacher training seminar there.

Over the years I’ve become aware of the often low levels of literacy among girls in rural schools.  I put it down to environment: there just isn’t that much incentive to read in villages, and girls often don’t hope for lives different from that of their illiterate mothers.  But my friends in Kinshasa protest that schools in Kinshasa aren’t any better.  In fact, they argue, the lively urban setting serves up many more distractions, wooing students away from serious studies.

In 2011 I was visiting Kinshasa as news flashed across the city: 100% of Kinshasa seniors had passed the final exams!  That was one huge city-wide graduation party!  Then the facts started to trickle out : there had been a massive pay-off.  Nearly all the high schools (except official Catholic schools) had participated in the corruption.  Reality came down hard on the celebrating students.  Various institutions announced that they would no longer accept Kinshasa high school diplomas.

Some families pay to have their daughters promoted . . . all the way through their school career.  Other girls pay in other currency: sexual harassment is rampant in schools, and someone I know speaks of “sexually transmitted grades”.  Imagine completing 12 years of school and still not being able to read.

Eventually, young people, like the young woman Mama Helene spoke of, learn that a diploma without the learning to go with it is almost worthless.  That’s when our literacy classes start to sound interesting.

There at the Lemba Matete church the classes are bustling all morning every day, Monday through Saturday, on the students’ insistence.  And all of the students I saw were young, both girls and guys.

Literacy classrooms are simple, protection from sun and rain.  They serve double duty as Sunday School classrooms.

To meet the demand, the church mounted a special offering campaign and built several small classrooms.  They’re bare-bones, but that hardly matters to the young people crowding in demanding an education.  When we interrupted their regular schedule to use their classrooms for our teacher training seminar the kids protested.

Fancy classrooms are much less important that motivated learners and dedicated, creative teachers.

So what makes these kids different?  To begin with, they have made the decision to learn.  They’re tested to find their true level and set at ease with other kids at the same level. In the classes they get individualized attention to deal with whatever problem they have and make sure they’re learning the material.  The education is competency-oriented and practical.  And it includes the encouragement of prayer and learning to read the Bible.

How does the church benefit? They now have classrooms for Sunday school and small meeting places for other groups when classes aren’t in session.  Some literacy students get drawn into church activities and become church members. The church is developing the reputation for caring in the community, a place where you can go for help.  And church members get great help for their own kids, paving the way for a better education.  The good students who are canny use these classes to get better yet.

These days the teachers and students at Lemba-Matete Baptist church are dreaming about adding vocational training classes to further help young people, in a city of high unemployment.

The guiding verse of the Congolese Baptist literacy work is “My people are destroyed for lack of knowledge.” Hosea 4:6.   In a country where that is particularly true*, churches like the Lemba-Matete Baptist Church are making a difference.

* Despite its enormous, varied mineral wealth, DR Congo is at the bottom of nearly every  human development index.