This originally appeared on The IRC Blog.
This blog is part of a series focused on USAID’s innovative approach to reaching Millennium Development Goal #2: Achieve universal primary education. The theme “Room to Learn” highlights programs and priority countries where access to education is now a reality.
For Fatuma Kitete, a 40-year-old mother of seven, every day comes with a heavy burden. From dawn to dusk, she relentlessly carries plastic canisters filled with sand balanced on her head from the shores of Lake Tanganyika to the town of Kalemie. For her grueling efforts, the construction company, which hires her by the day, pays her roughly $2. That sum buys just one nutrient-poor manioc meal for her large family.
A widow for several years, Fatuma has no help raising her children. She did everything she could to care for them and tried several times to send the elder ones to school, but she could not keep up the monthly educational fee of $2.50 per child, and besides, she needed them to help her carry sand. Her eldest son, now aged 15, was registered only for a couple of semesters eight years ago; her next two daughters, Leontina and Ester, aged 12 and 11 respectively, have been out-of-school for more than four years.
“I saw them often looking at other kids go to school and crying that they could not go as well,” Fatuma recalls. “But what could I do? Luckily we have some old textbooks at home, and they kept reading through them time and again.”
Leontina and Ester during their first week of school in more than four years. Photo credit: Sinziana Demian, IRC
It was this fall and the beginning of the new school year that Fatuma was finally presented with a long-lasting solution: Her children could attend a three-year accelerated learning program, for free, in order to make up for the lost time and eventually be reintegrated in the regular school system. The program, run by the International Rescue Committee with USAID funding, is helping 1,100 boys and girls catch up on their studies at the primary level and work toward the standardized national exam that admits them to secondary school.
Fatuma didn’t think twice: Leontina and Ester would start right away. She borrowed money to buy them new blue-and-white uniforms and proudly walked them the eight kilometers to the learning center on the first morning.
“It was a like a holiday in my family,” Fatuma says. “My girls were finally going to school!”
In Congo today, an estimated 7.6 million children do not attend school. Dropout rates have reached 50%, with girls much more likely than boys to leave primary school. Most families opt to register their sons and keep the girls at home.
For Fatuma, the choice was different. Her eldest son earns a living working odd jobs. “He would have been ashamed to come back to school at his age, with much younger classmates,” she admits. Instead, Leontina and Ester, who with their matching hairstyles share a striking resemblance, now study with several dozen other “accelerated beginners,” practicing simple computations and learning French, the official language of Congo (a country with as many as 250 ethnic groups and more than 240 languages).
“We also drew the human body,” says Ester, timidly, after class. “School is so interesting.”
The center, located on the main road to downtown Kalemie, consists of several reed-walled classrooms arranged around a large, sandy courtyard. Last year, of the 550 students accepted into the program, 99 took and successfully passed the national exams in math, French and general culture. It was by far the best result of any school in the district, and one of the best in the entire Katanga province. Building on this successful experience, the center has doubled the number of students, who will study in two daily shifts.
“This program is a blessing for our children,” says Rebeca Putu, a mother who is also a member of the parents committee. “Most families in Kalemie and surrounding villages would never send their children to school otherwise.”
The IRC is supporting the accelerated learning program as part of a major education effort in three provinces in eastern Congo. In a comprehensive approach aimed at improving access to quality education for 500,000 children and youngsters people, the IRC trains primary school teachers in new methods, runs vocational trainings and literacy classes for youth, and builds, renovates and equips schools and classrooms.