It could have been small town Iowa. Dignitaries arrived. The local sports team stood at attention in orange t-shirts. The drummers set the pace, and the musicians played. The town fathers presided in a ceremony in front of the church next to the school. Young mothers with babies and young children sat near the back. Students stood in rows by class. The parent organization sat together as did the teachers. The children sang. Mooing cattle provided background for a speech by a special boy, the school’s brightest. And they gave us gifts made locally.
But this scene played out in rural Congo (DRC). It was a soccer team with only one ball, and the children wore hand-me-down school uniforms faded from over-washing. The band didn’t march.
After the ceremony the “school board” showed us binders filled with budgetary detail. A capacity-building program sponsored by USAID is helping local leaders, both men and women, take responsibility for their school. They showed us the new latrines that the community had built with a side for girls and a side for boys. Now they need a new school to replace the one washed away by seasonal rains. In the makeshift school children sit on red bricks because there are no desks. Worse, there are no textbooks.
The problem is sometimes where to start. Should donors like USAID help with infrastructure? Research tells us that if we build more schools closer to where children live, they will feel safer coming to school, especially girls who are at risk of sexual violence. Do we train teachers,especially women, so that parents will feel more comfortable sending their girls to school? Or do we help find a way to alleviate school fees assessed to supplement the meager salaries paid to teachers. Can we do both?
In much the same way we value local control of our schools, local people, especially parents, are learning to have a say in the solutions to these problems. The International Rescue Committee through USAID’s Opportunities for Equitable Access to Basic Education (OPEQ) program is working with parent groups in targeted schools in Katanga province to teach civic involvement. These parents are creating and implementing a school improvement plan. The skills they are learning will carry over into many other aspects of community life.
OPEQ is also training the teachers. Armed with a piece of chalk, a chalk board, and newly acquired skills, these teachers are starting to teach reading by teaching the children of Katanga province in their mother tongue, then transitioning to French, the national language. This is a hard-sell for parents who need convincing that research shows starting with the language children speak is the best way to give them the tools to read in other languages.
A new latrine, teachers eager to show off their skills: small steps by western standards, but as anyone on Main Street knows, the key ingredient is always the parents. It’s a good place to start.