by Diana Buckhantz
Suddenly we are surrounded by a sea of children. As we stand there they begin to form a circle around us and move in closer and closer.
Janice and I came outside after seeing an impressive women’s sewing collective. We are in a remote village called Kamisimbi, two hours outside of Bukavu in the hills. We have been brought here by Gila Garaway, an Israeli/American who heads an incredible organization called Moriah Africa, to see the women’s empowerment program she helped start. We step outside just as one hundred children, it seems, ages 2 to 16, come pouring out of their classrooms for recess. They surround us. We are trying to communicate with them. Some of the children speak French so Janice and I make feeble attempts with our school French. We are all laughing. By their expressions I am sure we are the source of many jokes. But what we don’t understand doesn’t bother us. So we all just laugh. It feels so good –a welcome relief from the many days of sadness and despair.
This was a very hopeful, positive day. With the help of Gila, Pastor Grace has implemented several programs in the village to improve the lives of the mostly women and children. There are several programs that teach them skills that will enable them to live better, less arduous lives. A sewing cooperative teaches girls and women to make beautiful bags and clothes which they then sell at market. It also teaches them how to run their small businesses. Most importantly, this program will spare them the backbreaking plight of the thousands of women we saw each day, who were carrying enormous heavy piles of charcoal on their heads as they trudged up and down the hills for miles trying to eke out a meager living. Another class teaches the young men to make hand carved furniture (we were all tempted to ship a piece home, but it’s not really possible). There was also an agricultural coop.
For me, however, one of the most optimistic aspects of the village was the school. There is 70 per cent illiteracy in Bukavu alone, and I have worried since I arrived here how Congo can one day heal and reconstruct itself if its children are not educated.
Since I arrived in Congo I have seen thousands of children, at all hours of the day, playing in the streets when one would expect them to be in school. Kamisimbi School was an example of what can be done with determination and resourcefulness. The Pastor proudly took us to each grade level where the students politely stood as we walked in and warmly greeted us. In one class the geography teacher was out sick – but when we walked in, the class was sitting and quietly studying its assignment– not what you would expect to see in LA! It struck me that these students knew how lucky they were and truly valued the opportunity to go to school. I loved what I saw.
But I need to add that under this hopefulness remains a biting poverty and desperation. For example, the roof of the school, which is made of corrugated metal sheets, had blown off twice in five months due to heavy winds. The village was having difficulty obtaining the $100 needed to repair the roof. (I proudly report that we exercised discretion and donated the new roof on JWW’s behalf!). In addition, even though this is probably the best of the rural villages, due to the attention of Gila and Pastor Grace, the people are still hungry, a fact which we evidenced first hand: at the end of our visit, the villagers gave us each a gift of an ear of corn from the communal garden. But while Janice and I were looking at the sewing cooperative, a young woman signaled to us that she was hungry and wanted our corn. It was heartbreaking…here was a vegetable cooperative and the villagers were still hungry. Janice and I sneaked our corn back to the hungry villagers – hiding it so that they wouldn’t get in trouble.
With all of the challenges, it is nevertheless evident that programs like the ones developed in Kamisimbi with Moriah Africa will help to assure a better future for the people of Congo.