New York, New York
Tuesday, March 1, 2011
Sarah is attending the launch of the 2011 Global Monitoring Report at Columbia University in New York City today on behalf of Save the Children. This year’s report examines the consequences of conflict on children’s education.
If you want to put names and faces to the millions of forgotten children in the world, you might start in the rolling hills of Kitchanga, north of Goma, in the east of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC.) There you will find thousands of children living in poverty exacerbated by violence and a general lack of interest from the international community. You might start with Rafiki, a twelve-year-old child with a bright smile and a nearly unbelievable sense of optimism.
Rafiki’s father died when he was just four years old. When he was 10, he and his mother fled from their home when one of the many active armed groups in the region tore through their village, burning homes and fields and destroying anything in their path. “I don’t know why they did it,” he told me sadly, “no one knows.”
“When the soldiers came, we saw and ran away. I was too scared. I thought I was going to die. Everyone ran. We came on foot with nothing, only our clothes that we were wearing. We came to stay with my uncle because we didn’t know what else to do,” Rafiki recalls.
Rafiki’s uncle took them in, and his mother helps around the house, collecting water and wood and helping with the cooking.
“I wanted to go to school right away,” Rafiki said, “I was in fifth grade, and I wanted to continue but I couldn’t. My mother didn’t have any money to pay (the fees) and my uncle couldn’t help. Instead, I helped my mother with her chores.
“Children who are not in school are treated like vagabonds, like bandits. Children who go to school are respected by the others and by the grownups,” he said. “I felt awful when I wasn’t in school. I felt like I had no life.”
Last August, Rafiki and his mother heard that Save the Children was helping children who were not in school to enroll. Rafiki was thrilled. He is now in his last year of primary school – a school in which the teachers have been trained through the support of Save the Children, and in which there are children’s clubs and recreational activities and schoolbooks. Rafiki comes to school every day. He says that he feels better about himself and about his life, and he hopes that one day he’ll be a doctor.
“I love school!” he said, “I want to have a good life.”
He pointed to the secondary school next door to his primary school. “That’s where I’ll go next year.”
But he probably won’t.
Secondary school fees are as high as 5 to 10 times primary school fees, and Rafiki’s mother couldn’t pay those. The district of Kitchanga, while home to more than 20 Internationally Displaced Persons (IDP) camps and more than 40,000 displaced people, is not considered enough of an emergency to garner the kind of humanitarian support that would allow a child like Rafiki to continue his schooling. In Kitchanga, 24 rapes were reported during the weeks around Christmas; in another part of the country, that figure was in the hundreds. While 24 rapes would be a crisis in your neighbourhood or mine, in the DRC it pales in comparison to other emergencies. The children of Kitchanga are trapped in a grey area: they live in a context of instability, but not enough instability for the humanitarian community to consider them a priority.
The funding for Save the Children’s education program in Kitchanga ran out at the end of February 2011, and there is no further funding in sight. Thanks to the support he’s already received Rafiki will make it to the end of primary school. But what of the children who will come after him? Each child in Kitchanga who enrolls in school, each parent who enrolls his child in school, is making a statement of optimism: against all odds, they are insisting in a belief in the future of Kitchanga and the future of DRC, which most of the world seems to have forsaken.