No books, no peace, but Congo schools open
As I sat with a group of eager students in a dilapidated school in Masisi, in eastern DRC, I couldn't help but be impressed.
Teachers haven't been paid a salary from the state for over a decade.
Books, when they are not out of print, are unaffordable.
Yet even as armed skirmishes continue throughout the territory around them, hundreds of schools have persisted in their daily lessons.
North Kivu is on one of the frontlines in a senseless war that has held the country hostage since 1998.
While peace has progressed since mid-2003, when a power-sharing government took over, this same peace has been slow in coming to eastern DRC.
Many of the school buildings in Masisi have been damaged by the war or general neglect -- and none have been built by the state since independence 44 years ago.
Increased poverty due to conflict leaves families struggling three times a year to pay a school fee of $3 to $4 per child -- absolutely essential to the schools as their only source of income.
"We can't not teach if there is to be a future here", explained Kamuha Gervais, a headmaster at one of the schools I visited.
And he is right -- the sheer fact that schools function is testimony to the hope and resilience of the population.
But hope and resilience can only go so far in a war-torn land.
Throughout DRC only 66 percent of boys and 51 percent of girls of primary school age were enrolled in 2001, according to UNICEF, the U.N. Children's Fund.
In Masisi and other places in the east, enrolment rates are probably much lower.
When communities are asked what keeps children away from school, they unequivocally answer "poverty".
But that is not the only obstacle.
Girls are often kept away from school due to a culture that prioritises boys.
A large number of internally displaced children do not have the resources to attend.
Orphaned children have no parents to pay their school fees.
Pygmy children are traditionally discriminated against.
Growing numbers of children are being demobilised from the armed forces, but are rarely able to return to school.
The education opportunities for these most vulnerable groups should be a major concern both to the transitional government of DRC and to the international community in its attempts to stabilise a new peace.
As the National Plan for Demobilisation and Reintegration kicks off, children and others involved in the fighting will partly judge the success of peace on the opportunities they have on returning home.
Education seems to be a major missing piece in that puzzle.
As duty bearers shirk their responsibilities, the burden remains firmly local.
Most schools I visited have taken steps to reach out to more vulnerable children on their own, waiving school fees for a token few who are deemed "social cases".
But the tension between ensuring that teachers are paid and allowing more children to attend school for free is a difficult one to resolve on their own.
A few NGOs, including Save the Children, are trying to tackle these issues in projects to increase access to schools and protect vulnerable children.
Work with parents' committees gives teachers better understanding of "social cases" and increases the attendance of vulnerable children.
Supporting communities to reconstruct schools reduces the cost burden on parents and allows them to send more of their children to school. Projects in non-formal education attempt to reach children who do not go to school and are unlikely to go back.
Near the end of my time in DRC, our team talked to a group of children who did not attend school.
A young orphaned girl in this small village of Masisi inadvertently summed up the situation for nearly half the children in the country.
Education had been mentioned several times in the course of discussion, and as we closed, she looked up and asked: "Does this mean I can go to school tomorrow?"
I was devastated that I couldn't tell her yes.
Even as Congolese educators defy the odds and keep schools running, the most vulnerable children will never be able to access school unless both the DRC government and international community show a greater commitment to education for all.
Any views expressed in this article are those of the writer and not of Reuters.
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