By Vivian Siu
KINSHASA, Democratic Republic of the Congo, 8 April 2011 – DR Congo is a difficult country for children to grow up in. It’s the second poorest country in the world and more than half the adult population has either never attended school or only completed primary school.
Then there’s the cost of school fees, which average $150 a year. Per capita income in the country was only $171 in 2009.
“Pre-school education has been a serious problem in DR Congo for many years,” said Crispin Ngulungu, UNICEF Child-to-Child Programme Coordinator. “Ninety seven per cent of children don’t have access to pre-school education.” There are 35 million children under the age of 18 in the country.
A pre-school initiative set up by UNICEF and UK partner Child-to-Child Trust in 2008 is aiming to improve such figures. ‘Getting Ready for School: A Child-to-Child Approach’ is an innovative strategy in which older students mentor pre-school aged children. Teaching the basics of math, reading and writing through interactive play gives the young children a head start in preparing for primary school.
“It’s important to help the younger kids so they can avoid having problems in first grade,” said mentor Nefa Kabeya, 12. “If they’re not well-prepared, when they go to first grade, they’ll never ask questions and won’t participate in class.”
The aims of this equity-based and cost-effective approach to early childhood development are numerous: increasing on-time enrolment, promoting school readiness, decreasing early dropout rates and improving academic performance.
Crucial stage of development
By a child’s fifth birthday, his or her brain is already similar to an adult’s in size and complexity. During this crucial stage of development, children need a positive and nurturing environment that gives them the opportunity to become active and confident learners.
Jovial and Mariam, both 5, are enjoying their learning. “I like Nefa because she teaches us how to sing and count,” said Jovial. Mariam added that she loves to read, write and sing.
The child-to-child programme is also helping DR Congo’s progress towards a primary school education for all – a key aspect of the Millennium Development Goals, or MDGs.
“It’s not only for girls or boys. Children from all backgrounds are welcome to the programme, but of course we are targeting the most vulnerable children in rural areas that have no access to school,” said Mr. Ngulungu.
For those who can’t logistically get to school, mentors come to their homes, where they learn the same exercises and skills as they would in a regular classroom. It is often the children’s only exposure to pre-school education and some semblance of a learning environment
“I wanted to help as many kids as I could to study,” said mentor Freros Ngalima, 12. “It’s also helped me improve and learn.”
Prohibitive school fees
While the programme is almost free for pre-school participants, the issue of affordable school fees for primary and secondary students remains unresolved. “Families are keeping their children at home because they cannot pay for the fees,” said Joseph Biselele, Principal of E.P. 1 Kimpangi School in DR Congo’s capital, Kinshasa.
Despite being a mentor, Nefa is one of those struggling. Her mother, Nuki Kabeya, sells bread for a living at 50 cents a loaf on commission. She needs to sell a lot – Nefa’s school fees alone cost $100 a year.
“Sometimes the kids are out of school because I don’t have enough money for the school fees. It’s quite difficult,” said Ms. Kabeya, who has six children in all and whose husband died last year.
As a reward for Nefa’s enthusiasm and dedication to mentoring children in her community, her school fees have been reduced. Ms. Kabeya said the programme has changed her daughter’s life.
“She’s more passionate about school,” explained Ms. Kabeya. “She loves going to school and enjoys taking care of the little ones. She’s really motivated.”
UNICEF continues to work with the government here on efforts to provide a primary education for all Congolese children. As part of its ‘Back to School’ campaign, for example, UNICEF is now focused on providing school supplies to every child entering primary school.
“This year, the President of the Democratic Republic of the Congo decided to abolish school fees for the first three years of primary school in some provinces. This is good progress,” said Mr. Ngulungu.