End of August 2017. I am visiting the primary school of Malandji in Kananga, capital of Kasai Central Province, Democratic Republic of Congo. There is a lot of activity. The director receives one mother after another, in his small office for the enrollment in the new school year. Nothing special, you would think. In thousands of schools throughout the country, you can see the same. But here in the Kasai, this is special.
A year ago, hell broke loose in the Kasai region. It began as a conflict between a local traditional leader and the Congolese government. What started out as a local conflict has meanwhile resulted in a confrontation between militias and government security forces affecting the entire Kasai region, and even beyond.
It is against this background that I met Florence in the courtyard of the school. Florence is lining up with her three children at the door of the director’s small office. I walk over to her and we start talking. Florence is not from Kananga. She comes from the area of Tshikapa, about 250 kilometres west. Florence fled with her children when the violence between the militias and the army hit her neighbourhood. “I was on the route for two months, by foot through the bush. There was hardly anything to eat. It was terrible. I fled to Kananga because my mother lives here. I had heard that the situation here had become safe.”
Florence came to the school to enroll her oldest daughter, Bipendu. “I heard during the church service last Sunday that children could be enrolled in school. Last year, Bipendu was completely missed by the violence and our flight. I do not want her to lose any more time from to school.”
Bipendu is eight years old. The school director submits her to a small math and writing test to determine her grade level. Bipendu has to think deeply about the simple calculation. After several minutes and counting on all fingers, Bipendu writes down the answer: “5 + 2 = 7”. The writing test goes much smoother: “Je suis à l’école” (I am in school). The school director confirms that “Bipendu may go to the third grade. She hasn’t been to school for a year. It is normal that she has forgotten some things. That will be fine soon.” Everyone was happy.
For Florence it is clear. Her future lies in Kananga. “In Tshikapa, there is still too much violence. I cannot go back. Even though it’s not easy in Kananga.” Florence has no job or fixed income. Her mother is also very poor. “But with a bit of work left and right, I will manage,” she reassures me.
UNICEF has been active for several years in Kasai, operating out of its offices in Kananga and Mbuji Mayi. To respond to the violence, we have adapted and expanded our programmes. Since the beginning of the crisis, we have assisted 220,000 people with health care, nutrition, water, education and child protection. The most vulnerable families are assisted with non-food items and a one-time $100 cash contribution to build their lives back. UNICEF is mobilizing the entire organization to help with the response to the L3 emergency in Kasai.
Before we say goodbye, Florence had a message to share: “I ask everybody who runs the war, to stop. War is not good. It’s bad. I want my country to live in peace.”
Yves Willemot is Chief of Communication at the Country Office of UNICEF in the DRC. Previously he was the Executive Director of the Belgian National Committee for UNICEF and the Communication Advisor at the Regional Office of UNICEF for West and Central Africa.