The United Methodist Women's Assembly, held April 25-27 in Louisville, Ky., afforded the opportunity for Thérèse Lukenge, a high-ranking government official from the Democratic Republic of Congo, to travel from the heart of Africa to the Midwest.
Here in the Heartland, Lukenge identified women's rights, soccer, agriculture, responsible harvesting of natural resources (of which the Congo has some of the world's richest) and social justice all as areas of common interest between her homeland and the people she visited in Kentucky and Indiana.
The minister extended her trip north to Indy to support the work of Faustin N'Tala and his nonprofit WAZA Alliance, which offers paid teacher trainings and community optical outreach efforts to provide glasses to students and teachers in need. N'Tala is a Congo native who moved with his family to Indiana where he has since earned his education degree at the University of Indianapolis. He now teaches second grade French and coaches high school soccer at the International School of Indiana.
Visiting with Congolese natives is always an eye-opening experience for this Indiana native because the daily experience of most of their countrymen is so vastly different than the average Hoosier's day. Most of their country, for instance, does not have any electric power. For those that do, the supply is intermittent and unreliable. In addition, a national postal service does not exist, so remote communities are often isolated. And with decades of wars between various tribal factions and international geo-political forces working to undermine an authentic, grassroots democratic election process, the weight of human tragedy evident in different areas around the country continues to burden the Congolese spirit. But the people are not beaten, Lukenge said. And, the connections that WAZA is enabling between Indiana and Congo is helping to support a greater understanding of her nation.
"First, I want to say, thank you to the people of Indiana because you are far, but some of you come to Lubumbashi in my country and bring your expertise freely and support financially the kids who need that kind of assistance, bring reading glasses to the kids so they will be able to read and write," Lukenge said in French. [N'Tala translated.] "That is a lot of commitment and sacrifice that the people of Indiana are doing for the people of the Congo. I want more to join the effort.
"It allows the people of Indiana and the United States to have a different look at my country. It's a country with people who are very happy. They are very open to welcome everyone. We would like to learn from others. We have a lot of natural resources, but because of lack of contacts, we are not able to do much. Yet we do a lot with what we have."
Having one the Katanga provincial government's top officials, one with whom WAZA has had the most interaction over the past five years, meant a lot of N'Tala, who said the visit served as a validation of his group's work as Lukenge met with teacher volunteers, WAZA's board of directors and some students who are working on personal project about the Congo.
N'Tala will return to D.R. Congo for a six-week mission this summer to provide teacher training to about 300 teachers at four locations, including four new schools built by mining companies. In addition to reviewing classroom management and instruction issues, the training reviews social issues that adversely impact students' learning and students success. WAZA is also working to finish a community survey to establish some baseline demographics in the community surrounding the mining concession. N'Tala is working to raise funds to support 28 WAZA scholarships, which provide full tuition for the recipients. Tuition runs $37.50 a month for upper school and $25 per month for elementary.
WAZA's work represents just on area in which Improvements are afoot in the D.R. Congo.Lukenge has helped to drive many advancements as well. In her work in mining and environmental issues, she has helped to draw attention to physical deformities being caused by unchecked pollution from the mining companies. She instituted mandates that companies measure and track radioactivity levels.
"The population is becoming aware," she said, noting that officials continue to try to improve the environmental degradation while also increasing the mining production upon which their economy rests.
To address the electricity shortages, the country is trying to fix its hydro-electric dam system, Lukenge explained. The Congo River, after all, is among the world's most powerful, carrying the second-largest water volume after the Amazon. In addition, people are switching over to high-efficiency bulbs to try to reduce the demand and investing in the expansion of solar technology, she said.
My, what big farms you have!
Indiana's agriculture — the scale of the farming operations she witnessed as she traversed the landscape — impressed upon Lukenge the untapped potential in her land to reduce the amount of money her people spend on importing food.
"Indiana has opened my eyes, now I know we can push for improvements in agriculture," Lukenge said. "The money we spend to buy food, we can invest the same money to create jobs and improve agricultural techniques."
Lukenge has been on the frontlines of implementing change in her country in several respects. She was, at one point, the government inspector of quality control of the country's extensive mining operations. She implemented programs to enact controls of radioactive elements which had previously been untracked, leaking into the environment, left exposed in piles where workers slept and contaminating exports of other minerals, which was damaging to Congo's international reputation, Lukenge explained.
Global energy issues fueled Lukenge's initial interest in higher education. She was born in the village where, she said, the uranium was mined for the bombs the U.S. dropped on the Japanese to end World War II.
"I was interested to learn the science, so I studied nuclear chemistry," she said.
The primary reason she traveled to the States was to feed off the Methodists' "Be the Change" approach to social justice, particularly when it comes to women's issues. Lukenge said she is interested in "every opportunity to increase awareness and push the leadership of women, the creativity of women. ...Sometimes she can be in a very bad house, but if she can be in her own house, if given the opportunity, if she has resources around her, others can come teach women to be their own habitat with the resources they have around them. That can help improve health. We are open to all these agencies."
Lukenge said she looks forward to building her country's relationship with Indiana.
"I want the people of Indiana to know what WAZA does is raising hope in my country. There are kids who never imagined they'd have a chance to go to school. Now with WAZA's assistance, it is a reality.
"We are not saying Indiana will help us resolve all of our problems, but we are happy Indiana is resolving a bit of our problems."
For all its challenges, she added, the Congo should be seen for its tremendous cultural and physical assets as well.
"We don't want the Congo to be seen as black hole," she said. "It's a country of 70 million people. It's a country that's as big as one fourth of the United States. To take a position that is diametrically in opposition would be similar to ignoring one fourth of the population of the United States."