When Faustin N'Tala, a French teacher and soccer coach at the International School of Indiana, arrived on June 21 in Lubumbashi — a city of 4 million people, the second-largest in the Democratic Republic of Congo — he found the city on high alert.
Armed secessionist rebels were threatening the city. Not a great time for tourists to visit, but for N'Tala, the potential for chaos and violence only served to underscore his determination to continue his grassroots work to empower the people of the DRC through the educational outreach and support activities of his WAZA Alliance for Quality Education.
"You can't visualize landing in a country where you are on high alert — machine guns everywhere," N'Tala said in a recent interview. "It doesn't take a huge fire — it takes a spark. You hope nobody is going to pull the trigger by accident because everybody else will think it's the beginning of the game.
"This is an environment where everything is OK until something happens."
This summer's uprising in Lubumbashi, which relates to the desire of some members of the Katanga Province to stop exporting the profits of their area's natural resources, is a separate issue from the long-running clashes between the DRC military and various rebel groups associated with neighboring countries along the eastern border, including Rwanda and Uganda. Along the border, a United Nations peacekeeping force is engaged in helping the DRC and diplomats are currently pursuing disarmament of negative forces that include the M23 and the FDLR, a Hutu militia. The UN estimates the fighting has displaced more than 100,000 people in the past year, "exacerbating an ongoing humanitarian crisis in the region which includes 2.6 million internally displaced people and 6.4 million in need of food and emergency aid."
The DR Congo's population is almost 70 million. Its land mass is about 900,000 square miles — about the size of the continental U.S. east of the Mississippi. The people speak 250 languages, add in regional dialects and that number exceeds 400. French is "the language of education," N'Tala said. In urban areas, which are subject to frequent and unpredictable power outages, television provides some exposure to the language, but in rural areas do not have such access.
The average age in the DRC is 16.
"Two hundred-and-fifty-thousand teachers walk to school — and they are followed by close to 20 million students every day," N'Tala said. "If we could train these 250,000 teachers to be good citizens , we can have an impact more than 20 million people and turn around the state of the nation."
Illiterate people are easier for political and military interests to control, he explained.
"What I'm doing can be dangerous," N'Tala said. "When people begin to think, that's not a good thing."
N'Tala came to the U.S. in 1998 to study at the University of Indianapolis. When he finished his undergraduate degree in education he began teaching at the International School of Indiana. At that time, his country was entering into a conflict, sometimes called the African World War, which killed an estimated 6 million people as the troubled legacy of the Rwandan genocide spilled across the border and intermingled with local politics and business. For the safety of his family, N'Tala opted to stay in Indiana, but the desire to help improve conditions in his homeland led him in 2008 to found the WAZA Alliance.
His mission: To improve the quality of life for the children of DRC by improving the quality of their education.
His vision: That each child has access to a quality education in a school that has qualified teachers and plenty of resources.
Teachers at elementary schools are often not qualified to do their jobs, N'Tala said, noting that most do not have more than a high school education. Those with advanced degrees work for private companies; the chemistry lab at the mining company pays "literally 1,000 times more" than teachers earn.
"Our concern is that in the midst of all this, the big loser is the learner," N'Tala said. "The learner is not getting basic fundamental skills they need in literacy, reading, writing and math. They do not get a competitive advantage when it comes to employment in the country — they cannot beat international candidates — even for jobs like welding, carpentry and masonry."
Teacher training is a major focus for WAZA. In 2008, its pilot project in teacher training hosted 71 teachers (organizers had planned for 50). This summer marked the sixth annual series of teacher trainings. The group reached 260 teachers in Lubumbashi, Kambove, Kolwezi and Kapolowe-Gare, a rural area about 100 miles away.
Beyond discussing classroom protocols and the pitfalls of bribing students and their parents to supplement insufficient incomes, N'Tala pushes questions such as, "Why do we die so young?"
The country's life expectancy is 56 years — and the country has the world's 12th highest infant mortality rate. N'Tala's father died at 59, his mother at 48. He hopes that as teachers begin to learn home economics, family planning and volunteerism, they can begin to effect positive change in their communities — and for the country overall.
More than 1,000 teachers have taken WAZA training.
"If 10 percent understand the value – that education is the greatest investment for new generation of Congolese, then I'll say it is successful," N'Tala said. "You don't have to be president of the republic or a minister — you just have to be where you are in your classroom and you can spark a new generation of leaders right there."
In addition, WAZA raises money to support students through their primary education. For each $300 raised, the group can pay for a year's tuition and all necessary books and supplies. A family of six, on average lives on about $360 a year, so the $25 monthly tuition often leads to debt-fueled drop-outs, N'Tala said. WAZA identifies students facing such circumstances, pays their debt and allows them to continue their studies.
WAZA is now sponsoring 28 students, 15 in rural areas and 13 in the city. The first group, which began as 8-year-old second and third graders, is now in secondary school at age 13.
This summer's visit also included a vision-screening component thanks to the leadership of Gordon Mendenhall, a retired University of Indianapolis professor, and two volunteer medical doctors from the DRC. The group screened 437 students and teachers over four days. A quarter of those tested need — and received — glasses.
Other ongoing WAZA initiatives include administrator training and improving access to and production of children's literature.
"Democracy might not survive because of the local education of the community as a whole," N'Tala said. "Education can get people of the Congo out of turmoil and economic crisis – it's used as a tool for survival."
Editor's note: In the interest of full disclosure, the reporter must acknowledge that she is friends with N'Tala and frequently coaches soccer with and against him.