A teacher's return to Zaire

I returned to Africa and to Zaire after an absence of almost 13 years. I had been a teacher in the officially subsidized educational system of the country during the fifties and the sixties.

The changes in the schools of Zaire have sobered me. I have left Zaire fearful that the youth of today are studying in schools that do not have the tools to do the job.

Zaire is returning to an equivalent of the Middle Ages, where a written manuscript was the precious possession of an elite few, the leaders of the medieval church and university. Today's students lack books that are critical to one's education.

One secondary school teacher suggested to me that his educational task is constantly to remind students that books exist. Among the classes which he teaches are three sections of third-year geography -- a total of 150 students. He has 27 books published over 10 years ago, which he carries from class to class. Students use one half of the class period as they read one page, two to a book, and respond to questions evaluating comprehension.

The lack of materials is only one aspect of the problem. Low teacher morale, owing in part to low wages or no wages at all, is a general condition.

A secondary school graduate, trained to teach at the primary school level, begins with a monthly salary of about $55 at the current rate of exchange. That person must pay, in a village setting, between $6 and $7 for a small chicken; "kwanga" or manioc bread, a staple food, costs the equivalent of 35 to 50 cents.

What can be done to provide books for students and salaries for teachers? One obvious response is that government must act to establish priorities which place books above ostentatious buildings or luxurious automobiles. The establishment of any such priority will demand a spirit of self-sacrifice and commitment to the public welfare that is currently virtually absent from the government service. If that system is to change, who is to lead the reform, if it is not the student of today who will tomorrow's leader?

What I have written is by way of example of a wider intellectual, political, and socio-economic crisis in Zaire. But it is the people, from the village to a city like Kinshasa, who have most touched me.

Just this past year a school director had returned to his village of birth to combine farming and teaching. I wrote in my journal:

"'We live as if by a miracle.' This was the way the school director put the state of current conditions in this country. While admittedly hyperbole, the thought expressed underscores the problems these people face. How dom they live?

"There are many possible answers, and one can underscore only some of them. These are extremely resilient people who do not discourage easily, and who keep their spirit, and sense of humor. They also work hard, many of them, contrary to what some popular impressions may be.

"The school director's wife is a case in point. She is up at the crack of dawn in order to prepare two children for school; the latter starts at 7:15 a.m. Two other children under school age remain with her or other members of the family throughout the day. She prepares the light breakfast that is taken and plans the other meal or meals of the day.

"After te business of the house is arranged, she sets out for the field. About 80 percent of the agricultural work in this country is done by women. I met her yesterday as she set out for the fields about 11 a.m. Her youngest child was on her back, and the other one toddled along with her. She did not return until about sundown with about 50 or 60 pounds of peanuts on her head that she harvested.

"Part of the survival answer then is hard work and personal food production. Another important answer is the degree to which family members interface and help each other." Any program for reform and social change must start with this point of strength, Zaire's agricultural and rural population.

An important question remains unanswered. Will Zaire's government listen to a people who stand in need of and are prepared to respond to dedicated and honest leadership?

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