Amid ruins, a passion for learning, a ray of hope

Despite years of dictatorship and civil war, a university in northeastern Congo soldiers on.

On a hill above the city, a cluster of decaying buildings - their windows shattered, their walls pocked with bullet holes - bear witness to Congo's broken dreams.

This was once a grand university, a gift of the American people to the newly independent people of this country. An institute for training teachers, it shone, say those who remember, like a beacon of promise for a new Africa.

Today, after more than three decades of dictatorship and civil war, Congolese children are as likely to tote guns as schoolbooks. This week an international force continues arriving in Bunia, the northeastern regional capital, to step up efforts to stabilize the area, torn by ethnic fighting over the past four years.

Still, despite years of suffering and hardship, the yearning for knowledge survives here. Among the remaining students and teachers of Bunia's Institut Supérieur Pédogogique (ISP), learning both offers refuge from the chaos around them and feeds their hopes for a better future.

"The Congo," says English student Lazar Unegiu, "will not always be at war."

With few books and no contact with the outside world, students scribble the professor's words on precious paper, learning from curriculums dating to 1981. They scrape together the tuition of $185 a year - almost 20 times the average monthly salary of the teachers they are training to be.

After a year and a half of studies, Mr. Unegiu, 30, speaks well, but carefully, with the preciseness of someone who has learned a language only through books. Like most language students here, he has never met a native English speaker. For seven hours day, he reviews his notes, and a few more hours are spent in classes when they are in session. The rest of the day is spent in his fields, growing cassava and potatoes to survive.

"Our biggest problem," says Mr. Unegiu, "is the lack of books. Do you like Shakespeare? I would like to read Shakespeare, in English, but we only have the French."

ISP Bunia, one of dozen such teacher's colleges around the country, was built by the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) in 1970 to train a new generation of Congolese teachers. The country's colonial power, Belgium, had discouraged education among the locals, leaving this vast country with only a handful of black college graduates when it won independence in 1960. ISP and other universities like it were to train a new generation of Congolese elite. Ministers as well as professors have trained in its classrooms. "Back then, we lacked for nothing. It was just like a university in Europe," recalls administrator Mandro Kalongo, who first came here as a history teacher 27 years ago. "Now, it is unbelievable to see."

ISP stands atop of one of the world's richest gold fields, but little of that wealth has ever benefited the school. Dictator Mobutu Sese Seko plundered the country's wealth to pay off his supporters while public institutions like ISP withered. By the mid-1980s, say teachers, they had to supplement their income by sending their wives to the market to sell vegetables.

In May 1997 the army of Laurent Kabila toppled Mobutu and government support stopped entirely. A year later, when civil war broke out, Bunia was marooned in the rebel-held part of the country. During May alone, four teachers were killed, a bomb went through the roof of the theater, and many students' belongings, including their precious books, were looted or destroyed.

No one recalls when the library last bought a new book or the laboratories new materials. In the chemistry lab, the chemicals are so old that students are afraid to mix them. For the biology students, there's a molting stuffed eagle and a single ancient microscope.

In his dark room in Block C of the school's decrepit dormitories, Mr. Unegiu pulls out his prized possessions: three English study books and two dictionaries, each wrapped in paper to protect its cover. Most date from the 1970s. For these faded books, though, he is much envied by the other students. A friend says that the last time he saw a French-English dictionary for sale in the market was 2 years ago - for $15 he didn't have.

ISP sustains itself entirely on student tuition, using the money to pay its teachers a paltry 60 cents an hour. But few students graduate from high school these days and fewer still can afford the tuition. This year, about 100 students enrolled, though the campus was built for 700. A few dozen have since fled, in the recent months of ethnic fighting. The rest wonder how they will pay.

Unegiu's family usually sells vegetables to help pay for his tuition, saving the money one piece of corn at a time. But with the fighting, they cannot transport their produce into town from their village 100 miles away. Unegiu says he doesn't even know if they are still alive.

Classes, halted in March, were supposed to restart last week, but renewed conflict over the weekend has meant a delay. Meanwhile, the students plow their fields, review their lessons and dream of peace. "One day," says Mr. Kalongo, "this university will again produce very important people for this country."

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