Matthew Lester

Matthieu Kisanula, left, and Tuombe Musafiri listen to teacher Amani Ngashani Marcel during class at Divine Grace Secondary School.

Sunlight from an open window spills across the front-row desk Matthieu Kisanula shares with three other seventh graders and illuminates the chalkboard where the teacher writes names and dates prominent in the history of the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

Matthieu’s white shirt is replicated around the room, where at least 40 students sit shoulder to shoulder, writing notes in worn tan notebooks, top to bottom, side to side — not willing to waste a corner. At 15, he’s a head taller than most of the other students who started school at an earlier age. 

In spite of the chatter, squeals and giggles of children playing outside Divine Grace Secondary School and the neighbouring teacher’s voice broadcasting through gaps in the clapboard wall shared with the eighth grade class, Matthieu focuses on King Leopold II of Belgium. Leopold personally claimed Congo as his own property in 1884, killing more than 2 million Congolese people and pillaging the country’s resources for his own profit.

Today, instead of Leopold, armed groups from within Congo and from neighbouring countries rule many areas of Eastern Congo. They fight each other and the Congolese army to defend or to gain land, resources and power, terrorizing and killing villagers in the process. 

Matthieu knows what it’s like to be one of those villagers.

“They were burning people inside the houses, looting the wealth of people, raping women,” says Matthieu, who was eight years old when he and his family fled an armed group that invaded their village of Nyakabasa. As he ran amidst gunshots, he saw people killed around him.

Matthieu Kisanula  reads beside a hut, while in the foreground, his mother cooks in a cooking hut.Matthieu Kisanula studies while his mother Jacqueline Naburusu prepares breakfast in the cooking hut at Mubimbi Camp where they have lived since 2009.

Their house had already been destroyed, remembers his mother Jacqueline Naburusu, who carried a baby on her back as they fled. With her husband and his first wife (it’s not uncommon in some parts of Congo for men to have more than one wife), Naburusu urged their children onward for the next several days, without food and with little sleep. “Keep going,” she told them. “If we stay here, we will die.”

"Keep going . . . if we stay here, we will die."

In the months that followed, Naburusu and her husband separated. On her own with three children, she eventually found her way to Mubimbi Camp in 2009.

The year before she arrived, other people forced from their villages had cleared the brush from a valley outside the town of Minova to make way for a growing flock of small thatch huts, covered in plastic to keep out the rain. 

She joined the many displaced adults who laboured​ in farmers’ fields or did household tasks to earn enough money to feed their families one meal a day — if they could get consistent work. 

Paying school fees was not possible.

But through the support of MCC’s Global Family education program, Matthieu is in school.

For the past six years, Global Family, through partner Église du Christ au Congo (Church of Christ in Congo or ECC), has provided assistance for every primary student living in Mubimbi and Shasha, two camps for displaced people in Eastern Congo.

Children gather outside low wooden buildings in a valley.Children gather for morning assembly at the Ruchunda Primary School near Mubimbi Camp.

Global Family also supported secondary students for the past two years. All students in both camps — 311 in 2014–2015—receive locally purchased school supplies from MCC at the start of each year.

For parents who have lost everything, education is vital — providing children with a safe space now and building skills that eventually could lift the whole family out of poverty.

“Because of the wars in Eastern Congo, children are likely to enter armed groups or get married at a young age,” explains Fidele Kyanza, director of ECC’s Ministry for Refugees and Emergencies, which oversees the Global Family program. Without activities in the day or a way to earn a living later, youth may become street children, begging for food, work and shelter and vulnerable to abuse.

“Thanks to Global Family, all these children are in school and the results they are getting are encouraging,” Kyanza says.

Last year, 63 of the 64 grade six students passed the national exams.

The student with the top score was 14-year-old Emerance Namihumba, Namihumba, whose parents both died after the family arrived at the camp. A friend of Emerance’s mother has taken her in, encouraging Emerance to study and to read by the light of a paraffin lamp after dark, just like she did for her own children. (Read about Josué Bakeka, whose mother took Emerance in.)

Emerance Namihumba stands by a chalk board looking back at the class.Driven by her desire to shape a future for herself and the encouragement of her foster mother, Emerance Namihumba has earned top academic marks.

“I want to avoid being a street girl,” Emerance says, explaining why she stays regularly after school and reviews her notes with her friends.

At Divine Grace Secondary School and Ruchunda Primary School, which share a campus and are less than a quarter mile from the camp, teachers earn just enough to feed themselves and maybe to buy a chicken or goat to raise. They are chosen because of their heart for the children, says Danny Dunia Miteja Wamatungulu, who founded the primary school in 2008 when displaced people began to arrive.

Fourth grade teacher Bushashire Musengetsi is well aware that the children from the camp come with trauma from their past and from their current poverty. She meets individually with each displaced child in her classroom to listen and to encourage.

Musengetsi Bushashire reaches out over a class room full of young student, her hand holding a piece of chalk.Fourth-grade teacher Bushashire Musengetsi leads her class through a French lesson at Ruchunda Primary School.

“I have so much love for these children,” says Musengetsi, whose energy and affirmation earn her the attention of 54 children who repeat sentences in French class and vie for the opportunity to conjugate verbs on the board. She encourages the children to rub their hands together and give a single clap when any student gets the right answer.

The money MCC provides for school fees allows schools to budget for paying teachers and improving their buildings. The primary school, for instance, started as temporary shelters made of tin. Now five buildings made of wood with tin roofs are on the campus.

A separate, three-year project, funded through MCC’s account at the Canadian Foodgrains Bank, helps to address hunger in the camps, providing residents with rented land, training, tools and seeds to grow their own food. 

Together, the support helps lay a foundation where children can pursue a future very different from the chaos they’ve endured.

Without a chance for education, Matthieu says, “I could have been a bandit. I could have gone to the market to steal. Now I am expecting to complete my studies and be someone in life.”

As his mother thinks about all that has happened in her life, she says she feels good to see her children growing and going to school. “What was lost was lost. Now I am looking toward a future for my children.”

Linda Espenshade is news coordinator for MCC U.S. Matthew Lester is a photographer in Lancaster, Pa.