KINSHASA, June 16, 2020— To pass the time, Kandindi Kengela likes to sit outside at his little blue plastic table and leaf through his notebooks. Like all Congolese children, he has been confined to his home for more than three months to prevent the spread of the coronavirus, and he is eager to return to school. “Studying is what makes me happy,” says the fifth-year primary school pupil in the city of Kananga, in Kasai Central. “It will allow me to become a driver, a pilot or who knows, even the President of the Republic.”
His mother Victorine Tshibola is happy to have Kandindi’s help tending their fields occasionally, but she is worried. Time is starting to drag. She is a farmer raising her six children alone since her husband’s death, and she attaches particular importance to their education.
“I lost my parents at a very young age. And I didn’t have the chance to finish my studies because I couldn’t afford it,” she explains. “I want my children to finish school because school opens up their minds, makes them independent, and helps them fulfill their potential in life.”
Victorine is all the more concerned, because her children were deprived of school last year. “I didn't have enough money to pay the school fees,” she says. “I had to choose between feeding them or sending them to school.”
When parents have to pay for school
Until September 2019 when the last school year started, the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) was one of the few countries in the world where primary schools still charged fees. Over the past two decades, Congolese households have financed two-thirds of the essential education services that the state could no longer afford, including the salaries of teachers and administrative staff and school operating costs. On average, parents had to spend nearly $65 per year per child for primary school. The most vulnerable families were not always able to afford this amount. Some 64% of households surveyed in 2018 indicated that high fees were the main obstacle to their children’s enrollment in school. In fact, 4 million primary school-aged children were out of school in 2018.
As a result, many children attended school sporadically depending on their parents’ ability to pay, and fell significantly behind in their studies. Some ended up turning to crime.
“The school is a place of protection for children in general,” says Augustin Tshiko, primary school teacher in Kananga. “It provides a space that helps keep them from getting into trouble, like joining an insurgent group.” He also believes it is essential to pay special attention to girls, who are traditionally disadvantaged when it comes accessing education in the DRC. “Girls must have the same access to school as boys. To educate a girl is to educate a nation.”