Monday, 8 August 2011

Congo's Students

Apologies again for my infrequent updates... my internet access is very limited and quite slow.
Since I last wrote, I've had a vast array of experiences, both professional and personal, which have left me increasingly admiring of the Congolese people.

As the days go by, I'm feeling more and more at home in this country. The minor irritations of no water and occasionally no power (and not being able to run, because I don't dare run in this dust and heat if I can't be guaranteed a shower at the end!) are outweighed completely by church services like yesterday's, with such meaningful, old hymns being harmoniously belted out with heartfelt fervour; reminding me why I love this country and its people. But the book I'm reading, "Blood River", a journalist's (Tim Butcher) narrative of his travels across Congo, attempting to re-trace explorer Stanley's footsteps, whilst interesting, is profoundly saddening for me, learning about beautiful Congo's bloody history and brutal, unjust exploitation at the hands of colonial powers and corrupt governments. Anger can hardly do my reactions justice.

I've been repeatedly astonished at what is tolerated here, with a smile, when significantly less would draw public outrage or complaints in Australia. Cause for my own introspection: how can I ever complain about the lack of sleep or difficulties with working and raising just one child, when mothers here have on average 6-10 children, and try to study, and try to raise them with no money, and try to work occasionally if it's possible, and in a tiny 2-bedroom house, in an unstable and sometimes violent country with no government financial assistance, with no electricity or water... and no complaints!! I marvel at and envy this perserverence and strength of character.

During the last week, I've tried to do as much fact-finding for this project as possible. One of my days, I visited ITM (rough translation: Technical Medical Institute), the nursing school here, attached to Panzi Hospital, which was built in 2008, after having to alternate between empty wards, containers, etc, for teaching space before its completion. I talked extensively with some teachers, the Director of ITM and the Nursing Director, and I was taken on a detailed tour.

The nursing course at this institute (like most in this country) runs over 4 years, currently has 130 students enrolled, and includes classroom teaching and practical training in hospital wards. Classes run from 7.30am till 3pm every day, and students come from everywhere to attend, including Rwanda and Burundi. Because there are no student living quarters, some students (most of which have more than 5 children at home) have to get up at 3-4am to commence their daily trek into ITM in order to arrive on time, often walking the entire distance. The fees to study nursing are US $200 annually (which includes resources). This, while supporting a family of 10 on $4 a day, is a near impossible feat for some (to give you perspective, one of my friends rents out his house near Panzi for $25/month... and that's considered expensive). Approximately 35% of the nursing students are struggling incredibly to pay these fees. By 'struggling', I don't just mean they're 'finding it tough'... these students can't pay these fees, EVEN when they haven't put any money aside for food or medicine needed for their families, let alone transport, water, etc.

I had the opportunity to interview some of these students about how they manage, and, without them even vocalising it, I could tell by their clothes, the lines on their faces and the weariness in their eyes just how challenging their lives are... I can't even pretend to empathise or fathom. This is a life they have to live permanently.

The Institute itself is struggling because they've gone out of their way to assist some exceptionally poor, but bright students, who would drop out otherwise. As a result (because the Government does not contribute financially to universities or institutes here), the teachers and professors often go without any pay, they haven't been able to purchase any textbooks for their library, they can't pay for any maintenance for the building, and they've had to cut off the internet because of the ongoing cost.

The following day, after having a formal meeting with the Medical Director of Panzi Hospital, Dr Denis Mukwege, I was taken to see the medical campus at the University - UEA (Evangelical University in Africa). They are currently in the final stages of building the new medical faculty, just around the corner from the hospital. It will open in September, ready to start teaching the 1200 medical students in this coming school year. The construction of this building was funded by a German organisation, and encompasses administrative offices, a few medium-sized lecture rooms (with blackboards, crude wooden benches and desks), and one large lecture hall. Although I was visiting during their end-of-year holidays, there were many students present, quietly studying independently during my tour.

I was then chauffered to the main UEA campus, up some dusty roads and around the corner. The UEA buildings are clustered in groups, in tiers up the side of a lusciously green mountain, in vivid contrast with the scorched, dusty haze apparent directly outside the front gate. I so enjoyed our drive, winding up the long dirt driveway, passing villagers and children laden with firewood, food or jerry cans of water, drinking in all the rich colours, as we ascended and the city of Bukavu spread out lazily behind us in the midday heat.

In 1992, with no other universities in the country, the Protestant Church founded UEA to "help build the country's development and give students access to the rest of the world". The initial plan was to build 3 campuses - one here in Bukavu, one in Bujumbura (Burundi) and one in Kigali (Rwanda), but the many years of war have halted those efforts. It comprises four faculties: Medicine and Public Health, Economics, Agriculture, and Theology. It has now been recognised by the DRC Government as an official Congolese University. It is growing annually, and currently has 2850 students enrolled. Like at ITM, the financial difficulties are evident, with few books and ancient, ragged journals stored in the library, no nearby student accommodation, and none of the regular student life 'comforts' and activities I'm so accustomed to in Australia. And again, like ITM, the university is constantly between a rock and a hard place... desperate to not kick out diligent, conscientious students who can't pay the fees, but also keen to actually pay the teachers' and staff salaries, conduct some research, provide internet, and afford occasional building maintenance and repairs.

The medical course here (like in most Congolese universities) runs over 7 years - 6 years based at university and 1 year based in hospital. It costs a student approximately US $500 each year, to which the Government does not contribute or provide assistance. Unlike the nursing students at the Institute, medical students must have completed their high school diploma, with marks above a certain percentage. They are more likely to be unmarried and childless, commencing their studies directly after high school. Out of the 1200 medical students (across all 7 years), 500 are female. I was able to interview some, both men and women. Most of them had dreamed of becoming doctors when, from an early age, they were exposed to suffering and illness within their families. Each response, although familiar-sounding, was utterly raw and genuine... stories of great difficulty affording the fees, hours of travel to and from uni, or having to leave family and living with 5 or 6 friends in nearby 2-bedroom derelict houses, with no income... all true tales, from exhausted but dedicated young students. If, perchance, a student happens to get some financial assistance from their parents, it often comes at the expense of any of their siblings being able to also attend university.

There isn't much to look forward to at the end of their studies in Congo either... other than carrying the title 'Dr'. Doctors are not paid by the Government, on the whole, and can only earn what their patients pay... with no incentives to draw doctors out to rural areas. Doctors, once specialised, often earn as little as $100/month.

Since my tour, interviews and discussions with staff of ITM and UEA, I have felt much more confident about the direction of the Mafunzo Project. Despite my cynicism before the trip, knowing that the world does not need any more new aid organisations, and questioning the viability of financial transactions with Congo, I've been pleasantly surprised to see the support and encouragement from Australians and Congolese. I'm dearly hoping that now you've read this, perhaps, just perhaps, you may consider the small amount of money needed to train a doctor or a nurse here...

- $200 a year for a nurse (over 4 years)
- $500 a year for a doctor (over 7 years)

That's $20 or $50 a year if you're one of a group of 10. Spare change.

Once I'm back, and able to access better internet, I will set up a website whereby people can donate to this Project. And every cent will be sent to Congo. I have no maintenance or administration costs, because it's just me. I'm starting small... possibly with 5 nursing students and 8 medical students come September and the new school year.

Please consider this seriously. Congo, a country ravaged by endless war, needs more trained healthcare professionals, and the Congolese Government is not providing any financial assistance to either universities or students. This, to me, seems a very obvious gap that we can start to fill.


  1. Another beautifully written insight into your adventures! Am glad you were able to see first hand what the students are struggling with, your descriptions of this will help those back here try to have empathy and even give of their 'spare change'

    love you

  2. Seth, agreed! Well said :) Em, thanks for taking the time on another update, it's so good to be able to read about your progress, and it's great that you're getting a clearer vision of what to set up when you return to Tas. Looking forward to seeing you really soon! xo

  3. Em - thank you for sharing your amazing journey with us. What a reminder that we have amazing opportunities for education and health care here in Australia. It is so sad that many uni students in Australia, don't even bother to turn up to classes! And yet look at the sacrifices of the people you have met with to try and gain an education - just to help others!
    Praying lots for you. xx

  4. Thanks for posting this Em!

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  6. Tu es ma mère car tu as fait à moi une chose incroyable et maintenant je suis medecin.Que le seigneur vous benisse. mon email.

  7. Tu es ma mère car tu as fait à moi une chose incroyable et maintenant je suis medecin.Que le seigneur vous benisse. mon email. et tout les jours de ma vie je prie le seigneur de vous proteger et à avancer notre projet.quand je te verrai un jour de ma vie je serai plus hereux. i love you my mother and God bless you ,your familly