“You are going to become the champions of the Central African Republic. Hang on! The journey is about to begin.”
Clár Ní Chonghaile in Bangui | The Guardian
The four boys and two girls listening to Eric Mamboue’s pep talk in Bangui, the capital of a country condemned to decades of conflict by geography, misgovernance and malice, might be forgiven for feeling a little overwhelmed, but they do actually cherish big hopes and dreams, and know that staying in school is the first step to achieving them.
In a country brought to its knees by three years of inter-ethnic and religious violence, where communities still live apart, and where any loud metallic noise makes people jump and wonder if the killing has started again, these children know that education is not just a way out for them: it could also save their country.
“Without education, the problems will never end,” says Jean*, an eloquent 17-year-old who wears a beaded purse embroidered with Bible verses around his neck.
“The wise share their knowledge. People who are not wise try to destroy things. If we are not educated, things will go badly. If we are educated, the leaders of the future will be able to defend the country.”
The children are all taking part in VoiceMore, a pilot project run by War Child to train young people to speak out about their rights. Mamboue is War Child’s country director in Central African Republic, and these children recently completed a six-day training course.
They all have firsthand knowledge of what it means to have your right to education snatched away.
In 2013, when mainly Muslim Seleka rebels pushed into this green city set on the wide Oubangui river, they ousted the president and committed atrocities against Christians, triggering the formation of mainly Christian and animist anti-balaka militias, who took bloody revenge on Muslim communities.
The Seleka ousted then president François Bozizé, and installed their own man,Michel Djotodia. He was forced out in 2014, ceding power to a transitional government. Now a new president – Faustin-Archange Touadéra – has been elected, most of the Seleka have retreated to the north, and, in theory, the former French colony is entering a post-conflict stage.
But for the hundreds of thousands of children who missed out on school for months, even years, much damage is already done.
“The conflict affected our education. Our levels slipped. That could affect the future of our country when it is us who are the leaders of society,” says Dieudonne*, 15.
His friends giggle nervously at this audacious vision of the future – they are just teenagers, despite what they have seen.
“In our family, we lost two, three people from gunfire,” says 16-year-old Rose*. “We couldn’t even go to the funeral, couldn’t get to the cemetery. If you didn’t have money, you couldn’t move through the streets. They would even take your clothes.”
Free these children from the desire for vengeance, the spirit of hate and the desire for war
The rebels stole or burned schoolbooks, ripped out electricity wires, and smashed the photocopier at Jean’s school. Across the country, schools were used as bases by militia on all sides.
“My school stayed open but there were anti-balaka who came and hassled us and we couldn’t come every day. Now, I know how important education is. It is the cornerstone of man’s success,” Jean says.
After the Seleka lost control, there was a period of relative calm in Bangui, but in September, violence exploded again after a Muslim man was killed. And though many cite the Pope’s visit in November as a significant step towards peace, there is a palpable tension everywhere.
Today, Jean and his friends are back in class, but one-third of school-age children in CAR are not, and one-quarter of schools are still shut.
Marius Mobia, from Enfants sans Frontières, which partners War Child to run after-school clubs on child rights, says education is key to overcoming the divisions caused by the conflict. Since 2013, many Muslims have fled CAR, or live in about a dozen enclaves in the west.
“If my child goes to school, tomorrow he will replace me … If my child does not go to school, it means I don’t want the country to flourish. [Education] is a cornerstone, it is inescapable in life,” says Mobia, who has four children.
“We ask the international community to help us build schools, child-friendly spaces and centres where we can give psychological support to free these children from the desire for vengeance, the spirit of hate and the desire for war.”
At a state school in another part of Bangui, director Benjamin Regakouzou says many children have become aggressive, while some teachers have been on strike since January because they have not been paid.
“Every day, there are fights,” he says, going to the corner of his office to take down a metre-long wooden gun made by one of the students from what looks like the arm of a chair and a long stick.
“He put it at the back of the class like this,” says Regakouzou, placing the gun, butt down, against the wall. “The teacher saw it and brought it to me. That’s the effect of the crisis.”
Beside the M’Poko airport, where about 20,000 displaced people live in shoulder-high shelters cobbled together from corrugated iron, tarpaulins or wood, the UN children’s agency, Unicef, and local partner Remod have opened a temporary learning space, known as an Etape (stage), for more than 6,000 children.
Chancelin Ouilibona, the director, lives in the camp, as do all the teachers at the school – a series of tented rooms where older children sit on wooden benches and younger ones on mats. Ouilibona’s family have been living here since Seleka rebels destroyed their home in 2013, stealing the roof, the doors, everything.
“The children are traumatised,” Ouilibona says. “We teach them about peace and social cohesion … These children must not think Muslims are our enemies and we theirs … They must know Muslims are their brothers.”
Because there is no electricity in the camp, many children study under the bright lights at the nearby base of a Rwandan contingent of the UN peacekeeping force, known as Minusca, which has around 12,000 troops here.
About an hour’s flight north of Bangui in the Bossangoa district, at a school near the Ouham river where hippos snort loudly as they surface, Sore*, 13, says she wants to be matron when she grows up.
“If I don’t go to school I am not a citizen. I am just a toto [silly in Sango]. If I go to school, I will work and become someone tomorrow,” she says.
Crepin Namdenganana, who runs War Child’s projects in this area, has a message for the international community as it meets in Istanbul for a summit meant to reset the humanitarian system and enable it to cope protracted crises, like the one in CAR.
“If I could appeal to the humanitarian family, I would say focus on education … In the third millennium, a person without education, or a person who is illiterate, is like a dead person because they won’t be aware, and they won’t understand what is around them.”
Jean says education is not only critical for reconciliation now, but can also prevent conflicts.
“If there had been good education in the Central African Republic, we would not have descended into this crisis … Education is really poor. Many people don’t know why they live, and it is easy to manipulate them,” he says.
And he imbues this mature pragmatism with a shot of the boundless hope of teenagers.
“To stop this, and make sure there are no more rebellions, we have to fix [ethnic] racism, the religious problem and corruption. These things will not help our country, but liberty, dignity and fraternity will.”
*Names have been changed to protect identities