Sustainable development takes time, it’s not about quick fixes, but if you’re prepared to work with people, not for them, listen, respect and commit to the long term, it’s worth it.

Let me take you back to 2005 and the first time I visited the remote village of Gitigarawa on the Plateau in South Kivu, eastern DR Congo. I had travelled there to assess the needs and priorities of children and communities from this war-affected, forgotten region, and to make recommendations to Children in Crisis’ Board of Trustees as to whether we should begin a new programme in this region.

The winding journey up the mountain to Gitigarawa was tense, with frequent road blocks manned by heavily armed soldiers. At every road block, people were being manhandled; their agricultural produce taken from them as a form of ‘tax’ by the local soldiers. In the eyes of the women, I could see how ground-down they were – powerless in the face of men with guns. 

On the way up to Gitigarawa in 2009

At Gitigarawa itself, nestled on the mountainside, the first community meeting we held was packed. It was at this meeting, attended solely by men, that I got my first insight into the spirit of a local population determined to plan for a better tomorrow. With a tentative national peace declared some two years earlier, but with militia still active across the Plateau, returning populations were sick of conflict and desperate for a return to normality. Children’s education was a named priority in meeting after meeting. I also got an insight into some of the societal dysfunctions that existed, namely the deep mistrust between tribes and the extreme marginalisation of women and girls. After some gentle cajoling, I did get to speak with women on this trip, and heard their powerful testimonies, their hopes for a better future, and a longed-for return to peace.

Bibangwa's school as we found it in 2005

On my return to the UK it was agreed that a new programme was needed in eastern DR Congo, and so the journey began. By 2007 we had launched the first of what has become an inspiring education programme with local partner, Eben-Ezer Ministry International (EMI). The purpose of this programme has been to improve the education opportunities of primary school-aged children across the region. It has been an ambitious undertaking, delivered in stages, gradually and over time.  Teacher training and school building have been accompanied by school management training and the establishment of teacher support networks; creative, grassroots community awareness raising on women and children’s rights have led to the establishment of village savings and loans associations (VSLAs), designed principally to empower women. All the while, activities have been delivered against a backdrop of post-conflict recovery and complex inter-community/inter-tribal dynamics. 

Me interviewing Gitigarawa's children when we were planning a new school for the area (2009)
A woman, given the opportunity to speak during the opening of Gitigarawa's new school. Contrast this with my first community meeting back in 2005

An external evaluation of this education programme found that it has become a reference point for change and is held up as the reason for the steady and significant development taking place in the region. The external evaluation went on to state that EMI/Children in Crisis have played a substantial part in reorganising and reviving a deeply dysfunctional primary education system by raising general standards for teachers, by giving a sense of responsibility to school directors and by getting parents more involved….but that, inevitably, there is more still to do.

I take some considerable pride in the findings of this evaluation, especially when I reflect back to that very first trip to Gitigarawa and the problems that abounded. Most of all, I take pride in the careful, considered approach that Children in Crisis and our partners have taken over the years and will continue to take. The challenges of post conflict recovery and development are multiple and complex. War affects children long after the fighting has stopped. Neighbours that once lived peacefully together are divided; resources that once were shared, are fought over; trust takes time to rebuild. 

Children stand before class at Gitigarawa's new school

Working side-by-side, with people, rather than for people, also takes time, is difficult, frustrating and can be one step forward and two steps back – but worth it in the long run.  The changes that can be observed at Gitigarawa are testament to this and a testament to each and every one of Children in Crisis’s supporters whose faith and commitment to our work enable us to deliver lasting, meaningful improvements to children’s lives. 

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