Despite the significant security challenges and risks associated, Pope Francis could feel very much at home during his recent visit to the African Great Lakes Region, which included Kenya, Uganda and the Central African Republic. Africa is home to 17 percent of the world’s Catholics, a number that has doubled in recent decades especially in central Africa, where they represent half of the total population. At the same time, the region is beset by a legacy of violent conflict and poverty, with recent trends pointing to both a new era of political instability alongside economic transformation in some cases.
More than 31 million Catholics reside in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), which interestingly was not part of the Pope’s itinerary. Religious, mainly Catholic, institutions provide 75 percent of primary education, with an even higher proportion in rural areas. However, some argue that the education system has encouraged tribal, ethnic and cultural hatred and become an instrument to institutionalize systematic discrimination. Relevant examples include the exclusion of certain groups on the basis of gender, ethnicity or religious belief, and references in the pedagogical materials and teaching methods.
Through the influence of Belgian rule in DRC, certain groups were valued over others and higher education for indigenous people was discouraged. The education of local populations was entirely managed by missionaries and their education agenda, which undermined indigenous African culture and promoted colonial domination. By the time of independence in 1960, the country only had 16 African university graduates out of a population of more than 10 million, and a lack of centralized education. These conditions had an inevitable impact on the ability of the Congolese people to build national unity and identity. The absence of national identity and an educated citizenry in an ethnically diverse Congo is seen as contributing greatly to the instability that would follow.
Conversely, some contend that churches, Catholic included, have played a crucial role in ensuring access to primary education. When the government failed to deliver on its responsibility to provide basic education in the 1970s, the Protestant and Catholic Churches stepped in to oversee the quality of education and the maintenance of schools, classrooms and learning materials, especially in the rural areas. Without this significant and long-term contribution, it follows that many Congolese children would have been worse off.
The Hague institute is currently working on two projects on education in DRC. One of these, the ‘Education and Peace Project’, has recently piloted the integration of three specific values – inclusion, moral courage and respect for authority – among children, parents/guardians, teachers and local leaders at the levels of the family, school and community. Most of the schools involved in the project are financed and supported by the Catholic Church, and during our research stakeholders pointed to the important role it plays in reconciling differences within the community. To learn more about this project and our recent visit to Bukavu, listen to the audio podcast by David Connolly and Agnese Macaluso who discuss the innovative attempts to integrate peacebuilding though education in the eastern provinces of the country.
Given the historical links, it was not surprising that education was a central theme during Pope Francis ‘visit. He met teachers and students throughout, and in keeping with his broad agenda for reform within the church, he addressed several sensitive issues that included child soldiers, the transmission of HIV-AIDS, and the urgency for interfaith dialogue.
The challenges for DRC and its neighbors are immense. Education unfortunately cannot provide all the solutions but its ability to create both immediate and long-term change, and as the only form of development that we can take with us, should make it a priority for all national and international actors that have a responsibility to prevent violent conflict and other forms of instability. The Catholic Church has a long and contested history in the region, and it retains significant influence given its continued role in providing primary education to millions of children. It ought to be included in any long–term vision and at the same time recognize its full potential to tackle many of the persistent challenges that thwart peaceful development in DRC. Nevertheless, the church cannot replace the state in this respect, which retains primary responsibility as reiterated most recently with the ratification of the Sustainable Development Goals.