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Photo: Claudine Lutondo, center, with other graduates of the literacy program. —Nancy Myers
Although Claudine Lutondo is married to a teacher, she never went to school and never learned to read and write properly. That changed when, at age 45, the mother of seven completed an adult literacy course offered in her congregation, Sanga Mamba Mennonite Church, Kinshasa, Democratic Republic of Congo.
At the March 30 ceremony held for the first Kinshasa graduates of the churchwide program, Lutondo read a speech she had written herself, in the regional language of Lingala, thanking God and her teachers for her new skills. She beamed throughout the ceremony.
“I love to serve the Lord,” she said in an interview afterward. “I am now able to assume my responsibilities without constraint.”
Despite being functionally illiterate, Lutondo said, she had been active in her church and had been named secretary of the women of the entire district. Although the position honored her dedication, it required reading and writing skills she did not have. Lutondo found it difficult to carry out her duties.
Lutondo is not unusual. Women leaders of the three Anabaptist denominations in Congo estimate that up to 80 percent of the women in their congregations, especially in rural areas, cannot read or write in any language.
Education in Congo has been disrupted over the years by recurrent conflict and government instability. Schools are scarce in some areas, and teachers are paid irregularly. The main impediments, however, are poverty and the low status of women. When large families have trouble scraping together school fees, girls are usually the first to be kept at home.
A year ago the women leaders of the Mennonite, Mennonite Brethren and Evangelical Mennonite churches of Congo launched a program called “Evangelization Through Literacy,” aimed at developing the capacities of their own members and bringing new people into the church.
The program has trained about 100 adult-literacy educators in the cities of Kinshasa and Kikwit. They, in turn, are teaching more than 1,000 students—women and men—in the greater Kinshasa and Bandundu provinces, working entirely as volunteers. A third teacher-training workshop was held in April in Mbuji Mayi in Eastern Kasai Province.
Lutondo grew up in a village, the daughter of an aging man who already had a number of children when he married her mother. She said her father was unable either to teach her or to provide for her schooling. Her husband was a secondary school student when they married—she was 16—and they later moved to Kinshasa, where he has taught elementary school. She said that over the years her husband taught her “little by little,” but the circumstances of family life made it difficult for her to learn.
The “Evangelization Through Literacy” project uses a simple but rigorous instruction method in the principal regional languages, emphasizing repetition and affirmation and incorporating brief Scripture lessons. Most classes are held in churches.
“This was a great deliverance for me,” Lutondo said. “As district secretary I was the first to enroll in this class, without embarrassment. I told myself this was a great occasion to make myself responsible, capable of holding my own in society.”
She said many people signed up for the classes but some dropped out when their friends made fun of them. Although illiteracy is common, it is considered shameful, and many try to conceal their ignorance. Joining a class means going public. It takes courage, and it may irritate those who think school is just for children, or who have the same challenge but are not ready to address it.
“But today is the fruit of our perseverance,” Lutondo said of herself and the other 19 graduates. “I am very proud of myself because I can read and write.”
The program is awakening the joy of service in the new teachers. Marie Fumana, president of the Mennonite Brethren women of Congo, reports that one of the new teachers in Kikwit has only one pupil, a woman in her twenties who never went to school because of her physical handicaps, a result of polio when she was a toddler. She has a brother in the states, with whom she began exchanging text messages via WhatsApp. The brother was so impressed, Marie says, that he offered to pay his sister’s teacher. But the teacher refused payment, saying her work was service to the Lord.
Justice Moshamesu, a teacher in Kinshasa, says that when a student doesn’t show up for class, he pays a visit. “I am like a pastor to them,” he says. “I sometimes get discouraged and want to give it all up, but then they come looking for me. If I’m away for a little while, they call me. They need me. God gave me importance in a way that I never expected. I feel very important. I know that God wants me to do this.”
While the teachers work as volunteers, Africa Inter-Mennonite Mission provides funds for the training and for basic supplies such as texts, blackboards and megaphones for publicity. Transportation expenses continue to be a challenge for teachers who travel across the city to their classes, according to AIMM administrator Rod Hollinger-Janzen. The program will need an additional $20,000 to conduct an intensive training in Tshikapa later this year as well as for ongoing expenses and supervision, Hollinger-Janzen says.
The Tshikapa training is crucial because of the large number of displaced persons and disrupted congregations in that region, Hollinger-Janzen says. The Kikwit classes also include displaced persons.
Contributions may be made online or mailed to AIMMs, designated “Congo literacy.”
Nancy Myers supervises the Congo Literacy Project as a volunteer for AIMM. Charlie Malembe is a Mennonite journalist in Kinshasa.
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