It was during my brief teaching in Bukavu, in the east of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), that I came to understand the power of neoliberalism in shaping the narrative of DRC's past, present, and future. While my students argued that the DRC's problems stemmed from local corruption, not ongoing colonialism, I was trying to present a more diverse story of development, one that cracks the neoliberal narrative and lets democracy and the public sector play a role.
It was the summer of 2011 and I was teaching the very first class of a new Master's Program in Environmental Management. Most of my students were managers in government or non-governmental organizations, or teachers upgrading their skills for jobs they already held. Mostly in their 30s and 40s, they are also survivors of one of the worst conflicts of the century, and they all have stories of which I got only small glimpses.
For them, having a foreign professor was a chance to see how their education compares with the rest of the world's in both content and standards. But my own task was different. My two short courses, "Globalization and Development" and " Geographic Information Systems (GIS) and Forest Management," were to help these current and future environmental managers expand their understanding of the policy options available to them-- options shaped by their history.
The DRC only became independent in 1960. Its independence was immediately followed by an invasion by its former colonial master, Belgium, followed by an intervention by the United States. Decades of kleptocratic dictatorship under Mobutu followed, ending only through yet another foreign invasion, this time by Rwanda in 1996, and Rwanda continues to call the shots in the eastern Congo, where I was. Given this history, the Congo never had a chance to recover from the damage inflicted upon it by colonialism; instead, it has been continuously tortured by it.
The Congo's education system is no exception. By favoring vocational education over higher education, the Belgians sought to prevent the emergence of a Congolese elite that could challenge their rule. A Belgian colonial official wrote: "If we have no black doctors, veterinarians, engineers, it is because we can send white doctors, veterinarians, and engineers." (1) In about fifty years of colonial rule the Belgians produced virtually no Congolese university graduates. By 1954, there were 30 Africans enrolled in Congolese universities; by 1959, the Belgians increased enrolment to a total of 421 Africans studying at Congolese universities. (2) (The population at the time was about 14 million). An American observer in 1946 wrote: "Only if it is intended that the Congolese people remain permanently under European tutelage, can a disjointed system of education, which denies them effective training beyond the rudimentary and limited vocational levels, be justified." (3)
Had the Congo had time to recover, these legacies would be irrelevant. But as it stands, both the colonial legacy and current strife hinder everyday educational work.
The day-to-day difficulties
The day-to-day difficulties of my Congolese students are very different from those on North American campuses. My class nominally starts at 1pm, but we never get going before 1:30. The campus is in Panzi, a remote part of town, and to get to it you have to take a dirt road that is narrow and completely jammed with people, cars, motorcycles, buses, and trucks, at all hours. One day someone suggests that my class change to 10am, and a vigorous debate starts. They call a vote and it's split. I break the tie, telling the class that I have decided to do it at 1pm, hoping that I'm guessing right, and they all seem satisfied - until the next day, when the debate ensues again. They all work, and their other classes are just as packed and intense as mine, because professors are coming from other countries like Burundi and Kenya and can only teach at UEA (l'Universite Evangelique en Afrique) while they are on leave, like me.
For their assignments, which they call "Travails Pratiques," some give me hand-written versions, others email them or hand me printed copies, and still others seek extensions on the grounds that there was no electricity the night before. The city is powered by an unreliable hydroelectric generator on the Ruzizi River, and I live through the nightly blackouts too, so I empathize.
One day a student arrives so late that he's missed the entire class and the rest of the students are piling into vehicles to head home. He explains he was held up at work. He is a high school teacher who needs a sound system to teach because his class has 500 students, his school 3000. I am sure I am misunderstanding the numbers, that my French comprehension is failing me. A few days later I bring it up again with a group of students. I tell them I don't think it's possible that the teacher has 500 kids in his class. They say it is. One, an architect who was once in medical school, said he was once in a class with 3500 in an auditorium.
"How do they mark assignments?"
"Assistants," they tell me.
"How many assistants?"
"So one assistant marks 1000 papers? How
long do they have?"
Even if those were simple assignments, it would be twenty a day for fifty days. Another teacher admitted to me that it was virtually impossible to do the work.
The teacher in my class gets paid $175 per month, but the average is apparently closer to $70 a month, and only 20% of teachers are even getting paid. Public school students pay about $5 a month, but teachers sometimes ask parents for more. Tuition in the master's program is $1500 for the year, which includes a laptop - a smart idea...