Amid Ruins, a Passion for Learning, a Ray of Hope ; despite Years of Dictatorship and Civil War, a University in Northeastern Congo Soldiers On

Article excerpt

On a hill above the city, a cluster of decaying buildings - their windows shattered, their walls pocked with bullet holes - bear witness to Congo's broken dreams.

This was once a grand university, a gift of the American people to the newly independent people of this country. An institute for training teachers, it shone, say those who remember, like a beacon of promise for a new Africa.

Today, after more than three decades of dictatorship and civil war, Congolese children are as likely to tote guns as schoolbooks. This week an international force continues arriving in Bunia, the northeastern regional capital, to step up efforts to stabilize the area, torn by ethnic fighting over the past four years.

Still, despite years of suffering and hardship, the yearning for knowledge survives here. Among the remaining students and teachers of Bunia's Institut Superieur Pedogogique (ISP), learning both offers refuge from the chaos around them and feeds their hopes for a better future.

"The Congo," says English student Lazar Unegiu, "will not always be at war."

With few books and no contact with the outside world, students scribble the professor's words on precious paper, learning from curriculums dating to 1981. They scrape together the tuition of $185 a year - almost 20 times the average monthly salary of the teachers they are training to be.

After a year and a half of studies, Mr. Unegiu, 30, speaks well, but carefully, with the preciseness of someone who has learned a language only through books. Like most language students here, he has never met a native English speaker. For seven hours day, he reviews his notes, and a few more hours are spent in classes when they are in session. The rest of the day is spent in his fields, growing cassava and potatoes to survive.

"Our biggest problem," says Mr. Unegiu, "is the lack of books. Do you like Shakespeare? I would like to read Shakespeare, in English, but we only have the French."

ISP Bunia, one of dozen such teacher's colleges around the country, was built by the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) in 1970 to train a new generation of Congolese teachers. The country's colonial power, Belgium, had discouraged education among the locals, leaving this vast country with only a handful of black college graduates when it won independence in 1960. ISP and other universities like it were to train a new generation of Congolese elite. Ministers as well as professors have trained in its classrooms. "Back then, we lacked for nothing. It was just like a university in Europe," recalls administrator Mandro Kalongo, who first came here as a history teacher 27 years ago. …

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