By Nicolas Meulders
A year ago, violent conflict between ethnic groups in Jeannette’s community forced her to flee her village. Today, she is an active member in her school peace committee. By performing in plays and organizing other awareness-raising activities, Jeannette is using school to help build bridges between discordant groups in her community.
TANGANYIKA PROVINCE, Democratic Republic of Congo/ Hong Kong, 27 May 2016 – Under a spreading mango tree a few metres from her schoolyard, Jeannette, 14, finishes a theatrical performance to a round of applause from members of the Ngombe Nwana Village community. The play depicts peaceful conflict resolution between two village youths who had clashed violently over a theft. Along with several of her classmates, Jeannette joined her school peace committee a few months ago. Together, they organize activities to raise awareness about peacebuilding.
Jeannette is a girl from the Batwa (Pygmy) ethnic group. In this rural region of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, the Batwa live side by side with the Baluba (Bantu) – a coexistence that sometimes turns into communitarian conflict. In early 2015, Jeannette had to flee her village in the Manono region when confrontations broke out between Pygmies and Bantus.
“My village was attacked and burned, and I was forced to flee with my whole family,” says Jeannette. “After several days of walking, we took refuge in a displaced persons’ camp, until it was also attacked and burned. We ended up hiding in an old warehouse in Nyunzu City.”
For several weeks, more than 15,000 people, most of whom were women and children, were trapped in the warehouse, not daring to leave for fear of retaliation. Mediation by the local authorities finally brought an end to the hostilities.
Deep-seated causes of conflict
Following those events, many displaced people were unable to return to their homes. “The authorities decided to resettle them in villages, so that they could go back to working in the fields and living a normal life,” says Mr. Delphin Mwengue Bin Mpungu, head of the provincial subdivision of the Ministry of Education in Nyunzu 2.
“These populations have always lived together in close interdependence, as the Batwa most often work for the Baluba. But the Batwa are often marginalized and have less access to land or basic social services such as school,” he says. “This discrimination is a constant source of tension and the slightest spark could ignite the situation.”
School: a priority for the return to peace
With support from UNICEF, the government made reopening schools in the villages a priority. “Some had been ransacked or burned during the conflicts and many teachers had fled,” says Mr. Gaston Mugunga Muhiya, principal of the school of Ngombe Nwana. “We also carried out a door-to-door awareness campaign to convince parents to send their children back to school.”
Thankfully, the campaign was successful. “We now have 339 pupils, more than a third of whom are Batwa children,” he says.
“In these post-conflict situations, the role of the school is very important,” says Ms. Chantal Kapinga Nzemba, an education specialist at UNICEF. “A school that takes in children again in a village is above all a sign that peace has returned. But beyond that, school also offers an opportunity to learn to live together again.”
Learning to live together peacefully
This ability to live inclusively and harmoniously is the dimension that UNICEF supports through the Learning for Peace programme.
The programme is a partnership between UNICEF, the Government of the Netherlands, the national governments of participating countries and other key partners. The overall goal of the initiative is to strengthen resilience, social cohesion, and human security in conflict-affected contexts, including countries at risk of, experiencing or recovering from conflict. In particular, the Learning for Peace programme aims at strengthening policies and practices in education for peacebuilding.
“In addition to learning, we want children to achieve their potential and live together peacefully,” says Ms. Nzemba. And using schools as a venue allows the programme to target various levels of the community. Teachers were trained, first of all, to lead activities that promote social cohesion within the school. Thanks to that training, children have become stakeholders in peace by sitting on peace committees and organizing sporting events, talks and plays to raise awareness in their communities. Teenagers also had the opportunity to express themselves and organize activities in Adolescent ‘AdoDev’ clubs.
Schools also serve as meeting points between communities. “Seeing their children play together prompts certain parents who used to ignore each other to get along, especially when they are brought together by parent-teacher associations or community activities,” says Mr. Muhiya, the school principal.
In all, more than 165 schools have received UNICEF support for peace consolidation in the Manono, Kalemie, and Nyunzu 1 and 2 subdivisions in Tanganyika Province.
Since 2012, the Learning for Peace programme has impacted the lives of more than 2 million children and community members in West and Central Africa.