With free education, Congo’s child miners swap hammers for books

Children attend a class at the Wangata commune school in Mbandaka, Democratic Republic of Congo, May 23, 2018. REUTERS/Kenny Katombe

KIPUSHI, Democratic Republic of Congo, – Squeezed on to benches and on the floor, the Congolese students of Kipushi Primary School did not complain that they only had a few, battered textbooks to share – just down the road, hundreds of less fortunate children were working in open-pit mines.

Enrolment at the school – named after the town of 174,000 people, which is dominated by its copper, zinc and cobalt mines – has risen by 75% to 1,400 students since the Democratic Republic of Congo introduced free primary education in 2019.

“The difficulties are there but free education is a good thing because getting kids to study back then was a headache,” said Maloba Mputu Stany, principal of the school in the eastern province of Haut-Katanga.

“The teachers are doing what they can to facilitate the integration of children from the mines,” he told the Thomson Reuters Foundation, as he searched for a list of new students in his cluttered office.

About 40 of the 600 new pupils, dressed in white and blue uniforms, are former child labourers, said Stany, who wants donors to fund teacher bonuses to give them catch-up sessions.

The latest figures from the United Nations Children’s Fund UNICEF show that 6 million children – almost one in four – were out of school in 2018 in Congo, which was one of the last countries in the world to introduce free primary education.

The new scheme, which costs more than a third of its $6.8 billion budget, has enabled 4 million of these children to go to school, according to the education ministry.

But poverty keeps millions more out of school.

“Thousands of children still (work at) the mine sites due to a lack of school kits, according to parents,” said Philippe Nyange, head of child protection at the Association of Women for Community Development (AFEMDCO) in Kipushi.

With funding from UNICEF, the charity has provided 270 child labourers with school kits, containing school bags, notebooks, pens and uniforms, which were quickly snapped up by an eager crowd of parents and children at AFEMDCO’s offices.

It hopes to issue another 230 kits later this year.

Three of the lucky new students belong to Rachel, who works at the Luhongo mine 5km down the road from the primary school with her two other children.

“It is almost impossible to fill four basins per person in one day,” said Rachel, who declined to give her full name, referring to the minimum required to earn 1,000 francs ($0.50) for collecting rocks containing cobalt and copper at the mine.

“I prefer to have (them) work with me on the site so that I can get more money at the end of the day.”


More than 1 million children worldwide work in mining, according to the International Labour Organization, as demand for minerals used in cars, cosmetics and electronics soars.

The United Nations has pledged to end child labour by 2025 and considers mining a priority target as arduous tasks such as diving into muddy wells, digging rocks and carrying heavy loads put children’s health and safety at risk.

“The work is so hard that some children drink strong alcohol to gain strength and fill more stone basins,” said former child miner Pascal Mbayo Kasongo, who tells children and parents about his experiences and encourages them to go to school.

Life has become tougher for many families in Kipushi with the decline of Gecamines, a state-owned mining firm, which was the town’s largest employer and provided free schooling to its staff until mismanagement led to a sell-off in the 1990s.

Food comes before education for many, said Roger-Claude Liwanga, an expert in the exploitation of children in Congo’s artisanal mines, of Emory University in the United States.

“Free schooling should not be limited to the non-payment of school fees, especially at this time of economic crisis related to COVID-19,” Liwanga said, urging the authorities to provide free school meals to boost student numbers and concentration.

But the government is in no position to expand its financial support to schools. Donor funding for the ambitious free education project is already under threat due to corruption.

At the start of the year, the World Bank said it suspended its first payment in a $800 million education support programme after a government investigation “revealed a number of shortcomings and alleged cases of fraud” in the sector. The education ministry and the World Bank did not respond to requests for comment but the World Bank said in a statement that it made the first payment of $100 million in June after it was “assured that the government has taken corrective steps”. Several high-profile figures have been prosecuted over the scandal, including former education minister Willy Bakonga who was jailed in April, according to media reports. Even if the free education policy succeeds, it will not help Sam, 12, who spends six days a week digging, filling sandbags and breaking rocks with his younger brother at Luhongo mine.

“My job allows me to help my parents,” said Sam, who earns 250 francs for 12 hours of work to support his mother who makes and sells traditional beer and father who is a mechanic.

“My mother promised to enrol me next school year. But then, there will be a problem with school supplies,” said Sam, whose name has been changed to protect his identity. 


German bishop: Floods’ mental health toll might be worse than property damage

Residents walk past destroyed homes in Mayschoss, Germany, July 29, following historic flooding. At least 160 people have died in the flooding. Germany's churches plan to hold an ecumenical service in Aachen cathedral Aug. 28 to commemorate the victims. (
Residents walk past destroyed homes in Mayschoss, Germany, July 29, following historic flooding. At least 160 people have died in the flooding. Germany’s churches plan to hold an ecumenical service in Aachen cathedral Aug. 28 to commemorate the victims. (CNS photo/Andreas Kranz, Reuters)

Trier, Germany — Dealing with the aftermath of the recent floods in parts of Germany will be a long-haul effort for people, said Bishop Stephan Ackermann of Trier, whose diocese was one of the worst-hit regions.

The German Catholic news agency KNA reported that in a July 30 letter to Christians in the diocese, Ackermann said it would take a long time to clear up the damage and rebuild the local infrastructure. But patience will be needed “perhaps even more for the internal injuries and burdens which the disaster inflicted on souls and which perhaps are not yet externally visible,” he added.

Ackermann stressed that in addition to providing direct help, the task for the church was to “create spaces and opportunities that give room to what was experienced and suffered, so that it can be put into words of grief and lament, of questions and gratitude,” KNA reported.

He said it was necessary to discuss possible lessons to be drawn from the disaster, but “whether one was directly or indirectly affected by what happened, it will also require time to address the events internally.”

Germany’s churches plan to hold an ecumenical service in Aachen cathedral Aug. 28 to commemorate the at least 160 victims of the flooding in the country, announced the German bishops’ conference and the Protestant Church in Germany.

Bishop Georg Bätzing, president of the German bishops’ conference, and Bishop Heinrich Bedford-Strohm, head of the Protestant council, will lead the service. Representatives of other religions, relatives of the victims, helpers, emergency pastoral workers and political leaders, along with representatives from neighboring countries hit by the flooding are expected to attend.

In their joint statement, Bätzing and Bedford-Strohm said: “The flood catastrophe wiped out human lives and destroyed livelihoods. The many dead, those mourning and all who now are standing before the ruins of their livelihoods should not be forgotten. In the church service we want to bring them before God and ask his support and comfort.”

Aachen, near Germany’s western border with the Netherlands, was chosen as the venue because of its central location in Europe.

“We wish thereby to recall that our neighbors in the Netherlands, Belgium and Luxembourg were, and are, also affected by the flood catastrophe,” the joint statement said. “We are overwhelmed by the help and solidarity that citizens in Germany as well as from abroad are bringing to the people in the flood areas. “


WHO calls for moratorium on COVID vaccine booster jabs

Just more than 1.8 percent of people in Africa are fully vaccinated, compared with nearly 50 percent in the EU and US [File: Leo Correa/AP Photo]
Just more than 1.8 percent of people in Africa are fully vaccinated, compared with nearly 50 percent in the EU and US [File: Leo Correa/AP Photo]

The World Health Organization is calling for a moratorium on COVID-19 vaccine boosters until at least the end of September to enable at least 10 percent of the population of every country in the world to be vaccinated.

“I understand the concern of all governments to protect their people from the Delta variant. But we cannot accept countries that have already used most of the global supply of vaccines using even more of it,” WHO chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said at a media briefing.

He added that G-20 nations had an important leadership role to play as those countries were the “biggest producers, the biggest consumers and the biggest donors of COVID-19 vaccines”.

The WHO’s plea comes as the spread of the more transmissible Delta variant prompts discussions about boosters in wealthier countries, including the United States, Britain and Germany, even as a new wave of COVID-19 causes havoc in countries that have been unable to give people even a single jab.

The US on Wednesday rejected the UN health agency’s call for a delay saying it was a “false choice” and that it was possible to do both.

White House press secretary Jen Psaki, noted that the US had donated more than 110 million doses of vaccines around the world.

“That is more than any other country has shared combined,” she said. “We also, in this country, have enough supply, to ensure that every American has access to a vaccine. We will have enough supply to ensure, if the FDA decides that boosters are recommended for a portion of the population, to provide those as well.”

“We definitely feel that it’s a false choice and we can do both,” White House press secretary Jen Psaki told reporters on Wednesday, adding the country had sufficient supply to continue distributing shots abroad while also ensuring that every American can be fully vaccinated.

Last week, Israeli President Isaac Herzog received a third shot of the coronavirus vaccine, kicking off a campaign to give booster doses to over 60s, while Germany will start booster shots next month.

“We need to focus on those people who are most vulnerable, most at risk of severe disease and death, to get their first and second doses,”  WHO’s Katherine O’Brien told reporters.

Vaccine inequity

The WHO has repeatedly called for rich countries to do more to help improve access to vaccines in the developing world, given the gap in global vaccine distribution.

A little more than 1.8 percent of people in Africa are fully vaccinated, compared with nearly 50 percent in both the EU and the US, according to Our World in Data.

Some 101 doses per 100 people have been given in countries categorised as high income by the World Bank, with the 100-doses mark surpassed this week.

That figure drops to 1.7 doses per 100 people in the 29 lowest-income countries.

The UN health agency argues that no one is safe until everyone is safe because the longer and more widely the coronavirus circulates, the greater the chance that new variants could emerge – and prolong a global crisis in fighting the pandemic.

Dr Bruce Aylward, a special adviser to Tedros, said the moratorium was about an appeal to countries considering booster doses to “put a hold” on such policies “until and unless we get the rest of the world caught up” in the fight against the pandemic.

”As we’ve seen from the emergence of variant after variant, we cannot get out of it unless the whole world gets out of it together. And with the huge disparity in vaccination coverage, we’re simply not going to be able to achieve that,” Aylward said.

Unequal distribution has been at the centre of debate for months at the World Trade Organization as developing countries, headed by India and South Africa, call for the temporary removal of intellectual property (IP) rights on vaccines to boost global manufacturing capacity.

The WHO has no power to require countries to act on its recommendations, and many in the past have ignored its appeals on issues like donating vaccines, limiting cross-border travel and taking steps to boost production of vaccines in developing countries.