Building schools in war zones has been hugely rewarding experiences for us as an organization. From the first day when your students walk through the door, you’re overwhelmed and full with dreams for each one of your kids. They have all experienced much trauma from war, including long days and nights hiding in the jungle and fleeing from rebels. For kids who are given the opportunity to go to school, it isn’t just about reading and writing – it is an opportunity to change their futures and their communities.
Our team recently purchased land for our SIXTH school! In honor of purchasing new land (picture above) and as we prepare to break ground on our flagship school, we wanted to celebrate by taking a look back on SIX things we have learned about building schools in war zones.
1. It’s Going to Take Longer Than You Think
No matter how well you plan, 9 times out of 10, there will be delays when building schools in Africa. We call it “Africa time”. No one is in a rush. In the early days of building our primary school in the village, we would encounter major interruptions every week or two. We’d sometimes build for a week and then it would rain relentlessly. Naturally, we would often have to put a pause on construction. Then we would build for a week and the chief workers would get sick, and we would again have to pause construction. The following week, war would break out, and again, we would have to pause construction. At first it seemed stressful and overwhelming and making our deadlines seemed doubtful, but eventually, you learn that stressing out will never speed up the process – it will only steal your joy. Thankfully, we finished the school and we were still able to open on time! Though things don’t always go according to our timetable, we trust that things will eventually get done.
2. Gender Equality is Something You Have to Fight For
In places with extreme poverty, families often send their boys to school, but keep the girls home to work. Many families have the mindset that they can only afford to send boys to school while the girls remain at home. In order to emphasize the value of girls’ education, our team often facilitates community meetings with families to stress its importance in transforming communities and in shifting the status quo. Just recently, we found out that our schools have been recognized by the Regional School Board for establishing greater parity between genders in our schools and creating opportunities for our young girls! We’re so proud of our teachers and staff who fight every day to make a difference.
3. Hire Local Teachers
When war enters a village, local villagers are forced to flee deep into the jungle for safety from potential dangers, including abductions and rape. When the dust settles, transplants often move out of the affected area(s) in search of safer communities. However, those who return home are often locals. Understanding this reality, Justice Rising seeks to hire local teachers to mitigate the otherwise high levels of absenteeism among teachers and students. We find that local hires are committed to investing in the next generation through education. As one teacher put it, “We are committed to building our community and refuse to abandon the school and students even during the hard times.”
4. Partner with Community Leaders
With every school we build, we must work together with government agencies, chiefs and community elders. This guarantees our school’s safety and ensures greater success with regards to student enrollment. Even during difficult periods of conflict, and in particular, when our schools are forced to close down temporarily, the village elders have designated our schools as “safe zones,” meaning that those who have been wounded or lost find refuge in our schools and/or reunite with their family members. The village elders intimated to us that our schools “represented peace” and they expressed their gratitude for the hope it provided.
5. Students May Not Always Come to School in Uniform
There was a time when we rarely saw students coming to school in their school uniforms. Slightly disheartened (as we know uniforms have a high value in the Congo), we asked the teachers why the students came to school in their “play clothes”. The teachers explained that there had been active war in the village for the past several weeks and how many homes were pillaged and looted. The clothes on their back were all they had left.
Our schools are different than most schools built in peaceful villages, and we are always so amazed by the courage and resilience our students display each day as they consistently show up to class, even in the midst of so much uncertainty.
6. Change Takes Time
We must never try to rush change. There is beauty in process. We recognize this beauty in the way our students, teachers and staff, and schools continue to grow and evolve. While we can monitor and evaluate our progress through numbers and figures, it’s in the stories of hope and resilience we find the greatest value and reward. Our biggest takeaway: Don’t despise small beginnings – change takes time!
Thank you again to everyone who helped us get to SIX schools! We could not be more excited for all that the future holds.
If you'd like to be among the first to make a donation to school number SEVEN (coming early 2017) click below to invest and make an impact that lasts.