A sustainable Congolese school widens the horizon for young girls

The experiences of a five-year-old child separated from her parents and forced to make a new life were the inspiration for the Malaika school and community centr(link is external)e, which uses education and sustainable development to turn around the lives of girls in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC).

The school is run by the Georges Malaika Foundation(link is external), which was nominated for the UNESCO-Japan Prize on Education for Sustainable Development in 2018 for its Creating Agents of Change: Girls’ Education and Community Empowerment project.

Based in the village of Kalebuka in the Haut-Katanga province, in the South-East of the country, an area deeply affected by two decades of conflict, the school was founded in 2007 by Noella Coursaris Musunka. Aged five, following the death of her father Georges Malaika who gives his name to the Foundation, she was sent by her impoverished mother to live with relatives in Europe. A good education meant she went on to receive a degree in business management and lead a successful career as a model. On her return to the DRC at the age of 18, she became impassioned to give other girls the same chance of an education in an area where female literacy is low and around seven million children are out of school.

“Traditionally, women here are expected to tend to gardens and small farms, give birth, and nothing more,” said Malaika’s Country Manager, Sarah Kalumba. “Before Malaika, there was no access to electricity, clean water, or educational facilities.”

The project began small, with the sponsorship of ten girls from a local orphanage—some ostracized by society, others who had run from war. In 2010, after funding partners had been sought, it was decided to build a school. The Malaika School opened the following year, in 2011, with four classrooms, a small canteen, and 104 female students.

Changing mind-sets

“The real work was the months spent convincing people in the village that education was worthwhile for their girls. We had to beg parents to give us a chance by asking them to think of the future. We explained that without education their daughters would continue to work on the farm for a dollar or two, but that once educated they could become pilots, ministers, office workers, whatever they aspired to be. An education would have a far greater positive impact on the whole family and the community. We used Noella as an example of what could happen,” said Sarah.

Today, the school – which is free, entirely solar-powered, and uses food grown on its farm to serve two healthy meals a day – provides quality education to 340 girls. Alongside a comprehensive traditional curriculum, the students are given opportunities to grow as leaders, from involvement in the Girl Scouts to field trips to explore local biodiversity, planting trees, or learning about malaria prevention. Girls are also taught coding, equipping them with computational thinking skills and preparing them for the workforce.

In 2013, thanks to a collaboration with FIFA, a community centre was built to spread the school’s positive impact to the wider community. The centre provides education, health, and sports programming to approximately 5,000 youths and adults per year. In addition, 17 wells have been built and refurbished that supply fresh water to 30,000 people a year, greatly reducing water-borne diseases and illness. Parents also now play an important role by cleaning school classrooms, growing vegetables, and taking part in sewing classes at the centre in order to make the children’s uniforms. In 2016, the centre launched the Sustainable Pathways project, a vocational training programme to teach out-of-school youth about conservation farming, eco-job training and running a microenterprise. It also offers information on conservation farming methods.

Advancing girls’ education

According to Headmaster Sylvain Koj Tshikut, the environment plays a critical role in the girls’ education. ‘We always start with science and then introduce the girls to real-life examples so that they can apply what they’re learning in the classroom. We take them on trips outside the school – to the zoo or to botanical gardens, for example – where they can see for themselves the richness of local biodiversity and how important it is to the planet,’ he said.

The community centre has also developed a football game that teaches about the environment. “The boys and girls play a game where cones are set out on a football field, representing different types of environmental hazards. Their play is restricted by the hazards and if they touch a cone they are out of the game. At the end, they are encouraged to remove one cone at a time and learn what each represents and how they hamper a healthy life,” said Sarah.

Malaika also believes it is important to bring female role models to the school and for students to understand that it is not necessary to leave the country to become involved in meaningful work.

In the near future, both the school and community centre aim to become sustainable in terms of funding by creating a business model using small enterprises, such as embroidery or soap-making, to generate cash. “We also want to develop a handbook about the Malaika model so that it can be replicated elsewhere,” said Sarah.

She said the driving factor behind Malaika’s success was simple: “There are many reasons why this works, but the most important is love. Each member of staff, volunteer, student, and parent loves what they are doing and when partners and sponsors visit, that is what they see.”

Education for Sustainable Development empowers people with the knowledge, skills, attitudes, values and behaviour needed to think and act for a sustainable future. It is also about including sustainable development issues, such as climate change and biodiversity into teaching and learning. UNESCO promotes ESD at all levels and in all social contexts through its Global Action Programme.