Stella Cotorcea, Plan International Ireland’s Programme Support Officer reports live from Central African Republic (CAR).
« Le stylo est lourd, mais la pelle est légère » is what you would often hear from an adolescent in the Central African Republic (CAR) when asked why they prefer to work in a diamond mine instead of going to school. A landlocked country rich in forestry, gold and diamond resources, CAR has been marred by numerous coups since its independence from France in 1960, dividing the country along ethno-religious lines. Unthinkable atrocities have been committed against children, women, and men, causing rage and fear in a country already scarred by extreme poverty.
Many have lost their lives, others lost their parents, and most of them have lost their right to a safe and happy childhood. UNICEF estimates that there may be as many as 10,000 children exploited by armed groups, with many showing signs of trauma, and too many working long hours in diamond mines to provide for their families. Education has become a luxury for many families struggling to make ends meet, while also fearing for their children’s safety. Hundreds of schools have been destroyed during the conflict leaving an already fragile system helpless and faced with the increasing protection and education needs of children.
Reminiscing about my own experience, many of my happiest childhood moments were associated with school – first word written, the awe of finding out about the myriad of countries and cultures out there, first long-lasting friendships – all were part of my school years. The fact that these moments could be stolen from a child is unconceivable to me.
Plan International is determined to bring happiness back into the lives of Central African children. Present in Bangui, the capital city, and in three other areas affected by conflict across the country, Plan works closely with the government to rebuild the damaged schools left behind and to bring the children back to school. Working closely with local government, Plan endeavours to build safe playing and learning environments for children of all ages, while also working with the local communities to rebuild mutual trust among them. Older children are provided with alternative education opportunities, such as vocational training, and support to start up their own income generating activities.
Along similar lines, Plan International is currently implementing a 2-year education in emergencies project in the sub-prefecture of Boda in the south-west of the country, with funding from the European Commission under the Children of Peace funding instrument. During the conflict in 2013, the sub-prefecture of Boda became notorious for the emergence of a quasi-‘enclave’ of a native Muslim community threatened by the ‘anti-balaka’ rebel forces, mainly comprised of non-Muslim community combatants based in the neighbouring villages. In spite of the atrocities committed against one another by all the parties of the conflict, the sub-prefecture of Boda is now slowly rebuilding its inter-communal trust and peaceful co-existence.
Plan International is supporting this process by re-building pre-school centres for children from 0 to 5 years of age, rehabilitating primary schools while conducting back to school campaigns in the communities, and supporting adolescents and young people with alternative educational and income generating opportunities. A dedicated social cohesion project component aims to promote peaceful co-existence among local communities and build safe environments for children from both Muslim and non-Muslim communities to go back to public schools, as they did before the fighting started. Children will be encouraged to organise themselves in ‘school governments’, as well as a sort of local level Child Parliament, to facilitate an inter-generational dialogue and promote a child-sensitive agenda with local government. Within the six months of the project implementation, positive results are already visible with children flowing back to schools eager to learn, while caregivers from all local communities are slowly overcoming their grief and rebuilding community ties.
Despite the bitter aftertaste of the inter-communal violence, the classrooms were overcrowded and the schools struggle to cope with the unusually high demand. I saw as many as 120 children squeezed in one classroom, sitting alongside one another, Muslim and non-Muslim, on the floor or anywhere there was a spare space, to get a glimpse of today’s lesson. Their appetite for learning brought me back to my school years when I was looking forward to tomorrow’s lesson, often reading several chapters in advance to the nuisance of my teachers. I asked children if they enjoyed going to school and they replied in a resounding one-voice – “Oui, Madame!”
The situation is quite similar in pre-school centres and kindergartens, where tens of young children sit closely along one another on the floor to learn recitation, singing, and engage in other age-sensitive recreational and educational activities. After each performance, the others cheer each other up in choir – “Ay, ay, ay! Ay, ay, ay! C’est supeeeeer!” – a cheer that we adopted for our project team to celebrate our little daily successes.
During the discussions with the community members and caregivers, I perceived a shift in the attitudes toward education at community level, as well. One concern preventing some parents to send their children to school, besides material needs, is safety. “We want our children to go back to schools, but we fear for their safety on the way to school” – said one parent to me during the focus group discussions organised to maintain close dialogue with the local communities on the project progress.
Plan is working closely with the local protection actors, including the community police and gendarmerie, to provide safety to children on the way to school. Plan is additionally working with school managements to internalise child safety protocols and codes of conduct, to prevent peer and teacher violence inside the school. With the social cohesion activities and back-to-school campaigns carried out by Plan before the school season started, Boda is now the only sub-prefecture in CAR which opened its schools at the beginning of the school year, as planned – 19 September – while the mayor of Boda is enthusiastically lauding the social cohesion progress in the sub-prefecture.
On my way back to Ireland, I reflected on what I had seen in Boda. I cannot erase the images of crowded classrooms from my mind, or the stories of violence retold to me by different community members. The project team in Boda is working hard to make necessary adjustments in the project to meet these needs, as well as to promote further peaceful co-existence. In spite of all challenges, when there is such a burning appetite for education at local level, I believe there is a way for the local communities and government to take ownership of the project outcomes, with Plan International team only facilitating the process. To me, this fact already makes this project a success! We are doing all that we can to change the opening adage – school and not work for the children of CAR.
 Literal translation – “The pen is heavy, but the shovel is light” – referring to the shovel used in the diamond mining work.
 Translated as ‘anti-machetes’ from the local Sango language
 Translation – Yes, Ma’am.
 Literal translation – ay ay ay, ay ay ay, this is super!