Congolese Mennonite Brethren church (CEFMC) leaders as well as leaders of the Mennonite Church of Congo and Evangelical Mennonite Church of Congo, and their partners will be meeting this month in Kinshasa, DR Congo, to develop curriculum that integrates Anabaptist-Mennonite beliefs, values, and ethics into the classrooms of the more than 300 primary and secondary schools that the national Mennonite churches manage in cooperation with the DRC government. The group also hopes to identify existing schools that will serve as model schools for the churches.
ICOMB (International Community of Mennonite Brethren) and Mama Makeka House of Hope (a nonprofit organization established to promote and support initiatives related to health, education, and community empowerment for underserved communities, primarily in the DR Congo and California’s Central San Joaquin Valley) are coordinating the project.
“People might not realize that two institutions have played a major role in the development and growth of the churches in Congo: health care and primary and secondary education,” says Pakisa Tshimika, executive director and founder of Mama Makeka House of Hope. “So this initiative will have a great impact on the future of the church in general as well as in the leadership development of the church.”
David Wiebe, ICOMB executive director says, “It is our prayer and hope that renewal in the education provision will result in building up the country long-term as young people inculcate the gospel of peace and the way of Jesus as a people. This surely should result in transformation.
“We not only see this as an educational project but also a strategic development for which to pray and seek God’s face for a breakthrough in DR Congo in the very fabric of society,” says Wiebe in an email interview.
The undertaking is prompted by the desire of the churches to make the most of a national mandate that DR Congo schools offer religious education and that allows the sponsoring churches to teach religion courses according to their faith. With more than 50,000 students, the Congolese Mennonite school system is the largest such organization in the Mennonite world. As a whole, Mennonite churches in DR Congo constitute the second largest Mennonite community in the world.
“This mandate…is remarkable in its openness to the religious formation of students in the primary and secondary schools of Congo,” says Dalton Reimer, ICOMB education facilitator. “This is a wonderful opportunity to influence and shape continuing generations of young people in Congo.”
Three years ago, ICOMB and CEFMC hosted a consultation on Mennonite education in the DR Congo. This historic consultation was enlarged to include the other two national Mennonite conferences and Mennonite World Conference, a global fellowship of Anabaptist churches.
Many of the recommendations made during the 2009 consultation focused on implementing government programs, recruitment of personnel, administrative, and teaching staff, etc. But two recommendations warranted global support and are the focus of the 2012 follow-up gathering. The first is a call to develop Anabaptist-Mennonite oriented biblical and ethical curriculum materials and the second is to develop model schools.
The 2012 project report for curriculum development says, “The question being asked by the three Mennonite conferences in Congo is: What makes us Anabaptist Mennonite rather than any other Protestant denomination?
“Those who met (in 2009)… realized the importance of this question and saw the reason for recommending that something needed to be done to equip the Mennonite primary and secondary school administrative and teacher staff, teachers of religious courses, chaplains, and students with knowledge and skills that allow them to read, understand and teach the Bible courses through Anabaptist-Mennonite lenses,” says the report.
This month, organizers hope to develop a general framework that can be used for developing local curriculum and teacher’s manuals and to form a task force to oversee curriculum development.
A second goal is to move forward with the 2009 recommendation that model schools be created in strategic regions where Mennonites have schools, focusing on the development of CEFMC schools. The general goal is to identify, rehabilitate and transform 10 existing Congolese MB primary and secondary schools into model schools.
As with the 2009 consultation, church and educational leaders in Congo will lead follow-up activities. Global support will be offered by ICOMB. ICOMB secured the services of Pakisa Tshimika to provide global coordination for the 2009 consultation. Tshimika continues under contract with ICOMB for continuing global coordination of follow-up activities.
Participants joining Tshimika and local leaders for the 2012 consultation include Wiebe and ICOMB education facilitator Dalton Reimer.
History explains mandated religious education
When asked what prompted the Democratic Republic of the Congo to mandate religious education in its schools, Pakisa Tshimika points to two reasons, both related to history. Tshimika, a public health worker who grew up in DR Congo, has worked with MB Mission, Mennonite Central Committee, Mennonite World Conference, and other organizations and is the founder and executive director of Mama Makeka House of Hope, a nonprofit organization established in memory of “Mama” Makeka Rebecca, who died in DR Congo due to inadequate health care services.
Religion was a strong element in Belgium, prompting the country to prioritize religious education when establishing African colonies, which included DR Congo, Rwanda, and Burundi, says Tshimika. Catholicism was Belgium’s state religion and Roman Catholic missionaries played a major role in promoting education in Congo. The missionaries founded some of the best schools in the country.
The country’s co-management system in health education is the second reason for DR Congo’s interest in religious education, says Tshimika. While the Catholic church could establish their congregations, health centres, and schools anywhere in the country, Protestant missionaries were given specific regions in which to work in order to avoid conflict among them.
Given the strong connection between the churches and the local people, the colonial power established what has become known as the best co-management system in Africa. Co-management in health care and primary and secondary education means that the government signed an agreement with the churches with the goal of the churches establishing and managing these institutions. The government would provide general guidelines and financially subsidize the schools with teaching materials, salaries, etc.
In the early 1970s, for example, the Congolese government paid salaries of all expatriate teachers working in Congolese primary and secondary schools. It also paid for twice-a-year vacations for all of these teachers. Many North American teachers serving with Mennonite Brethren missions or Mennonite Central Committee (MCC) benefited from these services. Because MCC and the MB mission board covered the financial support of the volunteers, the Congolese MB church was able to use funds for salaries to build high schools in Kikwit and Kajiji.
“The subsidies and salaries have not worked well in the past 15 years due to the hardship the nation has been going through,” says Tshimika. “There was a time when one finished in one of the Mennonite Brethren junior high schools or the only high school we had in Kikwit and you could almost be sure that the student could go anywhere and do well and be trusted in terms of honesty, ethics, etc.
“The teachers and administrative staff were well screened according to church guidelines. Government programs were available and well followed. With government subsidies and teachers well paid, the school infrastructure was also well marinated.”
The government’s decision in the late 1970s to nationalize everything – including schools – changed everything. The Catholics refused to release control of their schools, but Protestant leaders gave in, says Tshimika. “As a result, most of the Protestant co-managed schools were among those run down quickly,” says Tshimika.
The consequence of these decisions by Protestant and Catholic leaders are still evident as many Mennonite church leaders who are financially able are sending their children to Catholic schools rather than the Mennonite co-managed schools that suffered a period of neglect.
The government eventually turned the schools back to the churches, and currently more than 50 or 60 percent of primary and secondary schools in the country are managed by a faith-based organization, says Tshimika.
One of the hoped-for outcomes of identifying model schools is an emphasis on quality rather than quantity. Other than schools founded on mission stations such as Kafumba, Kajiji, Panzi, and Kikwit, many Mennonite Brethren co-managed schools were not built with durable materials. Improving facilities at these schools is a priority.
Mandate for religious education in DR Congo
DR Congo’s national government gives total freedom to faith communities to develop their curriculums with the following recommendations:
1. The religion lesson must be “relevant” or practical, taking into consideration the realities affecting the lives of the children which will draw them to consider God as the Supreme Being who loves them.
2. The lesson must encourage the child to love those nearby (neighbour), to be polite, generous, serving, and respectful of the common good.
3. The lesson must lead the child to consider the Word and the will of God.
4. The child must be protected against practices that could lead to religious discrimination and intolerance.
5. The number of course hours per week in this discipline must be in agreement with the weekly schedule of coursework for the level of each degree (elementary, middle, and terminal).
6. Textbooks will be chosen from among the recommended books by each religious confession (denomination) in the Democratic Republic of Congo.
(translated from French: Programme National De L’Enseignement Primaire, published in Kinshasa-Gombe, 2005)
A story in the June 2012 ICOMB education newsletter states: “Congo Mennonite educational leaders meeting in the 2009 consultation determined that they could do more to take advantage of this open door to integrating historic Anabaptist-Mennonite perspectives in the curriculum of the Mennonite schools that serve the geographical regions in which they are located.”
For a full copy of the 2009 Congo consultation findings (French and English) see: http://icomb.org/congoschool