Not long ago, when Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) mission co-worker Gwenda Fletcher visited a primary school in Munkamba in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, she saw four small classrooms made of sticks and palm fronds. Other classes met outdoors under trees. Children sat on the ground or on logs. Teachers wrote lessons with tiny sticks of chalk on pieces of old tin roofing.

Congolese Presbyterian churches are committed to empowering children through education. The churches run nearly 1,000 primary and secondary schools in East and West Kasai and other provinces. These schools are located in cities and rural areas across 1,400 miles of jungles and savannahs. Only 18 percent are built with durable materials.

Congo’s pervasive poverty means that 80 percent of its primary and secondary school buildings are in a very needy state. Poverty also prevents schools from providing books, desks, teacher training, equipment like chalkboards and scholarships for girls and orphans. Congo, which is one quarter the size of the U.S., currently ranks near the bottom of the United Nations Human Development Index, a measure of life expectancy, education and income per capita.

Build Congo Schools (BCS)—formerly the Congo Education Excellence Project—began in 2007. The project grew from a vision proposed by Dr. Joseph Mulumba, head of the Congolese Presbyterian Church (CPC), to provide hope and quality education in all of Congo’s Presbyterian schools.

The original Zapo Zapo School in West Kasai.

The original Zapo Zapo School in West Kasai. —Gwenda Fletcher

On a visit to First Presbyterian Church in Evanston, Illinois in 2005, Dr. Mulumba stayed at the home of Tom and Jan Sullivan. He invited the Sullivans and other members of First Presbyterian to visit Congo to see the schools firsthand and talk with educational leaders. The Sullivans accepted his offer and traveled to the Congo in 2007 with PC(USA) mission co-worker Jeff Boyd and Denise Drane, a Northwestern University education professor.

After visiting 25 schools and talking with many students, teachers and principals, the visitors said, “These folks are amazing! In the name of Christ, they create schools out of thatch and mud, teach with few books and learn with almost no writing materials. They are so committed to educating their children that no obstacle is too great. How can we support them?”

Dr. Mulumba asked the U.S. team to facilitate a formal planning process of two groups of Congolese education leaders and collaborate with the CPC in transforming their schools into quality learning environments. Accepting the challenge, the U.S. team spent two weeks in Congo assisting the CPC in carefully thinking through its educational priority areas to improve the quality of primary and secondary education by:

  • improving infrastructure with durable buildings
  • improving access to teacher training
  • ensuring teachers have textbooks in all subjects at all levels
  • improving teaching by providing transportation for supervisors to make school visits
  • increasing enrollment and retention of female students
The new Zapo Zapo School was completed on time and on budget.

The new Zapo Zapo School was completed on time and on budget. —Ilunga Munyoka

Although the priority areas are of equal importance, improving infrastructure through durable buildings is of great concern. “We have rain nine months of the year,” Fletcher says. “If the kids are in a school with a thatch roof when it rains, they are sent home.”

So far three remote rural schools have been rebuilt and a fourth is under construction. The CPC has already identified the next two schools to be transformed. Progress has been made in teacher training, supervision, school resources and creating a safe and healthy learning environment for children.

Presbyterian World Mission has praised the strategic planning model, which builds the capacity mission partners and puts the Congolese church in the position of authority, as a best practice for other partnerships.

“There is much more to be done,” Jan Sullivan says.


For more information, visit buildcongoschools.org.

Support Gwenda and John Fletcher’s work in Congo at pcusa.org/donate/E200529.

Help build and equip a school in Congo at pcusa.org/donate/E051843.  

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This article is from the spring 2016 issue of Mission Crossroads magazine, a publication of Presbyterian World Mission. To subscribe or read archived issues, visit pcusa.org/missioncrossroads or call 800-728-7228.