by Lora Steiner, managing editor
For much of its existence, the small village school in Ndalu had no windows or doors—or even benches for its students. In the evening, goats and pigs took shelter in the building. The elementary and middle school-aged children who studied there during the day used bricks as chairs. They got sick often, and no one knew why. Some blamed witchcraft.
Ndalu is a rural community about 100 miles from the Atlantic coast in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Like many African communities, it doesn’t have much money, but it is rich with other resources—in this case, skilled craftsman and thick trees. A small organization known as the Congolese Christian Development Network (CCDN) bought a bench in Kinshasa that was a combo desk and chair, able to fit two students. They met with village elders, got community members to contribute trees from their back yards, and had local carpenters give an estimate for additional benches. After some bartering—nearly everyone is related to a child in the school in one way or another—they settled on the cost and found a donor in Maryland who paid for 100 benches.
A little bit of money, and empowering local leadership: It’s a model that Joel Nsongo, member of Rocky Ridge congregation and co-founder of CCDN, hopes to replicate across the Congo.
Nsongo was raised in a small village not far from Ndalu. He came to the United States in the late ’80s, at the age of 27, as a part of the Mennonite Central Committee (MCC) visitor exchange program; before that, he had worked as a purchaser for MCC’s Congo office, procuring tools that development workers needed in the field, such as machetes and other basic supplies. While in the States, he did maintenance at Rockhill congregation (Telford, Pa.).
Nsongo returned home, where he worked for a number of years as a computer network technician for Chevron. But a rebellion and regime change in 1997 had created turmoil in the country, and it seemed like a good time to leave, politically and economically. Nsongo brought his wife and two girls—who later attended Christopher Dock Mennonite High School (Lansdale, Pa.) and Eastern Mennonite University (Harrisonburg, Va.)—to the United States. He chose to relocate his family to an area he already knew.
In the U.S., Nsongo continued to work in computers, but returned home frequently. He kept seeing things that he knew could be improved, but not much changed. He thought, though, that he had to try.
Nsongo entered Eastern University’s graduate program in international development. When he finished his degree, he went home again—to the Congo—got together with friends, and created the CCDN.
Nsongo says that CCDN is about more than formal schooling or tangible projects like desks, windows, and doors for schools. Instead, they promote “mass education,” which includes informal talks on health, nutrition, sexuality, and renewable energy. The talks, held in the capital city of Kinshasa, have drawn around 100 people to each event, allowing attendees to hear from experts they otherwise wouldn’t have access to. After one speaker came to talk about raising poultry several years ago, local residents started a movement equally popular on this side of the Atlantic: raising chickens in the backyard.
“We realized that education is a base for any kind of development,” says Nsongo. “When people are educated, they are more likely to move forward.”
CCDN describes itself as a “Christ-centered community development and networking effort to … motivate and empower men and women with entrepreneurial drive to fight poverty through job training and creation, by providing individuals with business links, appropriate technology development and guidance to achieve innovation with sound management.” Or, simply put, a platform to launch activities for development.
What is most important to Nsongo is that leadership come from within: “True development for the Congo is going to come from the bottom up,” he says.
The challenge? CCDN has no regular funding. It collaborates with churches in the Congo, and with funders in the United States, as well as Congolese expats living here. When funding comes in for a particular project, says Nsongo, they tackle that project. For the other projects on the table, they pray.
For a two-day health clinic, CCDN recruited doctors who volunteered their time to screen for diabetes and dispensed medical advice and medications to newly-diagnosed diabetics and others. There’s a scholarship fund for 20 children, and projects involving two orphanages in Kinshasa. CCDN hopes to increase the “mass education” talks in Kinshasa to four to six events per year, including Christian topics that will anchor people in their faith.
As for the village school in Ndalu, it now has benches for the students, as well as doors and windows. CCDN is fundraising to build a well for water, and to lay a cement floor in the building.