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Seventy-five third-graders, all in uniforms — a white shirt and navy pants or skirt — sit at their desks. The teacher holds up two plants, one in each hand, and asks the students to identify them. Many hands go up, and the students answer, “Banana, mango!”
The school is located in Goma, a city in the Congo. The land outside the African city is green, rich and fertile. Twelve miles to the north is Mount Nyiragongo, a volcano that erupted in 2002, destroying roads and large sections of the city. And, there has been little peace in the area. Frequent attacks by rebel groups have made Goma a difficult place to grow up.
But at school, the kids feel protected.
Marceline Bauma, 8 years old, listens attentively as her teacher, Salomon Mulezi, continues with the science lesson. When he asks the students to name other plants that grow in eastern Congo, they call out their favorite foods — beans, corn, potatoes and the green-leafed manioc.
The teacher stresses the importance of protecting plants. He tells them they should chase goats and chickens away from the plants. “But do this gently,” he says. “Don’t use rocks.”
After reviewing the main points of the lesson, he writes the homework on the board. Marceline carefully copies the question in cursive in her notebook: “How many days does a hen sit on her eggs?”
At 12:10 p.m., Marceline and her classmates go outside, where all the students, more than 1,150 first- through sixth-graders, are gathering in the courtyard for prayers and announcements. The assembly ends with a drum roll. Students leave their school, Notre Dame du Congo (that means “Our Lady of the Congo”), marching to the drumbeat.
A hot lunch
Marceline and her school friends walk home down the middle of the unpaved street. (There are very few cars in the neighborhood.) A stone wall surrounds Marceline’s house as well as the family’s garden and chicken coop.
Marceline is hungry: School started at 6:30 a.m., and there was no time for a snack between classes. Her mother has prepared a big meal of rice and leaves from the manioc plant, cooked outdoors on a charcoal fire. Marceline has several brothers and sisters: Gloria (1), Rosine (3), Rita (4), Arthur (6), Fatuma (12) and Olivier (15). They all eat together.
Fatuma and Olivier were adopted from an orphanage that Marceline’s parents run. It is called Orphelinat Amani — “Orphelinat” is French for “orphanage,” and “Amani” is Swahili for “peace.”
Olivier likes to help Marceline with her homework using a chalkboard the family bought at the market. (Marceline’s favorite subject is math.) This afternoon, Olivier is helping her with a French grammar lesson. Marceline writes on the chalkboard and reads aloud as Olivier points to the words with his stick.
The baby falls asleep while Fatuma carries her on her back. Arthur and his friend play with a tire rim, rolling it along the path near the garden. Marceline’s mother and the little girls tend to the fruits and vegetables — green onions, beans, bananas, sugar cane and cabbage. The family has so much cabbage that they will sell it in the market.
When it rains, everyone gathers inside. A huge barrel collects the rainwater. (The house has no running water.)
If there is little rain and the water supply is low, Fatuma and Marceline walk more than a mile to find some. They carry the water on their backs in yellow containers called jerrycans. For years Marceline begged her parents to let her help Fatuma carry water. Last year, she starting carrying five liters, which is equal to two and a half large soda bottles in the United States. “But now I carry 10 liters,” she says in Kihunde, the language she speaks at home.
When the sun goes down
In the early evening Marceline finishes her homework. The family eats together and chats, sometimes listening to music on the radio. There is no electricity in the neighborhood — the only light comes from an oil lamp. Marceline and her brothers and sisters are in bed by 8 p.m.
Marceline attends school Monday through Saturday; on Sunday, she goes to church with her mother. Her father stays home to make a big breakfast. On school holidays Marceline will often go with her parents to the orphanage, home to 31 children. She enjoys playing with them, singing, dancing and taking care of the babies.
In recent years there has been fighting in and around Marceline’s neighborhood. When there have been attacks, Marceline and her family were able to escape and stay with friends in a safer part of town.
But for now the fighting has stopped. Marceline sleeps well in her own bed — hoping this peace will last.
Congo: A land of many languages
Marceline, whose family is part of the ethnic group called the Hunde, can speak three languages: Kihunde, Swahili and French. Kihunde is the language spoken by the Hunde people. Swahili and French are both official languages of Congo and are used in school, government and business. Many ethnic groups have their own language — more than 200 languages are spoken in Congo.
Here’s how to say hello in the three languages that Marceline speaks:
Kihunde: Bwakyere (sounds like BWAHK-yeh-rey)
French: Bonjour (bon-JURE)
— Kem Knapp Sawyer