COH School and Uniforms
Mpoyi, a rural community of 10,000 inhabitants, is located in a province that is among the poorest regions in the Congo/DRC, where rural areas are over 75% poor and underserved. It is a land-locked province with a mud-road system. Nationally, only 78% of eligible children attend school (UNICEF, 2018), with attendance lacking particularly in rural areas. Only about 67% of students in Congo actually complete primary school. Parents often cannot send their children to school because they cannot pay fees of as low as $60 per year.
COH’s support for education in Mpoyi has moved from paying uniforms and tuition for students to attend a far off school, to then building Coins of Hope’s own local school. A formal schoolbuilding was built in 2018, and the 2nd school building was completed in 2020. The school is called “Le Complexe Scolaire Batekemena” (The Batekenena School Complex), literally, “The School Complex for the Hopeful Ones.” The COH primary school serves grades 1-6 and follows the national curriculum. There are currently 175 students in the school. Currently, the education programs consist of paying for cloth to sew school uniforms, paying teachers’ salaries, and running a summer school. COH has run six summer schools to date, which last one month.
Schoolbooks and Supplies
Education is the foundation of developing one’s intellectual abilities and becoming a productive citizen. It is the foundation of enabling an individual to become independent. Yet, education is not guaranteed in Congo, and schools lack teaching materials. COH has provided educational materials to ensure that students have the necessary resources. Dr. Mukenge has also produced educational booklets in the local language that convey practical knowledge to uplift the community. The project furthers the chances of children in Mpoyi to complete primary school and qualify for high school, and avoid early marriage. Because so many children lack educational opportunities in rural Congo, Ben Hill is making a tremendous impact to change life outcomes.
Farming and Economic Independence
Improving food production and reducing hunger in Mpoyi have been a priority for Coins of Hope since its beginning. Mpoyi residents grow their own food, and farming is the main occupation in the region. However, people use a simple hoe as their tool, resulting in low yields, food shortages, and malnutrition. Inputs such as improved seeds, modern tools and fertilizers are lacking due to their cost and the region suffers from irregular rainfall needed for planting. A holistic approach to food security was needed.
COH Founder Dr. Mukenge secured 12 acres of farming land which is managed as a cooperative by the parents of the students at the COH school, growing corn, cassava, beans, and soya. Next to the guesthouse, another five acres serves as a demonstration field to learn mixed cropping and crop rotation with pumpkin, beans, sweet potatoes, peanuts, onions and a variety of vegetables. Students are also taught these new farming methods. At the household level, parents have been supported to raise chickens and rabbits.
As its first project in 2010, COH provided four oxen (one has died) for clearing and tilling the fields, a much-needed help to alleviate manual labor on the cooperative farm. The women of Mpoyi took a leading role in using the oxen, and formed a self-improvement association. The crops produced on the COH farm are divided among members of the cooperative, and the excess sold to meet some of school needs and to earn income. In Summer 2021, the COH mission team taught classes in nutrition to highlight the nutritional benefits of local crops that were previously ignored. In November, the project built a small depot near the main road to display crops for sale, with a vision that the community of Mpoyi will over time become self-sufficient.
More recently, Coins of Hope has introduced training that builds practical skills for Mpoyi to become self-reliant and produce everyday household items, using local materials. This will eliminate the need to constantly make purchases with scarce family income. Instead, Mpoyi residents can become skilled, build their own items, and also produce for sale. In the near-term, COH is launching training for older students, in sustainable construction using local materials. This includes:
- Masonry: kitchen with smoke-free stoves, toilets and showers with fitted doors;
- Carpentry: lidded wooden toilet seats, wooden solar cookers, chicken coops, and rabbit hutches;
- Household solar lighting.
These measures will replace use of open pit latrines, and ensure toilet facilities offer privacy. Carpentry students will provide households with equipment for smokeless cooking, while also making sure that multiple households can benefit from simple solar lighting. The provision of such tools by students creates a community service initiative for Mpoyi, and offers a sustainable way to integrate the training introduced by COH in July 2021.
The sewing program was established several years ago to make school uniforms, but also as an economic activity. Coins of Hope provided 5 sewing machines. There are currently 90 parents in the class, who are assigned to 6 groups of 15 persons each. Each group meets twice a week in the afternoon. There is a demand from many other community members to learn sewing skills. The class makes uniforms, masks, clothes and the Wonderbags (fabric slow cookers). The purchase of the embroidery machine in January 2022 enables students to make the types of clothing with designs that are in demand in the local community and can be sold. Sewing classes are designed to enable Mpoyi women to contribute to the education of their children by making school uniforms and to develop income-generating skills they can market to improve their livelihood and social status. In July 2021, a COH team taught 20 adult women and 20 students taking sewing classes in taking measurements, cutting varied patterns, and sewing household items, including the Wonderbag. In November 2021, we paid for materials to build a small 2-room building that allows seamstresses to display their clothes for sale.
A team of five Congolese Coins of Hope volunteers procured water purification and safe cooking technologies, and traveled from the U.S. to Mpoyi in July 2021 to partner with the community in creating solutions. COH conducted a week-long training of trainers program with the parents of the students in the program, and other adults in the community. These activities aim to improve the quality of life of parents and students. A key achievement was to introduce smokeless cooking. The team introduced solar cooking technologies and provided tools and supplies for training Mpoyi residents in using and replicating these technologies. COH team at Ben Hill built the solar cooking wooden box and cardboard box and tested them in Atlanta. We bought cloth Wonderbags from South Africa. In Mpoyi, Dr. Mukenge conducted demonstrations of construction and use of portable solar wooden and cardboard cookers. Community members then built a wooden solar cooker and used it. We trained women how to cook using the Wonderbag. All of these methods aim to avoid women inhaling fumes from traditional open-fire cooking. In November 2021, COH was able to purchase wood to make additional wooden solar boxes so that more women can receive them for their households. The project wants to ensure that households no longer use smoke-producing stoves that lead to respiratory diseases and early deaths among women, but instead replace them with the smokeless products.
Coins of Hope Guesthouse
The Coins of Hope guesthouse provides accommodations for COH volunteers to have a decent place to stay when visiting Mpoyi on a mission trip. Construction began in 2014 and ended in 2020. The March 2021 Coins of Hope fundraising campaign allowed for two rooms and the dining room in the guesthouse to be readied for use and for an outdoor kitchen annex, toilets, and showers to be built. The guesthouse also serves as a year-round training center for COH activities, which improve the well-being of Mpoyi students and community members. The following activities take place regularly: 1) The sewing class makes uniforms, masks, and clothing on demand, with plans to create a business; 2) The adult literacy class has 10 students, with more to register in upcoming cycles; 3) The hygiene and health education classes teach water purification and disease prevention; 4) The science classes teach 3rd-6th grade students anatomy and biology; 5) The Wonderbag cooking class teaches smokeless cooking; 6) The COH leadership team of seven people meet at the guesthouse regularly. These activities enable the community to improve their health and learn life skills.
COH’s success depends on the active participation of the people of Mpoyi. One of the first activities of COH in 2010 was to purchase a pair of oxen to support farming activities, and a second one in 2011. Also in 2011, 14 Mpoyi women, who took charge of farming with the oxen, formed a self-improvement organization called La Promotion Paysanne de la Femme de Mpoyi. This local group helped advance the mission of COH and mobilize other community members. Other strategic groups include the Parents Association, and the Rural Development Association. The Rural Development Association manages the cooperative farming activities on the COH 12-acre farm. Another key leadership structure is the Coins of Hope Management Committee, followed by the group of six teachers and school director, and the COH Project Coordinator. All these entities communicate regularly with Dr. Mukenge and Muadi Mukenge, to advance the regular activities of Coins of Hope.
As part of the July 2021 COH mission trip, we trained 12 teachers and leaders of farming and women’s organizations in leadership skills, organizational principles, and long-term planning. The accomplishments of the summer program are designed to become regular practices which will gradually improve the quality of life and the general well-being of participating parents and students. The program produced a cadre of local trainers that will implement and sustain on-going training across the community, contributing to greater skill building and empowerment in Mpoyi. The leadership and management skills will enable the community to better organize themselves for self-empowerment.