By Ange Kasongo
KIPUSHI, Democratic Republic of Congo, Aug 10 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Squeezed on to benches and on the floor, the Congolese students of Kipushi Primary School did not complain that they only had a few, battered textbooks to share - just down the road, hundreds of less fortunate children were working in open-pit mines.
Enrolment at the school - named after the town of 174,000 people, which is dominated by its copper, zinc and cobalt mines - has risen by 75% to 1,400 students since the Democratic Republic of Congo introduced free primary education in 2019.
"The difficulties are there but free education is a good thing because getting kids to study back then was a headache," said Maloba Mputu Stany, principal of the school in the eastern province of Haut-Katanga.
"The teachers are doing what they can to facilitate the integration of children from the mines," he told the Thomson Reuters Foundation, as he searched for a list of new students in his cluttered office.
About 40 of the 600 new pupils, dressed in white and blue uniforms, are former child labourers, said Stany, who wants donors to fund teacher bonuses to give them catch-up sessions.
The latest figures from the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF) show that six million children - almost one in four - were out of school in 2018 in Congo, which was one of the last countries in the world to introduce free primary education.
The new scheme, which costs more than a third of its $6.8 billion budget, has enabled four million of these children to go to school, according to the education ministry.
But poverty keeps millions more out of school.
"Thousands of children still (work at) the mine sites due to a lack of school kits, according to parents," said Philippe Nyange, head of child protection at the Association of Women for Community Development (AFEMDCO) in Kipushi.
With funding from UNICEF, the charity has provided 270 child labourers with school kits, containing school bags, notebooks, pens and uniforms, which were quickly snapped up by an eager crowd of parents and children at AFEMDCO's offices.
It hopes to issue another 230 kits later this year.
Three of the lucky new students belong to Rachel, who works at the Luhongo mine 5km down the road from the primary school with her two other children.
"It is almost impossible to fill four basins per person in one day," said Rachel, who declined to give her full name, referring to the minimum required to earn 1,000 francs ($0.50) for collecting rocks containing cobalt and copper at the mine.
"I prefer to have (them) work with me on the site so that I can get more money at the end of the day."
More than 1 million children worldwide work in mining, according to the International Labour Organization, as demand for minerals used in cars, cosmetics and electronics soars.
The United Nations has pledged to end child labour by 2025 and considers mining a priority target as arduous tasks such as diving into muddy wells, digging rocks and carrying heavy loads put children's health and safety at risk.
"The work is so hard that some children drink strong alcohol to gain strength and fill more stone basins," said former child miner Pascal Mbayo Kasongo, who tells children and parents about his experiences and encourages them to go to school.
Life has become tougher for many families in Kipushi with the decline of Gecamines, a state-owned mining firm, which was the town's largest employer and provided free schooling to its staff until mismanagement led to a sell-off in the 1990s.
Food comes before education for many, said Roger-Claude Liwanga, an expert in the exploitation of children in Congo's artisanal mines, of Emory University in the United States.
"Free schooling should not be limited to the non-payment of school fees, especially at this time of economic crisis related to COVID-19," Liwanga said, urging the authorities to provide free school meals to boost student numbers and concentration.
But the government is in no position to expand its financial support to schools. Donor funding for the ambitious free education project is already under threat due to corruption.
At the start of the year, the World Bank said it suspended its first payment in a $800 million education support programme after a government investigation "revealed a number of shortcomings and alleged cases of fraud" in the sector. The education ministry and the World Bank did not respond to requests for comment but the World Bank said in a statement that it made the first payment of $100 million in June after it was "assured that the government has taken corrective steps".
Several high-profile figures have been prosecuted over the scandal, including former education minister Willy Bakonga who was jailed in April, according to media reports. Even if the free education policy succeeds, it will not help Sam, 12, who spends six days a week digging, filling sandbags and breaking rocks with his younger brother at Luhongo mine.
"My job allows me to help my parents," said Sam, who earns 250 francs for 12 hours of work to support his mother who makes and sells traditional beer and father who is a mechanic.
"My mother promised to enrol me next school year. But then, there will be a problem with school supplies," said Sam, whose name has been changed to protect his identity.
(Reporting by Ange Kasongo; Writing by Emeline Wuilbercq; Editing by Katy Migiro. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers the lives of people around the world who struggle to live freely or fairly. Visit http://news.trust.org)
This material has been funded by UK aid from the UK government; however the views expressed do not necessarily reflect the UK government’s official policies.