More Than a School Building
After a three-hour ride on the back of a 125cc motorcycle from Djolu, a small town in AWF’s Congo landscape in northern Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), we came across a boisterous group of boys rushing up a trail through the dense woods carrying machetes and full of banter. They were without adult supervision, bare-chested, barefoot and barely bigger than the sharp, threatening instruments they carry.
I couldn’t help thinking of the novel “Lord of the Flies,” despite being aware that we were not actually on an uninhabited island. So where exactly were we?
The surprise encounter quickly disappeared from our thoughts as the innocent boys ran past us and we remembered that in this part of the world a machete is to every inhabitant what a pen is to a writer. Resolutely, we pressed on through the narrow gauntlet of dark green broadleaf trees and underbrush that denotes the rainforest, moving closer to our destination until it became obvious that, yes, we were in the right place. The new Ilima Primary School was less than a kilometer away. Together with the local community and our architectural partner, MASS Design Group, AWF replaced an old school building that had been serving the community’s children, but was literally falling to pieces, with a new one. It is a school like no other in the middle of the enormous rainforest and a center of instruction and discipline that is making a clear difference. “How?” you might ask.
The new school is no replica of the old one, with its pristine white walls, clean architectural lines and spacious classrooms that make it hard to believe we’re even in a forest. Standing in the school also makes it hard to believe we’re in a country where the mean number of years of schooling is three, according to the United Nations development index.
But then again, the presence of Ilima is hard to believe for whom? Not the children, teachers, construction workers and community members who, day after day for the past eight months, have heard the clink and clank of hammers on nails; have seen the movement to and fro of tools and equipment; or have smelled the sweet fragrance of freshly cut, damp grass being cleared away. Even though the final touches are still being put on the building, the people are beyond not believing. Believing is seeing. And what do they see? More than a building, for sure. Here in Ilima, people see hope, a future and a reason for keeping their children in school until the right age to leave, which is novel.