Pictures: Our favorite student Pepitho, a group of students at an orientation, the Mont Ngafula Stake President addressing the students in his stake.
Africa, as a continent, faces immense problems with hunger, unemployment, lack of water, and a general sense of hopelessness.
In the DR Congo, there is an overwhelming sense of hopelessness. We live in Kinshasa, a city who reports to have 8 million people, but common consent is that there are more like 15 million people living in the Kinshasa environs. The city is very large, it spreads over many miles. People are everywhere. They live in homes, apartments, hovels, and a great many on the street.
Unemployment is at 90 percent. Over 85% of the DR Congo and Africa in general are without clean drinking water, 80% of Congolese do not have electricity. Those who have electricity, only have it part time. Our apartment, is on US Government property and we have electricity provided by the power company or on generator 99% of the time. At our office, we have electricity about 50% of the time.
There is often a vacant hopeless look on peoples faces and in their eyes.
We have seen light come into those faces and eyes as we work here. When clean water wells are dug, there is true light and laughter in the eyes of those who will receive the blessing of fresh water.
The other light that comes into the lives of people from the blessings of the Living Water promised by Jesus Christ. Our young missionaries are valiant in their teaching of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. These young men and women (all African - it is far too dangerous for young white missionaries in the DR Congo) live in small apartments, without electricity or water. They cook on charcoal stove in there front yards. But they work tirelessly to bring to gospel to their neighbors. Each month this mission baptizes around 300 people. The Lubumbashi mission (the other half of the DR Congo) baptizes about the same number. When one accepts the Gospel of Jesus Christ, they find the light of Christ. They see beyond the immediate poverty and despair. They see eternity. (the last 12 months shows a 97% retention rate)
They have hope.
We are focused on these young men and women who return home after their missions. They have sacrificed much to serve the Lord. Now, they return home wanting to start their new lives, marry, raise a family, work, serve. But, they see at home the hopelessness of finding a job or earning a decent living. They would go to school, but that is expensive for them, so often they look elsewhere. They will leave for South Africa, or if they can find a way, for Europe. They leave their country in the hands of others.
Our mission is not just to help them find education, but to assist them to remain here in the Congo - to make it a better place.
There is here now a generation of men and women, who, when they finished their missions, committed to remaining here, building a life, and helping the Church grow. These are thirty year old bishops, and 40 year old stake presidents. They have struggled and overcome the odds to find work, raise families, lead the Church, and change their world.
They now see the next generation coming up, the young returned missionaries. They have asked for and prepared the way for the Perpetual Education Fund to come to DR Congo.
Suzanne and I are extremely blessed to be here at the beginning of this great work. The Perpetual Education Fund is a Priesthood led operation. We are simply putting the pieces in place.
We work with 5 wonderful Stake Presidents. Each of these Stake Presidents has hundreds of returned missionaries in their stakes who need employment. One of them, an incredible leader, asked Suzanne and I, with tears in his eyes, to "help me help all of my young people."
So, here is how the PEF works.
In the beginning, each stake president (4 stakes) chose twenty of his top returned missionaries to start the program. (Most of these stakes have 9 or 10 big wards in them), so each bishop could select 2 or so from their wards. Each young person was deemed to have three key elements before they could be chosen for the program: Worthiness - they need to live the commandments. Need - a real financial need. Ambition - An inward commitment and pattern of behavior that demonstrates eagerness to get ahead and work hard.
We then work within each stake with these 20 chosen kids. They must find a way to open a checking account with 10 dollars US (not much for most of us, but a lot for these kids), then commit to pay $5 per month while they are in school. At the completion of school and 8 months after graduation, their loan is amortized over 8 years. Then they are free. They feel free. They feel self-reliant and self-confident. Autonome in French.
We have three partners in the program. The Institute - the education arm of the Church. The Employment Resource Centers - the employment arm of the church. And the finance department of the Temporal Affairs office of the Church.
Once the potential student has been identified, they go through a four session course taught by the Institute Teachers. This course teaches them to dream. Dream about what they want to be. Then it assists them in identifying what their skills and talents are, and directs them towards a career. Then it helps them assess the schools in the area that could help them gain the appropriate education. Then they learn budgeting and finances (which most have never thought of before.)
The Employment Resource Center has additional Career Workshops to provide more help in selecting a field and a school, then, near graduation, they offer training and counselling on how to prepare for the job search, how to interview, how to win the job.
With this knowledge, they then apply for the PEF loan. The application is followed by the PEF couple (us), then reviewed by the employment services director to ensure that their plan will lead to employment and better income.
The Institute coordinator reviews the loan application to ensure that the individual has chosen well, can repay the loan, and continue to work hard.
Finally, we review it one more time, and it is sent to our area headquarters, then on to SLC for loan dispersal.
The average loan in about 2,000 dollars for a 3 year program. We encourage the kids to seek education and training that will lead quickly to employment. If they can do so with a nine month course, their loan will probably be a few hundred dollars. There are not a lot of PHD level jobs in the Congo. But there are plenty of skill level jobs that will earn them decent incomes. As we look out of our living room window, we watch a 30 story building being built. They will need skilled workers, electricians, air-conditioning specialists, plumbers, etc., to complete the building. Once it is complete, it will have retail, office, and residences in it.
The Congo is coming into the age of electronics. Many of our students are applying to a school that offer a Cisco International Certificate. This certificate will open doors to good jobs for them.
As a side note. Stakes are teaching entrepreneurial classes and with the help of a great leader at the Employment Services Center (Russel, who was featured in an earlier blog) micro loans have been secured to help these people improve their small business ventures.
One of our favorite students, a young man named Pepitho, is in the Cisco program. We recently visited the school, and the director identified Pepitho as their top student. He is a returned missionary who speaks good English and has a fire in his belly. He comes with us as we present orientation meetings for new candidates. He says, "I dreamed of becoming a software engineer. When I returned from my mission, I had no idea how to fulfill that dream. Then, my stake president came to me with an opportunity to receive a PEF loan. Now, I am half way through my program, I already have a job as a help desk person at the local cell phone company, upon graduation I will be advanced in the company as a software specialist, and will soon be able to get married and start my life." He leaves his house at 6:00 am. If he can catch a ride into the city, he can be to school by 9, and then to work until late. Then he does his church calling, teaches an English class, gets home at midnight, and then starts over again. And, he has a beautiful girl friend, whom he will take to the Temple to be married soon.
We can take Pepitho's story and times it by hundreds of lives of all these unbelievable kids we meet. Yesterday, at a school for finance and banking we visited, the director was giving us a tour, when we ran into one of our students. He came over to say hello, and the director told us that the young man was not only a great student, but he was mentoring other students. Payday for us every day....
So, we have started 4 stakes with 2o kids each. Now, the first stake to start is sending the next 20 through the process. We set schedules with the Institute teachers and stake presidents today for the Planning for Success courses to teach and enroll over two hundred more kids by the end of the year.
We met with the 5th stake today to start their preparation for coming on board.
Today, we also spoke with the Area Seventy who wants to take the program to the other three large cities in the Congo. Which means will will travel to the other parts of the Congo to begin. You have to fly, since there are no roads to travel in-land. For those political geographers, we will not travel to the northeast, where it is less safe.
We have establish three values for our efforts.
Integrity - because poverty yields corruption, we insist on absolute honesty. We require all schools to have bank accounts. (this may sound silly, but many don't, they just take the money and often overcharge and share the difference with the school, the teachers, and sometimes even with students). We will not allow that. All we do and all that takes place must be with integrity.
Compliance - We will ensure that we are compliant with Church policy and procedures. If we do it right the first time, the program will be well founded and correct.
Sustainability - Since the program is priesthood based, we work to ensure that the priesthood, namely the bishops and stake presidents own responsibility for the program. We will be gone in 18 months, but the program must remain. I have heard stories of the PEF being totally dependent upon the missionary couples, and falters when they leave. We aspire to leave and not have to be replaced. We believe this is possible. We tell the stake presidents up front, that it is their program and their responsibility. But then, they know that. It is their kids they are working for. And, the leadership has been incredible. The Institute teachers are eager and really get into teaching the kids. The Employment Resource Center is 100% behind the program.
Being a French speaking country poses its share of language problems. My French is coming back and I do OK. Suzanne is learning, but speaks the international language of caring. The French here is actually a very pure French. The accent is a little different, but the French is good. I am frequently asked if I am French or from France. I guess that is better than being told I speak like an American. I guess my French days still carry the French pronunciation and accent.
At the end of the day, we feel good that their is hope, dreams, and opportunity for success.