Growing up in Congo: Reflecting on School and Family Life
I was born in Congo in a village called Bibogobogo. My father told me I was born after the independence from Belgium in 1962, so I tell people I was born in June of 1963. We don’t usually keep track of months and years in Congo, so this day might not be exact. In fact, today could be my birthday! Because we don’t use years in Congo, I started school when my right hand could reach over my head to touch the top of my left ear. I had six brothers and sisters, and I was the only one who had the opportunity to go to school.
“My primary school was eight miles away from my home, so I walked a total of 16 miles each day to get my education.”
After my primary school, I went to secondary school, or middle school, for two years. I had to leave home to attend middle school, since we didn’t have a middle school around us. As my school didn’t have any place we could stay, everyone needed to find a place to live for themselves. I had to live with people who didn’t speak the same language as me and who didn’t know anything about me. I was probably 16 years old. So I knocked on doors until I found a family that would let me stay. But it was so difficult because I needed to learn the culture of the tribe. I was far from home and I didn’t have anyone I knew. I couldn’t speak the language. And I needed to go to school. My life wasn’t easy. I reflect back on it and I can’t believe I did it. But it was normal.
“You always had 2,000 things in your head. You needed to go to school and learn, you needed to learn the culture from the people you met, you needed to make friends, and you needed to do your homework.”
After middle school I went to gymnasium, the equivalent of high school, for three years, and university after that. They were really far from my home. I went to new places and there, again, I had to learn the same things. More people, another culture, and learning in school. When that was done I went home.
Before leaving home for schooling, however, I spent time with my family at home as a child. I had three brothers and three sisters, and we each had different chores. When I was home from school, I went to help my dad with the cows. We had some small cows and I would help him bring them home and then get the milk. Or sometimes they had me go get water. We didn’t have any water at home so you needed to go really far away to get it and bring it home. This was also my job.
“Life was simple, but it certainly wasn’t easy.”
After university, I went home to teach first. I wanted to become a teacher because it was an opportunity to work in Congo. The only opportunities to work were to be a teacher or a nurse. We didn’t have a hospital, so I became a teacher of middle school kids. I taught every subject, but my favorite was math. This job was interesting because even as a teacher, you can teach all year and you don’t get paid. You get paid from your parent who gives you a cow to sell, or maybe they give you food to eat. It was a type of exchange.
Schooling is 100% different in Denmark and the U.S. When I was in Denmark, it was prohibited to have things memorized. Whatever you needed you could find on the internet. But in Congo, we didn’t have that. You needed to take everything and memorize it. You couldn’t have things to help your memory, either. It was all in your head. Now, after 30 years, I think why did we do that? Now I understand the things I was learning, but before it was just memorizing. I didn’t understand.
“At the time I liked school, because I didn’t have the opportunity to learn in another system. So the system I had was good for me.”