The girl left for dead, now coaching others in a refugee school

Aminata was only two when her village in the Democratic Republic of the Congo was invaded and burned to the ground. Her parents were up early working on the farm, so she ran for her life with her sister. Picture credit: Sala Lewis/GSMA

As they fled, both girls were shot.

Although they survived, her sister lost her arm and Aminata was left paralysed. That same year the girls’ father was killed in the war and soon after, they lost their mother. 

“We were orphans in addition to being disabled,” said Aminata. “I was so disturbed that I gave up on life.”

All Aminata had was her love of learning. Because of the war in the Congo, sometimes she and her sister would go for two or three months at a time without attending school.

But when it was safe enough to make the journey Aminata, who had no crutch or walking stick to help her to walk, would have to crawl to class.

“I was able to learn, but with a lot of difficulty,” she says.

Across Sub-Saharan Africa nine million girls between the ages of about six and 11 will never go to school at all, compared to six million boys. Picture credit: Sala Lewis / GSMA

My quality of life was poor, and I lived in a difficult environment. I pushed myself to get an education. We faced so many challenges that [we] had no choice but to flee and come here to Nyarugusu where we became refugees.”

 Finding shelter

Nyarugusu in Tanzania, close to the border with Burundi, is one of the largest refugee camps in the world, now housing around 150,000 refugees.

It lies in the western province of Kigoma, about 150km of Lake Tanganyika. Across the water is the Democratic Republic of Congo. Refugees have been flooding into Tanzania since before 1996, when the camp opened. Some of the people living here have done so for over two decades. As refugees, they cannot move freely within Tanzania. Children are born, raised and educated here. Life in the camp is the only one they know.

The market place in Nyarugusu refugee camp, one of the biggest in the world. Picture credit: Sala Lewis / GSMA

Aminata arrived in the camp in 2009, ten years after she was shot and left for dead. Although she found conditions in the camp challenging and doesn’t think of it as her home, Aminata found sanctuary through the protection of UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency.

“I like the camp because it’s peaceful. In Congo I would always hear gunfire and sounds of war.”

The Democratic Republic of the Congo (sometimes referred to as Congo Kinshasa, not to be confused with the neighbouring Republic of Congo) was the setting for what some have called “Africa’s world war”.

The country is rich in resources – and this wealth contributed to conflicts that resulted in the deaths of over six million people, either directly or as a result of disease and malnutrition.

Fighting continues in the east of the country, where a UN force is trying desperately to keep the peace, in a country that has seen its infrastructure decimated by decades of conflict. The recent Ebola outbreak isn’t helping either.

Returning home isn’t an option. DR Congo has seen the biggest displacement of people the world has ever known.

Tanzania is just one of the countries the refugees have flooded into. It’s now home to just over 330,000 refugees and asylum seekers as of the end of October 2018, the majority from neighbouring Burundi, followed by DR Congo.

Light in the darkness

From one of the worst starts, once she and her sister reached the camp, Aminata found new hope.

In 2016, to help the vast number of refugees in need of a quality education, the Vodafone Foundation – the charity arm of Vodafone – set up its free Instant Network Schools programme in Nyarugusu. Aminata was finally able to access a window into a world that would change her outlook on life.

Instant Network Schools (INS) connect classrooms to the internet, and provides tablet computers, digital educational content and teacher training, along with access to a wealth of curated online content and resources.

The Instant Network Schools classroom fits inside a heavy duty flight case – meaning it is mobile and easy to set up. Picture credit: Sala Lewis/Vodafone Foundation

The programme has benefitted more than 83,500 students and 970 teachers across seven refugee camps in Sub-Saharan Africa.    

“The quality of education I got back [in the Congo] was very poor compared to what I have now and what the children have here,” says Aminata.

“Education is life. It’s taught me a lot about the digital age, about technology. I’ve gained knowledge on so many things. It’s boosted my self-confidence and made me a respected member of society. In 2017, I was employed as a [INS] coach. I was very happy. It gave me a lot of self-confidence as a woman – a disabled woman – to have the opportunity to share my knowledge with others.”

 New connections

Aminata, now 24, supports teachers and students in the camp in adopting digital learning in the classroom.

“I’ve gotten to learn so many things, and I’ve gotten the opportunity to teach these things to other people. Initially I didn’t even know what online learning was, but now technology has helped me to dream bigger,” she says.

Aminata’s ambition is to invent an app to help others, while encouraging children to learn. Picture credit: Sala Lewis / GSMA

“In the past, studying IT didn’t occur to me because I knew nothing about it. My dream was to be a teacher. Now, I want to learn about computers and I want to learn how to make mobile apps that help other people.

“I want to be a programmer. In 10 years my dream is to be a CEO of a big technological firm. Education is my top priority because it will help me excel in the future, and it’ll open doors for me to meet people who can help me succeed.”

Asked about what advice she has for children in the camp, where their futures are uncertain, Aminata is convinced that education holds the key.

“Children in the camp who are not educated don’t live a fulfilled life,” she says.

“Education […] will broaden their minds. [Many] children in the camp were born here but never left for a single day. They know we’re Congolese but they don’t know anything about it. Through INS they can find out who the president is, learn about the various towns and provinces […] and other countries.”

Window to the world: Tablet computers give access to a wealth of information, textbooks and teaching materials. Picture credit: Sala Lewis / GSMA

“My advice to the community, to children and to parents is to support their children because they are the people of tomorrow. Encourage them to get an education and learn about technology.

“Motivate them and keep them learning. Children with special needs especially tend to get left behind a lot. Their community needs to support them so they can become like me one day”.

UNESCO found 59 million children aged six to 11 were out of school in 2013, with 30 million of those children living in Sub-Saharan Africa.

Girls face the biggest barriers – nine million will never enter a classroom, compared with 6 million boys.

Technology that lets some of the world’s most vulnerable people access information, and the people it inspires – like Aminata – can help close that gap. Education is known as the great enabler for a reason; it’s the means to build a better future both for individuals and the communities they come from.

[1] Instant Network Schools is a programme of the Vodafone Foundation, UK registered charity 1089625. The programme is run in partnership with United Nations High Commission for Refugees and the International Rescue Committee.

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