”I saw a lot of death and got tired of it”

Vocational training opens new doors for youth in Congo that have been through hard times: only with work and money they believe they can get a good life. With earnings, the young men also can afford to get married.

  • Nguma Heritier, 20, a mason:
    ” I never got to go to primary school. When my friends left to study, I was alone. I didn’t belong anywhere. Eventually, at 14, I fell in with APCLS guerilla group. Did I even have any alternatives? We lived in forests, where we built small houses. After the fighting, we relocated and built new houses. I saw a lot of death. It was hard. At the end, I got tired of it, the war never ended. Did I kill people? That’s a weird question. I was a soldier, after all. Eventually the general from Congo’s national army approached our group and informed that he’s taking the children away from the group. I was sent to UN peacekeepers transit camp that was set up to safeguard the child soldiers. From there, I was selected for vocational training. It saved me. Now I know how to build up floor, walls, even houses. They called me expert of masonry. It feels good. But I often think about the many boys, who are still in the guerilla group. If they try to run away, they might get followed and if found, killed. I just now realized that there is another kind of good life. My work gives me a livelihood. I can buy clothes, food, washing materials. I might earn 200 - 300 dollars a month. Work is the most important thing in life. I want a wife and children later on, of course.”

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  • Tantin Bushu, 25, a cook:
    ”I went to primary school for three years, but then I had to work as helper on other’s rented fields. I got married at 14, but my husband left me. I didn’t know anything about cooking when I was selected for vocational training. I graduated three years ago and first worked at a hotel. When the school gave me a start-up kit and rental support for six months, I opened up my own restaurant adjoining a hostel. I make the residents breakfast at seven a.m., lunch during the day and dinner at eight. Some organisations order food for large group of guests. My specialties are fufu-maize mix and meat dishes. Without training I wouldn’t be an entrepreneur. I like my work, I have my own livelihood. I get a profit between 50-100 dollars in a month. I have even hired two helpers. I am now remarried and I have a three- and a seven-year-old child. The youngest will be born in a month. After giving birth, the doctor will say how long my maternity leave is. Usually it’s two months. How much do I receive maternity allowance? There’s no such thing in Congo. If I can save enough, I’ll buy a plot and build a home. Smallest plot costs 800 dollars. Saving the sum is not impossible, if there’s enough customers.”

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  • Tantin Bushu in the kitchen of her restaurant.

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  • French fries cooking.

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  • Tantin Bushu setting up the table for lunch in the dining room of a hostel.

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  • Ombeni Bandu, 25, a carpenter:
    ” I went to primary school for four years, but then my father died. I dropped out of school. The guerilla recruiters came to talk to me everywhere, in the markets and roads. They lured boys to go with them constantly. I joined the FAG guerillas, there was no alternatives. But soldier’s life was hard. There wasn’t always food, or place to sleep in the jungle. If I did anything wrong, I was beaten and sometimes even tortured. The escape from the guerilla group and getting selected for vocational training changed my life. I learned how to build things, everything from roofs to furniture. After training I pushed myself and also finished secondary school. I am proud of that, because my status in my community got better. Last spring I even could afford to get married. If there’s a lot of work, I earn 50 dollars a month. I divide it three ways with two of my employees. I live a good life, I have money and a livelihood. I am going to buy a plot, where I’m going to build a house for my family. Me and my wife want at least eight children.

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  • Carpenters at their shop: Bwicka Ngulu, 25, (left), Bahemuke Wetemuami, 23, and Ombeni Bandu, 25.

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  • Potrait of the carpenters: Bwicka Ngulu (left), Ombeni Bandu and Bahemuke Wetemuami.

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  • Madalaine Clarice, 20, a dressmaker:
    ”I never went to school. When I was 13, I joined FAG rebels, because they promised me an education. That promise was not kept of course . Among us, there were 90 girls. There was no distinction made between the girls and the boys. Each one received a gun. A soldier’s profession is like any other work. If you join the group voluntarily, the name of the game is clear. When the enemy tries to shoot you, it is clear that you’ll load your gun and try to shoot them first. A certain combat still haunts me. I was taken hostage, I was tortured and beaten. Eventually Save the Children – organisation got in contact with our group and persuaded our leader to hand over some of the children. I was lucky, I got to start vocational training. I didn’t know anything about sewing, now I am a professional. Our dressmaker’s shop is one of the best in Masisi, there are four dressmakers. We received a start-up package from school: five sewing machines, scissors and fabrics. Everything was going well, and I earned 100 dollars a month. But in 2012 the Hutus and Hundes fought opposite each other here. We fled into the forest and the guerillas took four machines. Now I only earn 30 dollars a month. Still, I’m lucky. I have two children, I can provide for them and clothe them. Good life means work and own money. I would like to start a modern studio that would bring a visible status in my community.”

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  • Potrait of the dressmakers in their shop: Beya Baeni, 22 (left) Rebeca Butinda, 18, Madalaine Clarice, 20 and Sara Bora, 17.

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  • The tools of a dressmaker: scissors, fabrics and the machine that’s left. The other four disappeared in the guerillas’ attack on the town.

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  • Kitsa Muhindo, 19, a mechanic:
    ” Our company is specialised in fixing mopeds, we have nine employees. We all graduated from ETN training and I was voted as the manager. I am the most responsible and take the best care of our tools, I am told. Most of us are former child soldiers, and the training changed everybody’s life. Many have gotten married, been able to buy farms and cultivations. I myself bought a plot. When I was young, I though school was no use and joined the guerillas. But as a soldier I didn’t own anything, and didn’t receive any compensation from the combats. Now I’m doing well. Earlier I didn’t even know how to drive a moped, now I could work as a chauffeur. If we have a good month, we earn 200 dollars. We split it nine ways. If someone acts up and doesn’t do his work well, I reduce his pay. In the future I would like to buy a minibus and drive passengers to nearby towns. That would be a good business. Busses cost 12 000 dollars. My dream will come through if I have enough will and determination to work hard.”

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  • Potrait of the mechanics: Olivier Muhindo, 16, Kitsa Muhindo, 19, and Mwana Shamba Germain, 23.

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Five hours and a hundred kilometers – the journey in Congo from Goma to the eastern corner of Masisi is a bumpy one.

The miserable road cuts through a spectacular scenery: rugged mountains and lush valleys. At the bottom of one such valley is Masisi, a town of approximately 25 000 households. The number of residents is unknown; there has never been an official population register in the massive country of Democratic Republic of Congo.

The conditions at Masisi are modest, but you can get a tasty meal, custom-made dress done, fix your moped, order a table carved from a eucalyptus tree, or hire a mason – and at the same time support the entrepreneurship of youth from difficult backgrounds.

These entrepreneurs are joined with strong will to work – and a hard past. They all found a new direction for their lives in the vocational training programme funded by Finn Church Aid.

The youth selected for the training are those who are most vulnerable: former child soldiers, orphans, street kids, those who have been raped, or those who became mothers too early in life. The students are between 16 and 22. A quarter of them are illiterate when entering the training. But the will to learn is enormous: the graduating percent is 95.

The partner of FCA giving vocational training is a local ETN Training Center that is specialised in teaching traumatised youth. In the beginning, the center was working only in Goma, but Masisi received its own center in 2012. At Masisi, the training is for masonry, carpentry and cooking. At Goma, there are also training for welding, mechanics, cooking, plumbing and IT. Finn Church Aid supports these schools this year with 115 000 euros.

The first class of Masisi had 30 graduates, and they all found work. Now there are 79 youth enrolled in the classes.

Training brings an occupation and occupation brings earnings. To these youth, money is the only key to happiness, to the boys its literal: now they can afford to get married. In order to get a wife, Hutu and Tutsi youngsters will have to get two cows. The traditional dowry for Hunde tribe is 14 goats. A cow will cost between 400-500 dollars (310-390 euros), a goat 80 dollars (62 euros).

Even though the young entrepreneurs are looking forward to the future, the past is still present. The recent history of Masisi is filled with tense guerilla warfare. Even now, there are anti-government rebel forces hiding in the nearby forests, and joining them is tempting for many boys and girls due to the prolonged conflict in Congo.

“Along with studying, youth can reflect on what they’ve been through and recover. The biggest aim however is that a youth will leave our school with good professional skills”, David Ngabo, the director at ETN Training Center, says.


Text: Katja Hedberg
Photos: Jukka Gröndahl