FCA in the Central African Republic – work for peace

Peace is in your own hands when you have something to hold on to

A stable income goes a long way in a region where a life is worth only 4 euros. The Central African Republic, which has gone through a long civil war, is finding its way towards increasing stability, and FCA’s Youth Peace Clubs offer young people new chances.

IN THE SOUTHEASTERN part of the Central African Republic and a hundred kilometres from the capital, Bangui, lies the Mbaiki village. The red glow of the late afternoon sun is setting on the village. The rainy season has turned the walkway even more verdant than usual – a true moment of beauty for this city of 25,000, known for its flowers.

A neat row of shoes can be spotted at the end of a village road in front of a light-green house. The local hair salon is evidently still busy, with barbers and stylists making braids and cutting hair. Everything is close and personal within this 20 m2 room.

The barber and hair salon founded by the youth peace club has become famous in Mbaiki for the fact that women and men go there at the same time.

This salon is for both men and women. Posters on the walls offer inspirations for hairstyles, including the players of Real Madrid. Merlin Sombo takes a glance at the wall from time to time. He is finishing his work with a millimetre’s precision. The trimmer changes to scissors and a comb while clipping hair from a male customer’s head. He wears a cap on his head as he works and everyone says he can’t be beat for punctiliousness.

You can’t top a hair saloon for daily encounters, according to Charlene Derich Nam-Ngania, 25, who runs the place. Writing on the building’s walls tells us that the shop was set up by local Youth Peace Club. Customers mill around and exchange familiar greetings.

”This is a good place to stay on top of what’s happening in the community. We serve the young and the old, from merchants to local politicians,” says Nam-Ngania.

Charlene Derich Nam-Ngania emphasises the importance of meeting places in successful peace work.

The village barbershop is an example of a business that strengthens social cohesion in the community. The youth not only earn a bit of income but also have an opportunity to change their lives. Face-to-face meetings are beneficial: just recently, a client changed their intention to obtain a divorce after conversations in the barbershop chair.

”We also hear when rumours spread within the community. Often, people think that the youth are the source of tensions – but we are also the ones trying to find the solutions,” Nam-Ngania says.

Violence weighs on the Central African Republic

THE CENTRAL AFRICA REPUBLIC is one of the world’s poorest countries. Its inhabitants have, throughout the decades, endured the consequences of coups, periods of unrest and violence and a destructive civil war that started in 2013.

The war had multiple causes and actors, but the simplified narrative is that of two sides: the mostly Muslim Selekas and the mostly Christian Anti-balakas. The Selekas attacked civilians in 2013, and the Anti-balakas quickly organized a resistance movement. Hate speech has further increased the division between religious groups that were pitted against each other. The violence forced hundreds of thousands to leave their homes.

The Seleka violence took root from dissatisfaction with the country’s leadership, blamed for ignoring the country’s Muslim majority North. Fighters from neighbouring countries, like Chad and Sudan, joined their ranks in 2013.

Throughout the years, presidents have changed, but unrest has continued. The Khartoum peace treaty in 2019 was the first step towards stability. Nevertheless, the latest round of violence in 2020 only ended with the help of bilateral forces. Peace is still fragile, and the country’s stability is dependent on external powers.

According to the youth of Mbaiki, the reason for conflicts in the Central African Republic is considerably simpler.

”Poverty – that’s the cause of all our issues,” Koke Augrace, 23, summarises.

Augrace’s home is a stone’s throw from the barbershop. He’s in charge of another Youth Peace Club, with a focus on raising piglets. When the piglets reach breeding age, the club gets income from selling the new piglets. With the capital gained, they can offer credit to youth who are struggling with their education costs or want to start small businesses for further income.

The youth peace club raises piglets in the Koke Augrace yard.

”The key to a meaningful life is education. Our intent is to ensure that no one needs to interrupt their education,” Augrace says.

The possibilities of young people to get money and be in control of their own lives play a key role in all this, Augrace says. He knows what he’s talking about. He used to be a drug addict and says marijuana use led him to hang out with bad people. As a teenager, Augrace stole motorcycles and got into fights. He had a bad reputation and resented adults. He even hit his own teacher.

A disadvantaged financial situation and detrimental company might lead a person even towards murder. Olivier Bizanga, project officer for FCA’s peace work in Mbaiki, knows that it’s possible to get young people to kill one another for as little as 2,000 Central African francs – less than 4 euros. Financially desperate youth with poor future outlooks are easy targets of recruitment for armed groups.

”Young people join armed groups in lack of alternatives or by following the example of their friends and family members,” Bizanga says.

Olivier Bizanga (left), who leads FCA’s peace work in Mbaiki, inspired Koke Augrace to join the youth peace club.

Education uproots hatred from its breeding grounds

DISADVANTAGED YOUTH and low levels of education create a fertile ground for political hate speech. The Central African Republic’s civil war created deep divisions between Christians and Muslims in communities where, according to the locals, none existed previously.

Before the civil war, Muslims and Christians used to, for instance, play football together, says Addun Ache, 48. Her hijab reveals that she’s a Muslim. She’s also a member of a women’s savings and loans group, which meets in the backyard of its President, Ogalana Alice. Here, the group tends goats, which they obtained through an FCA project funded by UNDP. The initial four goats have now multiplied to 12. Apart from raising goats, the women also make soap for sale at Mbaiki’s market. The hardworking women already have half a million Central African Francs in savings – nearly 800 euros.

Dimanche Suzette, Yaba Vivianne, Addun Ache and Ogalana Alice at a women’s savings and loan group meeting in Mbaiki.

When the mainly Christian Anti-balaka troops struck without mercy against Muslims as a vengeance for Seleka actions, Addun and her five children escaped the fighting to neighbouring Chad. Their spell as refugees became short. Addun’s children could not attend school, and the family did not have enough food, so the family decided to return to their home region.

Like many people in the area, Addun found her house burnt and the property looted. It was also dangerous to walk in the streets of Mbaiki.

”People pointed fingers and said that there walks a Muslim and she should be killed,” Addun recalls.

Being a single parent, she started selling fish on the streets. Many of her clients were Christians. The trust needed for peace could be built through everyday encounters. Due to religious tensions, however, Addun Ache ended up changing the name of her eldest son to a Christian one, which made it easier for him to apply for university studies in Bangui.

The women’s group gets its income from, among other things, the manufacture and sale of soap. Women can use their savings to apply for loans for their own small businesses or other needs.

Now, out of 25 members in Addun’s women’s savings and loans group, almost all are Christians. According to her, giving people more opportunities to increase their income is the most important way to stabilize society. The women’s group has also taught people to read.

”Education and literacy do not only help people to become independent, but they also help in taking a critical view of information spreading in communities and teaches how to manage people’s differences,” she says.

Prosperity strengthens peace

FINN CHURCH AID’S income-generation activities within its youth peace clubs are a great example of grassroots-level peace work.Still, durable reconciliation also requires work at the governmental level. The new constitution, updated after the peace treaty, emphasises the role of women and youth in peacebuilding.

According to the law, there needs to be a 30 per cent representation of youth in local committees for peace and reconciliation. The law forbids hate speech and requires the various religious groups to be represented in the official councils and projects of civil society organisations. In addition, Muslim holidays are now also national holidays.

To improve the position of women, the government has set a quota, according to which 35 per cent of parliamentary election candidates must be women. The women’s representation in parliament is, however, still only at 13 percent.

When FCA peace project officer Olivier Bizanga arrived at Mbaiki school to lecture on peace and open applications for the organisation’s peace clubs, Koke Augrace saw his way out from a vicious cycle. He had for long wanted to reverse the direction of his life and had at least managed to stay in school.

The application process to the Peace Club measured the applicants’ motivation and understanding of peace, as well as presentational skills and capacity to teach others convincingly. Koke was one of the best in all areas but one – the head teacher warned the selection committee that he is a poor role model.

”But the teacher added that if they manage to successfully reverse my life’s direction, they’re not going to find a better example that change is possible,” Koke says shyly.

Koke Augrace (right) with his wife Deganai Elodie and their nine-month-old baby Marcosus. According to Augrace, poverty is the beginning and root of all conflicts, and livelihood opportunities are therefore crucial.

It has been four years since the establishment of Augrace’s youth peace club. Today, he sits next to his wife Deganai Elodie and his nine-month-old son Marcosus. To Koke, family comes first. Next is his dream to register his peace club as a formal organisation. This would mean keeping the association running even after FCA’s project ends, so that the club can apply for further funding for its activities, such as trainings and other youth events.

”Achieving peace requires that people have something to believe in, something to hold on to,” Augrace says.

A profession can transform a life

AGRICULTURE IS the most common source of livelihood in the verdant Mbaiki. Not everyone is up to becoming a farmer, however. Merlin Sombo, the barber, tells us at the end of his day at work how he ended up becoming one.

”I was a failure as a farmer, and so were my crops. And I didn’t have the attitude to become a salesperson either,” the reserved man says.

Barber Merlin Sombo, 35, says he found his dream job as a barber.

Luckily, Sombo’s sister knew how to cut hair and how to teach it to her brother. It paid off more than well. Today, the apron-wearing 35-year-old considers his greatest source of pride when people point at him on the street and say: “There is the man who gave me this nice haircut”.

 ”This is my thing, I love my work. The feeling when you’ve found something you’re good at is hard to beat,” Sombo says.

Text: Erik Nyström
Photos: Björn Udd

Not feeling alone is crucial for survivors of gender-based violence

Not feeling alone is crucial for survivors of gender-based violence

Finn Church Aid (FCA) works against gender-based violence in the Central African Republic by connecting survivors to healthcare services and psychosocial counselling.

WHEN ZITA KOUALET started her work as FCA’s psychosocial counsellor in Baboua, the hardest part was getting survivors of gender-based violence to consider sharing what they had gone through.

Koualet and her colleagues provide the first response in cases of rape, sexual harassment, or domestic violence in Baboua, Central African Republic. The project has been running for three years with UN Refugee Agency UNHCR funding. After careful awareness-raising in the community, people know how to approach Koualet in cases of violence or abuse.

“We pay for any transport or medical needs and provide counselling that focuses on the mental well-being. We can also help people file cases when they have been wronged”, she says.

“After that, the survivors are offered counselling. The more they feel they are supported, the more comfortable they are opening up about their experience and feel how it helps them move forward.”

Koulaet and her team also record the cases from their area in UNHCR’s database. Based on the countrywide data, NGOs know the needs and can tailor their responses nationwide.

Early marriage a key issue that leads to violence

Koualet mentions that early marriage is one of the core issues that leads to violence against women. When women are married off young, they are forced to interrupt their education – if they were in school in the first place. If women do not receive an education, they often end up staying at home doing housework and taking care of children, making them dependent on their husbands.

If a girl and her family refuse a marriage proposal, they might face consequences. In many cases of sexual violence, the perpetrator is someone they know from before, Koualet explains.

Usually, women with their own income suffer less from gender-based violence, which is why education is critical to preventing cases.

“Early marriage greatly slows down the development of young girls here. We work hard to discourage this custom and promote the benefits of education instead”, Koualet says.

After careful awareness-raising in the community in Baboua in Central African Republic, people know how to approach Zita Koualet in cases of violence or abuse.

Several of Koualet’s clients in Baboua, near the border to Cameroon, are only teenagers. One of them is 14-year-old Sylvaine. She was raped on her way home from an early evening event in her village. The assailant was a man who had earlier proposed to marry her, but Sylvaine and her family had declined.

“I had refused to marry because I wanted to continue my studies. Not too much later, I met the man when I was on my way home in the dark, and he assaulted me”, she says.

Sylvaine was first afraid to speak about the rape with anyone, but when she started feeling sick, she decided to confide in her sister. Her sister persuaded Sylvaine to talk to her mother, who had heard about FCA through an awareness campaign. FCA’s staff immediately took her to the hospital.

The doctor who treated her injuries quickly told Sylvaine she was pregnant.

“Our first thought was that we wanted to press charges against the perpetrator, but we decided that it would be disadvantageous for my future, my studies and marriage potential”, Syvlaine says.

Counselling comforts and helps building a way forward 

The mental health consequences of gender-based violence are often paralysing. Ana is a 30-year-old single mother who takes care of her five children alone after divorcing her husband a few years earlier. Ana used to run a successful business as a vendor at the weekly market near the town of Bouar.

One day, she was assaulted and robbed by members of an armed group. They beat Ana and took all her possessions. Forced down on the ground, the men accused her of collaborating with another armed group. After driving over her with their motorcycles, they left her lying on the road.

“I lost all the money I had for supporting my children. They are now out of school, and during the month after the assault, I have not been able to work”, she says.

Some materials from FCA's and UNHCR's dignity kit in are spread on the table. There is a bucket, a box with a picture of a torch, a whistle, a paper bag, two pairs of women's underwear and a white mosquito net on the table.
A dignity kit distributed to women in Baboua, Central African Republic contains a mosquito net, torch, underwear and other necessities, including a whistle to raise alarm in case of an attack.

The people who found Ana referred her to FCA, who took her to treatment for her injuries and covered her hospital costs. Ana still feels pain in her ribs and back but is able to walk. While still fearing to visit the local market, Ana feels grateful for the psychosocial support she receives weekly.

“Thanks to that, I have been able to live, and the hospital helped me back on my feet”, she says.

Ana and Sylvaine say that the most important reason for their recovery is understanding that they are not alone. Sylvaine also says that the counselling has been comforting and helped her realise that what happened to her was not her fault. Her goal is now to go back to school and continue her education.

“Speaking with the counsellors has made me realise I also want to work with something that makes a difference. Caring for my child does not stop me. My siblings and mother will support me”, Sylvaine says.

The names of the survivors of gender-based violence have been changed due to the sensitive nature of their stories.

Text: Erik Nyström
Photos: Björn Udd

Unrest in the Central African Republic forces FCA staff to work remotely

The violence sparked by the presidential and parliamentary elections in the Central African Republic has plunged the country into a humanitarian crisis. The unrest began ahead of the election on December 27 and forced 200,000 people to leave their homes, according to UNHCR.

The Central African elections were disrupted by attacks of armed groups in several areas across the country. As a result, several voting stations were closed, and the situation remains fragile. Finn Church Aid (FCA) evacuated its field office staff from Bozoum, Bossangoa, Bangassou and Mbaiki to the capital Bangui. Only the field office in Berberati remains open, apart from the country office in Bangui, where the other programmes are now managed remotely.

On January 21, the authorities declared a 15-day state of emergency that restricted movement and put the capital Bangui under a curfew from eight in the evening until five in the morning. The capital’s security situation continues to fluctuate but is calmed by the UN peacekeeping mission MINUSCA’s presence.

FCA monitors the situation of the field office areas to evaluate when the staff can return safely.

Rauhankerhon osallistuja katsoo vakavana kameraan ikkunan edessä.

FCA supports youth peace clubs in the capital Bangui.

Finland’s Africa strategy should harness Africa’s youth dividend for positive change

Finland's Africa strategy

FCA has published a document with recommendations for Finland’s Africa strategy. Download the document by clicking here.

Africa is one of the world’s fastest-growing markets, despite facing many challenges across the continent. Political ties of African countries, security issues and the effects of global phenomena, like climate change and the Covid-19 pandemic, have an increasing influence on the entire world.

This is why an increasing number of actors build partnerships with African countries. Last year, the US launched a new Africa strategy. Russia held its first Africa summit, and China has meticulously strengthened its ties with the continent. This year, the EU has worked on its own partnership strategy.

How should Finland position itself to play a part in Africa’s future?

FCA has released a document with recommendations for Finland’s Africa strategy. It emphasises that Africa is a continent of youth. They form the continent’s future and affect the entire world.

FCA argues that Finland can achieve its goal of having an impact beyond its size if its Africa strategy manages to harness the continent’s youth dividend for positive change and development.

While national populations in other parts of the world are ageing, most African countries have majority youth populations. Currently, 60% of Africa’s population is under the age of 25. These young women and men bring great potential for the African future. By 2050, there will be 2 billion Africans, and one-third of the world’s youth will be in sub-Saharan Africa.

Some of the most pressing needs in African countries coincide with areas where Finland stands out as a global leader, such as quality education, linking learning to earning, sustainable livelihoods and promoting peace, security, gender equality and good governance.

A mutually beneficial partnership is an opportunity for both Africa and Finland.

Learn more about the path forward from FCA’s recommendations to Finland’s Africa strategy. Download the document by clicking here.

If you can read this, thank a teacher – these thoughts unite teachers around the world

Few adults from your childhood become as memorable as encouraging teachers. A good teacher can have a life-changing influence on a young person’s future and career choice.

Learning is one of life’s most rewarding things. Have you ever wondered who create this wonderful experience? Teachers.

A proficient teacher inspires students about their subject, because a student’s enthusiasm is the prerequisite for learning. If the subject does not raise interest, there will hardly be any learning.

Teachers around the world are celebrated on October 5th. Teachers put themselves on the line in difficult conditions, sometimes working even without pay. We asked teachers involved in FCA’s projects what they think about their work and the importance of education in their community.

Head Teacher John Egielan’s students are like children to him. Egielan now teaches primary school learners in Turkana County, Kenya. He himself grew up in the surrounding pastoralist communities and knows how tough it is to attend school. Poverty is the greatest obstacle.

Egielan’s single mother paid his school fees by collecting firewood.

“I don’t have any children of my own, but in school I support other people’s children. I am sure that my work pays off when I see them succeeding in life.”

Molly Azikuru and Godfrey Nyakuta teach primary school children in Bidibidi refugee settlement, Uganda. The settlement opened three years ago when hundreds of thousands of refugees arrived from neighbouring South Sudan. Teaching overcrowded classrooms in the midst of a humanitarian crisis is anything but easy. Nevertheless, Azikuru and Nyakuta maintain their calm and do not give in to the challenges. They dedicate themselves day after day to inspire their learners.

Jean Lessene has himself experienced the Central African Republic’s civil war and closely followed its impact on the lives of children and their communities. Employed as Head of the Education Sector, Lessene has evaluated the destruction of schools and participated in their reconstruction. For him it is clear that without education, the Central African Republic cannot achieve peace.

“Social cohesion and the significance of peace are among the most important things that a school can teach.”

Marave Chhay is an experienced teacher and one of the first career counsellors trained by FCA in Cambodia. Learners attending career counselling learn valuable working life skills, such as problem solving and taking initiatives, and they are trained to identify their strengths as well as follow their dreams. You will not reach your goals without making plans.

In schools with career counselling, like Anlongvil secondary, the number of school dropouts has decreased alongside improved learning results. The teacher or career counsellor is sometimes the only adult supporting and encouraging youth at a critical moment.

”I no longer get conned at the market” – Literacy training boosts sense of self-worth of women in Central African Republic

Literacy training targeted for women has filled classrooms in the illiterate countryside of Central African Republic. Excitement spreads as rumor goes that the mother next door has learnt to read.

A woman dressed in an eye-catching blue kaftan is standing in front of the class. A group of women both approaching and past middle age repeats syllables after her in one voice. A wooden plank serving as a pointer taps a determined rhythm on the chalkboard.

The woman is Damaris Sarape, 35, instructor of a literacy group for adult women. On the surface, Damaris is no different from her students. Her everyday life is the same as that of her peers; she lives in one of the two-room clay houses built next to one another, and keeps her children fed by farming.

However, there is one thing that sets her apart, and makes the other women follow her with admiration as well as address her using the respectful Madame. She knows how to read.

Damaris teaches the women in her neighborhood with enthusiasm and determinism.

Damaris teaches the women in her neighborhood with enthusiasm and determinism.

Being able to read boosts sense of self-worth

Two years ago, when Finn Church Aid asked women living in the remote northwestern parts of the Central African Republic what kind of support they needed in their day-to-day life, among the first things that the women mentioned was wanting to learn how to read.

Based on these wishes, a Women’s Bank project was born, founded on the idea of improving the quality of life of women in the Bozoum region by offering them education in literacy and numeracy, entrepreneurship, and peace work.

Before, I didn’t even know how to spell my own name, but now I do. It feels wonderful.


  • Central African Republic is one of the most fragile states in the world. Learn more here.
  • Anna Koskivuo, volunteer with Teachers Without Borders, together with a representative of the Central African Republic Ministry of Education, trained 18 literacy educators, who teach groups of 15 to 25 women three times a week
  • The Women’s Bank project runs from 2018 to 2020 and incorporates subsistence, education, and peace work
  • All activities are held in the women’s native language, sango
  • The project benefits a total of 450 women

”In our community, we have many mothers who don’t know how to read, count, or write. These women deserve better opportunities to be in charge of their own life,” says Damaris, literacy instructor in one of the women’s groups.

Last year, she saw the Women’s Bank’s advertisement for recruiting literacy instructors, applied, and was selected. Damaris is motivated by seeing women she knows gain self-confidence through learning to carry out simple calculations and write their own name.

”If we had been allowed to go to school earlier, we wouldn’t be illiterate now. Before, I didn’t even know how to spell my own name, but now I do. It feels wonderful,” says Nafissa Yaya, 45, mother of six.

The women come from modest circumstances. Many of them had parents who chose to keep their daughters home to do housework, and arranged for them to marry young instead of sending them to school.

However, literacy and numeracy skills are strongly connected to coping with day-to-day life.

”Sometimes I get conned at the market, because I don’t know how to count or how much the change should be. I want to learn how to count in order to better plan my family’s finances and to be able to set aside some savings,” Nafissa continues.

Women and girls are often left outside education. According to an estimate by UNESCO  (2010), only 24 percent of women in the Central African Republic know how to read.

Less than half of the adult population in Central African Republic is literate. The number is even lower what comes to women; according to UNESCO (2010), only 24 percent of Central African women can read.

Prolonged conflict and unstable history have resulted in poor levels of education. The influence of the former French colonial administration is still visible today; for example, the official language of instruction in Central African Republic is still French, even though the majority of the population, especially in remote areas, does not master the language. Children do not learn at school if they do not understand what the teacher is talking about.

Women’s Bank’s literacy training is held in sango, which is the primary language spoken in Central African Republic. Studying in sango has sparked enthusiasm and hope among the women about learning still being possible.

Mother of six, Nafissa, hopes that the training will help her find a job.

Mother of six, Nafissa, hopes that the training will help her find a job.

Hands full with work

Bozoum is a sleepy rural town with about 20,000 inhabitants, where everyday life is simple but filled with work.

When the sun rises above the hills of the town early in the morning, Damaris is already up. She starts the day by sweeping the ground in front of her home, just like the other women in her neighbourhood. It is important to keep one’s own yard looking tidy.

In Central African Republic, women are in charge of taking care of home and children. In the morning, the women walk together to go and work in the fields, and during the day, they sell their crops by the side of the road in order to provide for their families. Many have husbands working in the gold and diamond mines far outside of town. The fathers come home once a month, sometimes once every two months.

Although rich in natural resources, Central African Republic has had a rocky road to travel. The civil war that broke out in 2013 affected Bozoum as well.

Even though the situation is stable at the moment, many are worried about the future.

”There is still unrest in the regions surrounding the town. Only one fifth of those who ran from the war have returned,” says Damaris.

In addition to having two jobs and her own children to look after, Damaris takes care of the children of her brother who works at the mines located far away.

In addition to having two jobs and her own children to look after, Damaris takes care of the children of her brother who works at the mines located far away.

Laole after the literacy class has ended.

Laole after a literacy class.

The decreased population has affected the market as well.

”Business is not what it used to be. My family’s subsistence is on the line. I wish I was able to sell more,” says Laole Léocadie, 40, who recently became a widow.

It is not easy to bring food on the table; Laole provides for her six children by working in the fields. The youngest of the children is only two years old.

After her husband was taken away by an illness, the women’s group has become even more important to Laole.

”With the father of my children no longer with us, the other women bring security. It’s easier to have a savings fund and to go and work in the fields together”.

Hope in the middle of adversity

Alice Issoia, 47, has a kind face and a slightly sad smile. When Damaris writes on the chalkboard in sango, she follows attentively. Even Alice recently became a widow.

”My life has been hard since my husband died. I have to take care of our children and finances alone. Sometimes, when my children are fighting and money is tight, I don’t know how I’m going to cope.”

When Alice heard that there was going to be literacy training in her town, she felt her opportunity had come. Unexpectedly, learning to read and write has brought newfound joy into her days.

”The literacy training has given me something else to think about and offered me a moment’s escape from everyday reality. Now I have something of my own to focus on every now and then.”

Like many of her peers, Alice is illiterate. Alice lost her mother when she was still a child, so there was no one to send her to school.

”I go to Bible group at the church, but I don’t know how to read the Bible. I’m especially glad that I finally get to read and write in my own language, sango”.

Alice has gotten newfound joy from learning to read.

Alice has gotten newfound joy from learning to read.

Admirable perseverance

Despite the hardships, these women do not need pity. What they do need is tools to build a better life, piece by piece, using the same perseverance that has brought them this far.

”The women have showed their interest in the project, and they are committed to it. Now, whether we help them in the longer run is up to us,” says Timothee Yarawandi, coordinator for Women’s Bank.

The possibility of change even encourages the women to make plans for the future.

”I hope that this education can make up for never having been able to finish school. I can use the diploma I get from the training to prove that I can read and write. I hope it helps me find work. I would like to work as a waitress, for example,” Nafissa plans.

Women walking home after a literacy class has ended.

Women walking home after a literacy class has ended.

The evening sun paints the walls of the classroom golden. The two-hour literacy class is ending. Books are packed into bags, chairs are put back in their place. The women walking out the open door look more determined than the ones who walked in earlier.

Text: Elina Kostiainen
Translation: Leena Vuolteenaho
Photos: Fredrik Lerneryd

Central African Republic recovering step by step, with children returning to school

Safe schools and competent teachers are key in determining the future of the Central African Republic. The work of Finn Church Aid has encouraged local children and young people to return to school.

Squeals can be heard from a distance at the yard of Sangha school. It is recess, and the air is thick with red sand, with a group of boys running after a football turned yellow by the sun.

In the white classroom, little wooden desks are placed close to one another. The classroom can seat 150 pupils. The ones who do not fit in are left to peer in through the window. At the start of the school day, the number of pupils present for the day is marked in the upper corner of the chalkboard.

Although the school is crowded, it is in better condition than it was two years ago, when 14-year-old Christopher Tindo started at the school.

”The school was missing doors, windows and benches. They had all been stolen or broken. Now we can leave our books at school and lock the door, and no one can get in to take our things,” says Christopher.

Conflict took the doors from the school

Jean Lessene

Jean Lessene thinks the most important function of a school is to teach how to live in peace.

The history of the Central African Republic is mottled with bloody tyranny and coups. In 2013, the situation turned violent, when the Séléka group consisting mostly of Muslims seized power, and the mainly Christian Anti-balaka groups rose to fight it.

The armed groups used school as bases because of their central locations. Most schools have been damaged or completely destroyed in the conflict. Education sector head Jean Lessene from Bayanga subprefecture says that armed groups took anything that could be used for firewood, up to the roof and the desks, and looted anything that was the least bit useful.

Families fled to the jungle, to farther-off villages, or across the border to neighbouring countries. Many children have not dared return to school.

Authorities, Finn Church Aid (FCA) and churches have campaigned together to get the children to return. The work has garnered resuts, and in many schools the number of pupils has doubled.

”Before the war, Muslims and Christians lived and went to school together. During the fights, Muslims fled, and some of them still have not dared return. We hope they come back,” says Lessene.

Educating teachers has enormous importance

Not all teachers have returned, either. Educated people either flee or seek better-paid employment. The ones left are less educated teachers and volunteers.

In Bayanga, out of the 43 teachers in the schools only five had gone through the official teacher training. Now, FCA has trained 17 teachers and pays them a small fee. Many of them had no prior experience of teaching.

”Thanks to the FCA training and teaching materials, they are now able to teach the children better. Without this support, education would not matter much around here,” says Jean Lessene.

The competition for a turn to answer a question is fierce, with up to 150 pupils per class.

Geography without maps

The wall is high, and shards of glass glitter on top of it. No one will climb over this wall to the FCA regional office in the city of Berbérati in a hurry. Walls like this are a common sight in Central Africa. The situation remains unstable. 

Over 63,000 children got to go to school

Central African Republic is one of the poorest countries in the world. In 2017, it was named the third most fragile nation after South Sudan and Somalia.

Nearly half of the population (2,2 million) is in need of humanitarian aid. According to UN estimates, almost half a million citizens of the Central African Republic are refugees in neighbouring Chad, Cameroon and the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

Finn Church Aid opened a country office in the capital Bangui in autumn 2013, and has worked in the midst of the Central African chaos ever since. FCA provides humanitarian aid to those in the most acute need, supports the development of education in the middle of conflict, and helps communities prevent and settle conflicts.

In 2016, more than 63,000 children benefitted from FCA’s education projects in the Central African Republic.

However, the gate is now opened, as a lorry backs to the yard. Kofi Ayisa is satisfied, school supplies are finally delivered. The lorry is filled with books, notebooks and pencils.

The delivery is a few days late, because the lorry got stuck in mud a couple of times during the journey. The rainy season is beginning, and the roads are a muddy mess.

”We are working in the parts of Africa that are the hardest to reach. More than once we have got stuck while on the road, and we have been forced to sleep in the car, in the middle of the jungle, pestered by mosquitoes,” says Ayisa from Togo, in charge of the FCA regional office in the city of Berbérati.

In rural Central Africa, getting around is very difficult. When FCA employees leave the Berbérati regional office for the village of Nola 150 kilometres away, the journey is estimated to take five hours.

”And this is a road in fairly good condition. We go to places that most organisations do not go. In many places, we are the only aid organisation. Someone needs to do this job, and FCA will be there. The challenges are big, but you have to start from somewhere.”

Despite diamonds, gold and other natural resources, Central African Republic is one of the poorest and most underdeveloped nations in the world. Berbérati is the nation’s third-biggest city but lacks running water and electricity.

In rural areas, there is also an enormous need for school supplies. It is common, for example, for geography to be taught without maps. The children cannot locate their own village on a map, let alone Central African Republic or its neighbouring countries.

”These children are supposed to go to university without ever having seen a map or a microscope – and they are meant to become doctors and decision-makers!” says Ayisa.

School teaches forgiveness

Despite difficulties, school brings stability to everyday life and and creates hope for the future. In Central Africa, the eagerness of the students gives hope.

Christopher Tindo’s favourite thing about school is peace education. Grandfather Aobimou Nzerebaile
encourages the boy to study.

14-year-old Christopher studies hard. If he does not understand the subject of the lesson, he spends recess indoors going over it again. He dreams of becoming a teacher.

Head of the education sector Jean Lessene thinks that at its best, school can bring society together.

”The most important things that school can teach are the significance of peace and social unity,” says Lessene.

”Getting children back to school is a job for the entire society – the village community, parents and the government. It is the only way to guarantee a better future for this country.”

Christopher’s favourite subject at school is peace education. It involves the teacher talking about peace, living together, forgiveness and reconciliation.

“Peace is very important, and everyone should cherish forgiveness, love and joy everywhere in their own countries,” explains Christopher.

Text: Noora Jussila
Photos: Tatu Blomqvist

World Bank: Education in crisis – over 260 million children do not go to school

Nowadays, more and more children get to go to school, but millions of children and young people are still left without skills needed in work.

Education is in crisis. This conclusion was reached by World Bank researchers as they wrote the 2018 World Development Report published in late September.

Giant leaps have been taken in the field of education over the past 200 years, and today, most children get to go to comprehensive school. However, merely going to school does not guarantee learning, the researchers write in the report.

In countries of low and medium income level, secondary education is completed by just one in three children. Over 60 percent of comprehensive school pupils in developing countries do not even learn basic skills in school. In countries of high income level, basic skills in e.g. mathematics are attained by nearly all pupils.

If skills learned in comprehensive school are weak, many are left lacking skills needed in work, such as basic skills in mathematics or in reading and writing.

“The report paints a disturbing picture of the magnitude of differences in the quality of education. Going to school does not guarantee learning. Without high-quality education, millions of young people are left without essential skills”, says Finn Church Aid Manager of Advocacy Katri Suomi.

“School should teach skills that help young people secure a job and lead a meaningful life. Education is key in preventing social exclusion and lifting people up from poverty.”

Teachers play a key part

If the children skip school, sometimes even the teachers do not show up. The report tells of surprise inspections to schools in seven African countries. On the day of the surprise visit, one out of five teachers was absent altogether, and two out of five teachers were somewhere other than in their own classroom, albeit in school. In rural areas, the situation is even worse.

If the teacher is present, his or her skills may be lacking. This is because the most talented pupils do not want to become teachers themselves. According to the report, in almost all countries, the 15-year-olds who want to become teachers receive lower-than-average results e.g. in PISA tests.

In a test conducted in 14 sub-Saharan countries, sixth-grade teachers received, on average, the same results as their best pupils.

In fact, training teachers is key in improving the quality of education.

“Training teachers is by far the most effective way to raise the quality of education. All of FCA’s education projects feature educating teachers as a key part”, says Suomi.

In 2016, FCA trained a total of 4,693 teachers in countries including Eritrea, the Central African Republic, and Nepal. Development work is conducted in cooperation with authorities in countries of operation to develop teacher training and e.g. school curricula.

More than 260 million children do not go to school

However, the biggest obstacle to learning by far is still not going to school at all. In 2016, more than 61 million children of comprehensive school age and as many as 202 million children of secondary school age did not go to school.

As many as one third of these children lived in fragile countries or in conflict zones. For example, in Syria, over 1,8 million children were left without education in 2013.

According to the report, among the first to be left outside school are those already in a vulnerable societal position because of gender, disability, caste, or belonging to a certain ethic group. Poverty is still one of the biggest obstacles to a child going to school.

The quality of education plays a part as well. If the quality of education is seen as poor, parents may not be ready to send their children to school, says the report.

“Especially in fragile countries and in catastrophes, education creates faith in the future and brings stability to everyday life. Lack of visions for the future drives people to look for better opportunities elsewhere, sometimes it drives young people to join extremist groups”, says Katri Suomi.

“Everybody benefits from investments made in education and in the quality of education. Education is important for societal development and for diminishing inequality.”

Words: Noora Jussila

Humanitarian needs amount in the Central African Republic – aid workers threatened

Violent attacks are increasing in the Central African Republic. The situation has thus far not affected Finn Church Aid’s work in one of the world’s poorest and most fragile countries.

United Nations (UN) humanitarian officials warned about an increasing number of violent acts in the Central Africa Republic (CAR) in July. According to the UN, the attacks are increasingly targeting children. There are concerns that humanitarian needs in CAR will escalate to levels previously reached four years ago when the conflict was at its worst.

According to FCA’s country director Katja José, the security situation has worsened especially in the northern part of the country, where armed groups have stopped humanitarian convoys twice during the past couple of weeks, robbing their aid items. Similar incidents have previously been reported from the eastern parts. Earlier this week, the International Federation of the Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies confirmed that six of its volunteers were killed there.

Humanitarian organizations have condemned the attacks and pleaded to the government of CAR and to the UN to secure humanitarian access. An estimated 2,2 million people in CAR rely on humanitarian aid.

“Should the humanitarian assistance stop, the civilian population will be most affected. Then they are forced to survive without food aid, medicines, hygiene products or school items,” José says.

No future without education

FCA established a country office in CAR in 2013. The work is focused on renovating schools that have been damaged by the conflict, delivering school kits and training teachers in and around Bangui and the southwestern parts of the country.

“The villages of Berberati and Nola, where FCA has its sub-offices, have for now been among the safest of regions and we have been able to continue our operations as per usual. Last week we had to cancel a meeting with local officials in Bangui because of the security situation.”

Renewed fighting has forced more than 150 000 people to flee their homes in the first half of 2017.

“There are a lot of children living in the refugee camps in CAR, who have been separated from their families. Many women have lost their husbands and are now single parents.”

The need for development cooperation is dire even in the midst of the conflict.

“In conflicts, education is often overrun by other needs, but if a generation grows without the possibility of going to school and receiving education, do they have a future? Education is a human right and everyone should commit to guaranteeing children the right to education.”

José moved to CAR two months ago. She has previously worked for different NGO´s in Mozambique, Tanzania and Zambia.

“CAR is clearly poorer than countries that have enjoyed peace for a longer time. In the beginning of 2000, Zambia and Mozambique were among the poorest of countries, but now both are better off than CAR. I believe that the reason for this is that the people have been able to go to school, farm their land and go to work – and these are the things that many people can’t do in CAR because of the fighting.”

Christians and Muslims join together in rare peace mediation training in the Central African Republic

22 people were trained in peace mediation and facilitation in November in the Central African Republic (CAR).  The attendants came from all districts of Bangui, particularly from Pk5, the Muslim neighbourhood run by auto defence groups, where fresh fighting broke out less than a month ago.

The training was organised in Bangui by Finn Church Aid mixed religious leaders, community leaders, women, men and youth leaders – both Muslims and Christians.

“This quite unusual mix of attendants did not constitute problems. On the contrary, it was an opportunity to peacefully address issues that their communities face. The atmosphere during the training was peaceful, although animated”, says Marine Gourves, peace officer for FCA.

Because the Muslim inhabitants of PK5 do not feel safe in moving around the city in fear of becoming targets for aggression, Finn Church Aid dispatched a mini bus for transporting the participants to a safe area where the training took place.

The authorities and civil society leaders discussed problems within the communities such as issues with the auto defence groups, between vendors at the market, domestic issues between men and women as well as conflict over property.

The first objective of the training was to provide attendants with the knowledge and practice to proceed to basic mediation and facilitate dialog at the community level. Another objective was to strengthen their ability to analyse a conflict and to increase an understanding that behind the public positions taken by each party lie common interests and needs.

Ali Ousmane

Ali Ousmane

Ali Ousmane, Coordinator for the Muslim associations in CAR, confirms that the need for such training is tremendous. He insisted on coming even though he had caught a cold.

“I learnt to be impartial and neutral in the mediation process, and not to influence the outcome. We are facing a far reaching crisis in CAR, a crisis of mentality where the use of violence became a rule. Mediation and facilitation can change mentalities. I think we should have a national mediation institution to help us with that”, Ousmane said.

Finn Church Aid is preparing 15 similar trainings in Bangui and in the prefectures of Ombella Mpoko, Sangha Mbaere and Mambere Kadei with additional participants from the 80 schools FCA is currently supporting.