Agents of Resilience: Bukavu, DR Congo


The bridge that divides Rwanda and DR Congo’s South Kivu capital, Bukavu, belongs in a fairy tale: a rickety, wood-hewn span, deserving of a goat-hating troll guard. Perhaps thirty feet long, planks spaced so you could catch the rush of the Rusizi River below, the official demarkation between two countries with a convoluted recent past. As we crossed, three English Language Fellows and two Fulbright professors, an SUV cut past on the middle planks, spaced for a car, the bridge groaning and all of us pressing into the rails and away from the vehicle. The bridge conjures images from 1994 and the directly following years, a second river of refugees streaming from Rwanda into the Congo. Today, no refugees: guards on either side, women passing with bags on their heads, stacks of eggs in cartons, a more rural envisioning of the protagonist from the classic children’s story Caps for Sale.

The five us were in the country at the end of May to assist with a two-day conference that Steve, the EL Fellow stationed in Bukavu, had planned – the first of its kind in area, focused on teacher professionalism and gleaning participants from primary and secondary schools throughout Buakvu, and further afield: Idjwi Island, in the middle of Lake Kivu (the primary Western border between DR Congo and Rwanda), Goma (North Kivu) and even south, closer to the Burundi border. One professor from Lubumbashi; others from local institutions in Bukavu – it was a veritable Richard Scarry picture book of transport: people coming by bus, moto, ferry, plane. For us, we traveled by car to the border, about six hours winding through Nyungwe Forest and the western provinces, then crossed by foot and met Steve at immigration.


Kivu Lak from one of the five “fingers” or peninsulas of Bukavu that extend into the lake; photo taken from a small cafe on a hill where we had breakfast 

Crossing into a new country is commonly done by plane, at least for Western travellers – first steps in the country taken after disembarking are passing through an airport, greeting an immigration officer, and processing through customs and baggage claim before emerging from the building in the new land. The plane provide the air bridge, moving you from one city to another, via the most sterilized ports available. Crossing on foot through borderlands is a more stark contrast, the visceral transition from one nation and another. Between Cynagugu, Rwanda, and Bukavu, DRC, the change is immediate, visible from either side of the river: two different worlds. The paved road quite literally ends on the Rwandan side, a smooth tarmac butting into the lot that opens to the wood bridge. You look out on the opposite side of the river: red dirt earth roads, dust, disintegration.


En route to the lake, hedged by bamboo, eucalyptus, and dense green

I wrote about crossing between Gisenyi and Goma before, and the stark stratification that exists even among developing nations like Rwanda and DRC, betraying recent history. In 1994, refugees fled into Bukavu and Goma from Rwanda, and were gathered into squalid refugee camps that eventually became anarchical kingdoms of fleeing genocidaires, wracked by cholera and the litany of diseases found in cramped, unsanitary quarters. Many returned to Rwanda after several years in these camps, but few talk about it. Students last year would tell me that they had “stayed” in Congo after the genocide – one horrible tragedy abutting another: in 1994, “the Rusizi plain became white like snow with United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees tents,” Benjamin Serukiza, vice governor of South Kivu, told Jason Stearns in Dancing in the Glory of the Monster (p.98).

What follows is a gross simplification of a complex web of events (read Dancing in the Glory for complete account): the region was heaved into a second, long-lasting conflict that began in 1996, Africa’s Great War – the First and Second Congo Wars, in which Kivu region became a crucible for rebel armies backed by African powers looking for a piece of the rich Congo and direct access to power following thirty years of the kleptocratic dictator propped up by the U.S. in the name of “communist containment” – Mobutu Sese Seko. The conflict(s) lasted from 1996 to 2004, claiming more than 5.4 million lives and permanently, it seems, sewing seeds of instability in the region. As the country closes in on coming elections, in which the current president Joseph Kabila seeks a third term as the thief in chief, the region continues to rock toward instability: Steve talks about police tear gassing crowds outside of his university – and second-hand gassing leaking into hallways, mass demonstrations, grenade attacks, dissidents disappearances and imprisonments, reports of more serious rebel movements outside of the city itself. The undercurrent is that another conflict will break and again decimate the region. The whispered question seems not to be if it will happen – but when.


Kivu Lak, a boat (which doubles as an emergency contingency plan) in the distance

Conflict is written on buildings, marked on faces, almost palpable in the air of a place. In Bukavu, the physical form is most striking: poorly constructed roads that dissolve into eroded canyons with the rains, pocked buildings, some completely toppled or decimated. Police are constant – under or unpaid, like so many employees of a failed government state, so they supplement by shaking down drivers with defective paperwork – perhaps even the wrong stamp will result in a fine. Development requires stability- and in this country and especially this place, stability is a luxury. It is the problem of living in a vacuum, a place where opportunity only exists if you are connected by blood to more powerful people. For EL Fellows, who already work in developing contexts with poorly-developed education systems, the challenges are magnified tenfold. Our mandate is often to help improve systems and work toward professionalization, but how do you convince teachers of the value of developing themselves as more aware professionals when there are no monetary gains, few opportunities for advancement, overcrowded classrooms and never-ending workloads – little or nothing beyond personal, internal satisfaction? In a broken state like DRC – which provides a stark contrast to Rwanda’s forward-leaning, bright-eyed future, where change occurs, however slow – you often cannot blame people for doing what they must just to survive. In Stringer, Anjan Sundaram encapsulates this notion well, something that a Westerner with a safety net can hardly understand: there is “a futility to worrying in such a place: the threats were too many” (p. 15). IMG_1718

Congolese teachers compiling a list of ten qualities of a leader and answering the question: “how do we impart these to our students?”

It’s not only a challenge in Congo: teachers in developing nations face professional and personal hardships which consistently demotivate and result in deteriorated performance, factors among them “increasing workloads due to education reform, low and infrequent compensation, lack of professional recognition and development opportunities, lack of accountability, and lack of voice” (Wolf et al, 2015, p. 717). Wolf et al, in a study of cumulative risk as related to teacher well-being in DR Congo (essentially, the “accumulation of risk” experienced by a person which eventually overwhelms their built-in capacity to adapt or cope), explains toxic stress  as “one explanation for how and why cumulative risks may overwhelm teachers’ capacities and ‘get under the skin’ to affect well-being and disrupt their abilities to effectively interact with and teach in the class- room” (p. 717). Essentially, the researcher sought to investigate if cumulative risk, when manifested without a positive, supporting environment to counteract the physiological impact of this toxic stress, predicted diminished teacher well-being and motivation in within the DRC. It is challenging to imagine an environment even more difficult for a teacher than what is faced there.

This is what I knew before we began our first day of the conference – a bleak foundation of history, politics, and comparative education research. I’ve known Congolese and worked with teachers from DRC throughout my time in Rwanda. The newness of the experience was to work within the context, on the ground, surrounded by Congolese teachers and actively negotiating with them: to deliver the content I decided appropriate, to work with them to massage it into their context and experience to find its value.


Men and babies: Richard and Steve with the next generation

However, as has happened time and again in my work on this continent, the reality of what is in front of me and what I hear and what I experience cuts deeper than what I have learned from reading and research. I saw teachers, eager to increase their knowledge and modify their practice, asking questions, debating, sometimes grandstanding – but ultimately engaging in professional development and the early stages of making PD a self-driven, personal practice.

A handful of university students served as volunteers – helping to arrange the chairs (which, in a darkly comic fashion, continued to break throughout the presentations, hapless victims falling to the floor, sometimes one after the other), setting up technology, herding the teachers toward the concurrent sessions, or just sitting in the back of the room and chat with us. Conversations oscillated around career goals, travel dreams, relationships – most often coming back to weave politics throughout – uncertainty about the future continually tempered by optimism.

During one exercise, I sat with groups of teachers and asked them to choose the top ten leadership qualities that they felt were most important for a leader – not confined to an education leader, but any leader. On their own, they wrote their top ten, then sat with partners and melded their lists together. Over and over again, I could see the same words show up: optimistic, humble, good listener, connected to their people. I asked them to discuss questions connected to their lists: Which characteristic is your strength? Which would you like to develop? Which are most essential for a teacher? Which are most essential for an academic administrator? And – the one I thought to be most essential – How do we impart these qualities to our students? 


Maggie, alight in fantastic Congolese dress, working with two other teachers during a leadership panel.

Their lists – and their discussed responses – clashed violently with the examples of leadership too often found in Congo. Humility, listening to your people, being responsible to their needs and wants – not words often used to describe dictators, but instead, the words we use to describe those teachers whose impact and memory stick with us through the years. And this is what the toxic stress of an environment like Bukavu, the possible burnout from the myriad of challenges facing teachers in the region, cannot always destroy: continued belief that people are able to see and make change in their worlds, either in classrooms or at higher political planes.

Earlier in May, Facebook CFO and author of Lean In Sheryl Sandburg delivered the commencement address at UC Berkeley, speaking for the first time about the tragic death of her husband, Dave Goldberg, from a cardiac arrhythmia in 2015. In expressing her journey of loss, she connected with the work of psychologist Martin Seligman and his three P’s – personalization, pervasiveness, and permanence – “that are critical to how we bounce back from hardship.” She calls these the “seeds of resilience” – essentially, that when faced with hardship, if we work through these three steps, we are able to strengthen our defenses for dealing with future challenges. One thought, near the end of her talk, resonated loudly:

“You are not born with a fixed amount of resilience. Like a muscle,               you can build it up, draw on it when you need it.” 

Perhaps it is trite to link the survivors of Africa’s Great War and Bukavu’s continued tumult with the widowing of a wealthy tech executive, but as I have been realizing with trauma, there is a line that is drawn through our experiences, that even with disparate geography, economic status, race or culture or religion, we can find commonalities in our shared experiences as humans. That what we survive is not the greatest predictor of who we are and who we will be – it does not dictate our capability.

Professionalization, is, after all, a form of resilience: Hoyle (2008)  identifies one aspect of professionalization in the teaching field as “able to function effectively in uncertain and indeterminate situation.” (p. 285). Like the “muscle” of resilience, professionalism builds as a teacher is able to access education, consider their own pedagogical practice, apply what they have learned, evaluate the effectiveness of the practice, innovate, and complete the cycle through sharing their experience. 

Wolf et al in their study of cumulative risk and teacher well-being in DRC found that that “burnout decreases as teachers become more experienced” (p. 735) – congruent with similar Western studies, the highest rates of teacher burnout occur among younger and less experienced teachers. As teachers age and deepen their knowledge and experience, they are able to cope with the challenges of the classroom and balance the stressors of the outside life with their classroom existences. As they view themselves as professionals, and continually work toward that goal (one, I would argue, is never truly attainable, as it is the journey not the destination). Interestingly, the study found that not the challenges of the classrooms (such as a lack of materials or classroom sizes) but the interactions and relationship built in educational environments were most essential in coping with stress and mitigating burnout: “efforts to improve the nature of interactions among staff within a school, such as school management and supervision, may be more important at this stage” (p. 737).

Like operating in an uncertain and indeterminate situation, perhaps like South Kivu, Kabul, or a refugee camp in Lebanon, it requires an equal measure of optimism: resilience teaches that something better and brighter is possible.

For me, personally, I am inching toward the close of this chapter: I’m 25 days from returning home after two stints with the English Language Fellows program, twenty months in total in Rwanda. But each day, considering what I see in front of me, I wonder if I am moving toward a similar frame: that maybe I am an optimist; maybe, ultimately, optimism is the required substance for resilience and the required grit for surviving a career in education, especially work in education in a developing context. But ultimately, they are thoughts for a different day, perhaps 25 from now, so I will end with Seligman:

Optimism is invaluable for the meaningful life. With a firm belief in a positive future you can throw yourself into the service of that which is larger than you are.



Hoyle, E. (2008). Changing conceptions of teaching as a profession: personal reflections. In D. Johnson and R. Maclean (Eds.) Teaching: professionalization, development, and leadership. Dordrecht: Springer, 285-304.

Stearns, J. (2011) Dancing in the glory of monsters: The collapse of the Congo and the great war of Africa. New York: Public Affairs.

Sundaram, A. (2013) Stringer: A reporter’s journey in the Congo. New York: Doubleday.

Wolf, S., et al (2015). Cumulative risk and teacher well-being in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Comparative Education Review, 59(4), 717-742.


One thought on “Agents of Resilience: Bukavu, DR Congo

  1. And so optimism reveals itself in this deeply felt, deeply thought through essay. Who else will tell us these things? Fox News? Even the scholarly articles debating causes, possible “solutions”, pessimistic predictions or just simply hoping will not tell us as clearly what we need to know as does this well written article. Why? Because it is written in the maelstrom itself and it tells, most importantly of all, that within such a maelstrom there is the “commonality” of what it means to be human. Such a simple, necessary reminder.
    As ever, brava, Leanne.
    tom craig

    Liked by 1 person

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