Congolese children trade life as miners for a chance at school

Lined up under a hot sun in Kipushi, a mining city in southeastern DR Congo, the children proudly clutch a piece of paper that will change their lives.

To most other people, the document -- a birth certificate -- is banal.

But to these youngsters and their poverty-stricken families, it is the passport to going to school for free.

Until recently, many of the children had been working alongside their parents in cobalt and copper ore mines, a major source of income for central Africa's troubled giant.

"When I have finished my studies, I will be president of UNICEF and lead the Congo," Yves tells AFP earnestly, referring to the UN Children's Fund, which helped his parents obtain a birth certificate 13 years after he came into the world.

Yves is still only in the fourth year of primary school, because he fell behind during years spent at the pit helping his parents.

He is one of some 500 children who have been released from the quarries after UNICEF provided school kits and financially supported administrative work carried out by a local NGO to obtain the coveted birth certificates.

- Vital document -

Under a widely-celebrated new reform, primary education in the Democratic Republic of Congo has been made free.

Children also have to provide a birth certificate when registering for the coming school year. In principle, there is no schooling without it.

Parents should normally register their child with the authorities within 90 days of birth, says Kipushi's chief prosecutor, Patrick N'Django Rwamo.

But out of neglect, ignorance or because of bureaucratic hassles, many parents simply do not register their newborns -- and obtaining a birth certificate retroactively is long, complex and expensive.

"It's tough -- more than 98 percent of our students do not have" a birth certificate, said Mugimba Cosmas, head of the city's public education. "It's a real shame."

The precious certificates were handed over to parents this week for a group of about 500 children at a ceremony in a schoolyard in central Kipushi, a city of about 170,000 inhabitants in Haut-Katanga province near the Zambian border.

The children are among 1,003 youngsters aged between eight and 15 whose certificates were made available on Rwamo's instructions.

"It took five months for the administrative procedures to get birth certificates retrospectively," said Nenette Mwange, director of the Association of Women for Community Development (Afemdeco).

- 2,000 children in mines -

Kabwit Yav, a mother of six children, certificate in hand, looked delighted next to her son, a 5th year primary student. "Three of my children study thanks to UNICEF, the others are already aged over 18 and they are unemployed at home, for lack of financial means," she explained.

Mamy Fail said she was a widow and mother of eight children.

"My husband died in a landslip in the quarry at Laputo," she said.

Two of Mamy's children have just obtained their birth certificates but the others do not have them.

"It's not a priority," she said. "I'm killing myself just to feed them."

"In my area, we have nine quarries with copper and cobalt ore where several families — dads and mums looking to survive — do informal mining all day long," said Louis Tshota, the administrator of Kipushi territory.

"Children go to work in the mines to help their parents, which deprives them of school," he said, adding that a total of 2,017 children had been identified working at the various pits across his territory.

Nearly seven million children aged five to 17 are out of school in the DRC, according to UN figures.

Free primary education was a core promise made by President Felix Tshisekedi when he campaigned for election in 2018.

The reform is widely appreciated, although UNICEF also sounds a word of caution about hidden costs that often remain for parents.

"The majority of direct and indirect expenses related to the schooling of children are borne by the parents, including school operating costs and teacher bonuses that are not in the official system or are paid late," it says on its website.