In the Lekoumou, a department in the southwestern part of the Republic of Congo that is home to 20% of the country's indigenous population, there is a primary school that is becoming, day after day, an essential and powerful vector of social harmony.
The school is located in Makoubi, about 30 kilometres away from Sibiti, the main city of the Lekoumou department. Of the 313 students who attend the school, nearly one-third are indigenous. In the Republic of Congo, these communities are particularly marginalized and have difficulties exercising their rights - including the right to education - despite the fact that these rights are very well regulated by Law No. 5-2011, enacted by the Congolese government ten years ago.
Every day at lunchtime, the Bantu and indigenous schoolchildren of the Makoubi school share a freshly cooked meal, thanks to the World Food Program's (WFP) school canteen program in the Congo, implemented as part of the Joint SDG Fund initiative. These school meals are cooked by the students' parents, often mothers. Every day, indigenous women - who are traditionally victims of prejudice - and Bantu women, the majority ethnic group in the country, meet daily at the stove and cook together to enable all children, without discrimination, to stay focused, learn and prepare for their future.
Georgette is one of the three indigenous cooks at the Makoubi school. She has six children, but only the two younger ones attend the school. She is confident in the school canteen program that WFP has been implementing since October 2020. As a mother of school students, she had noticed that many pupils were missing school days when there was no canteen. She believes that these daily meals are a source of motivation for the children. They are even more important for indigenous school children who will unfortunately have to work harder to escape poverty, as indigenous people in the Congo still have very little access to basic social services.
Yet, Georgette appreciates the work - especially in raising awareness - that the government, WFP and other partners, have been doing for several years. She already sees progress: "Before, the Bantus refused to eat meals cooked by the indigenous people because they were considered dirty. Now they do. And even outside of school, things are better.”
Every day, three parents work together to prepare meals for Makoubi's 313 schoolchildren. Among them is Préfina, a school parent and cook from the Bantu ethnic group, who joined the team when the canteen was launched in October 2020.
A few years ago, Préfina could not have pictured herself cooking and eating with an indigenous woman. But the unthinkable happened, when she joined the team of school cooks, the young mother finally befriended some of her kitchen partners who belonged to the indigenous community.
Prefina's perceptions, probably inherited from her parents and grandparents, have evolved over the past few months, but the change goes beyond that. She has noticed a shift in attitudes. "Today, even if a native mother cooks a meal, Bantu children eat it. That breaks down the prejudice.”
A joint and integrated response
Strengthening the participation and inclusion of indigenous peoples in the Congo's food systems is a key step towards ensuring that people have equal and fair access to adequate, nutritious and diverse food.
In addition to school feeding programs implemented in schools with indigenous students, such as the Makoubi School, WFP is building the capacity of indigenous smallholder farming groups in the Lekoumou, organizing sessions to disseminate Law No. 5-2011 on the promotion and protection of the rights of indigenous people, and conducting advocacy, particularly on the issue of access to land.
These activities are part of a joint program aimed at improving access to social protection for indigenous populations in the Lekoumou department. It is implemented by three United Nations agencies (WHO - World Health Organization, WFP - World Food Programme and UNICEF - United Nations Children's Fund), in support of the Congolese government, with funding from the Joint SDG Fund.
From January 2020 to December 2021, 50,000 indigenous people will receive assistance from WHO, WFP and UNICEF.
In the Republic of Congo, indigenous people are among the most marginalized and vulnerable groups. Despite the strong legal framework that the Congolese government has adopted since 2011 (Law No. 5-2011 on the promotion and protection of the rights of indigenous peoples), indigenous peoples' access to basic social services and the use of natural resources is still hampered by socio-cultural and community realities. These populations have precarious living conditions: more than 50% of indigenous children do not have a birth certificate, and more than 65% of indigenous children do not attend school. The World Food Program and its sister agencies are committed to working with the government to ensure access to social protection for all citizens of the Republic of Congo.