In the city once known as Stanleyville, the theater of some of the bloodiest African wars in recent times, educators are hoping that a new university initiative will help heal the country as it struggles to attain peace and progress.
In November, the University of Kisangani introduced the first master’s degree course on sustainable management of the environment.
Under the leadership of its new rector, Professor Faustin Toengaho Lokundo, the course of study includes the traditional sciences, forestry, natural resources and sustainable development, as well as an examination of the region’s complex and varied social problems.
The novelty of the course in Kisangani, according to its organizers, is that its approach is multidisciplinary, with the social sciences, including gender studies and conflict prevention, representing an important part of the curriculum.
The course’s comprehensive nature, organizers say, is particularly important in Congo, the third largest country on the African continent, boasting incalculable mineral resources as well the world’s second largest rain forest after the Amazon.
“Most, not to say all, of the ongoing conflicts in our region are linked to our extraordinary resources, gold, diamonds, coltan, precious woods that are being ruthlessly exploited, often at gunpoint,” said Professor Alphonse Maindo, who is responsible for the social science part of the course. “Courses such as these are designed to instill a sense of responsibility, not just with the students but all those living in the area.”
Professor Jean-Pierre Maté, who runs the forestry and agronomy part of the course, added: “The deforestation of the dense tropical rain forest going on now is potentially catastrophic.
“This has led to the anarchic exploitation of resources and the pauperization of the local, rural population. There are long-term consequences on the global economy if nothing is done.”
The educators at Kisangani say quality education is a vital step toward change.
While universities in other parts of Africa teach courses on forestry and environment — like Makerere University in Kampala, Uganda, or Cheikh Anta Diop University in Dakar, Senegal — in many ways it is easier to study African sustainable development in the United States, Britain or the Netherlands, where universities are far better equipped, but which are largely out of reach for African students.
Kisangani, about 2,100 kilometers, or 1,300 miles, up the Congo River, was chosen to pioneer the course because of its strategic location near a number of conflict zones. The program is supported by the European Union through the Center for International Forestry Research, which is based in Indonesia. And large industrial conglomerates working locally are offering internships and job possibilities to the graduates.
Each subject is taught jointly by a team of two professors, one from the University of Kisangani, the other from institutions as diverse as Pomona College in Claremont, California, the Catholic University in Leuven, Belgium, the Free University of Brussels, Sciences Po in Bordeaux, the Conservatoire National des Arts et Métiers in Paris and others.
Just 20 students have been selected out of 200 who applied to the course, which will run for two years and be extended if it proves successful. Most of them come from Congo, but a few hail from neighboring countries.
One student, Kyale Koy, from Opala in eastern Congo, said he found the course to be highly motivational. “I really want to continue further research in order to contribute to the sustainable development of the Congo’s natural resources, which are after all part of the world’s shared heritage,” he said.
Other students have come from the world of nongovernmental organizations, with the aim of widening their scope upon their return to work.
The University of Kisangani is the country’s third largest state university, after Kinshasa and Lubumbashi. After 10 years of isolation through war, it is once more attracting students, especially those from the troubled eastern part of the country. Currently, 7,000 students attend the university, but most do not enjoy the facilities offered to the 20 selected for the new environmental course.
“I know how lucky we are in having access to computers and Internet, which the others don’t enjoy, as well as such personalized tuition,” Mr. Koy said.
“It’s very hard work, but these exchanges between students and professors who have come from all over the world, from such different environments, have turned this into the most challenging and exciting experience.”