Nelly Bassily | September 26, 2011
For many schools in the province of Bandundu in western DR Congo, having a clean, well-painted blackboard is a luxury. School equipment is sorely lacking. Baudry Kumbi is director of Nsaka elementary school in Bagata region. He says, “Instead, we assemble pieces of wooden board, which we put on the wall at the front of the class.”
But teachers in some schools are now using an ingenious method to replace blackboards. They smear clay directly on the classroom walls to make a flat surface for writing. Then they blacken the smooth clay with wild spinach. The spinach is known locally as malemba or sansa banzenza. Its scientific name is Talinum triangulare.
Students go into the forest with their teachers to pick the leaves, which are also edible. Once back home, they mix them with ashes and palm oil, and pound the mixture in a large wooden mortar. This produces a dark, sticky substance, which is painted on the clay board.
Jeanne Musanda is a teacher at Ngemba primary school, also in Bagata. She says, “To get a good result, the operation is repeated three times, at intervals of 72 hours. A week after the last painting, the clay board can be used.”
This type of blackboard lasts for only nine months, or one school year. Every September, teachers must repeat the operation. Other schools use different recipes. Some teachers mix the spinach paste with local alcohol known as lotoko, which makes the clay board a little more durable.
The boards cannot be painted with regular blackboard paint because the paint is too costly. For a school with six classrooms, it costs about 36,000 Congolese francs (nearly 40 US dollars) to repaint the blackboards each year. Some parents have stopped paying their public school fees in recent years, in an effort to force the state to assume more responsibility for education. The schools continue as best they can. Jeanne Musanda says, “Rather than sit back, we teach anyway.”
Chalk is rare and expensive. To write on the spinach blackboards, teachers often use small, dried sticks of cassava. Teachers continue to teach with their hands blackened by the ash and spinach mixture.
Bonaventure Tara Bungu is a school inspector. He says, “Some courses such as calligraphy and drawing cannot be taught under these conditions.” This is one reason, he says, for the declining quality of education in Bandundu province.
But the schools need more than blackboards. In many schools, students sit on benches which they have cut themselves from the forest. The benches are unfinished; the wood has not been sawed or planed. Despite the teachers’ dedication, parents can only watch helplessly as their children study in these poor conditions. Some remember the statement made by a provincial authority in Nioki in 2010: “To speak of a quality education without thinking of improving the school infrastructure is a utopia.” Many parents, teachers and students would agree.