The start of the 2003-2004 school year on 1 October in the Republic of Congo (ROC) has been marred by widespread absenteeism on the part of both students and personnel.
According to figures from the Agence congolaise d'information, the government news service, at one school in the capital, Brazzaville - the Ceg Angola Libre - only 193 of an expected 3,429 children were present for the first day of classes, while only one person of a 21-member staff attended. At another school, the Unite africaine, only 75 of an expected 1,095 students were present. At Mfilou high school, 116 students of 652 attended, while most of the teachers were absent.
The situation is reported to have improved slightly in the past few weeks, with greater numbers of students and staff in regular attendance. The payment of most school staff members has also helped matters. However, a number of teachers have continued to protest regularly in front of the finance ministry, demanding payment of past salaries they never received.
"It is disgusting. Some 1,400 teachers have not been paid for a period of [between] one year to 16 months, although they have continued working," Medard Paul Bouele, a representative from the Congolese teachers union (syndicat des enseignants du Congo), told IRIN. "Yet it would only take 1.25 billion francs CFA [US $2.2 million] to settle the problem of salary arrears."
The failure of teachers' salaries to keep pace with the cost of living has also negatively impacted on teachers, according to Alain Ngoubili, a representative from a national education system oversight body (inspection generale de l'enseignement technique). "It is difficult to get by on a teacher's salary, especially since they have not been increased for nearly 20 years, while the cost of living has risen considerably," he said. "Moreover, a responsible government should ensure that salaries are paid on time, particularly with the costs related to the annual return to school."
One such expense is the cost of school uniforms.
During an opening day tour of schools in Brazzaville, Minister for Primary and Secondary Education Rosalie Kama-Niamayoua insisted that students wear the required uniform. "We understand the current situation, and I am allowing parents a trimester so that they can sort out problems related to obtaining a school uniform for their children," she said.
Meanwhile, in the country's interior, the return to school is also plagued by problems, according to numerous teachers union representatives currently in Brazzaville trying to sort out administrative problems and salary arrears.
In Ouesso, the main city of Sangha Department in the north, this year's return-to-school was met by a strike by teachers and school administrators demanding salary arrears. In the troubled department of Pool, where a year of civil war has left large swathes of the region devastated, many schools have simply closed completely, or are operating with grossly insufficient staffing.
To protest against what it believes to be state apathy towards education, the Convention pour la democratie et le salut, a grouping of opposition political parties, issued a statement calling on parliament, teacher and student unions, religious organisations and NGOs involved in the education sector to "take the bull by the horns with regard to the matter of national education and to no longer allow the government to behave as shamefully as it has done in the past".
Trying to see a silver lining to an otherwise bleak situation, union representative Pierre Michel Nguimbi said he hoped that the ROC would soon be granted debt relief under the World Bank and IMF's initiative for heavily indebted poor countries (HIPC).
An IMF team is currently in Brazzaville reviewing the ROC's eligibility for the HIPC programme, which seeks "to bring the country's debt burden to sustainable levels, subject to satisfactory policy performance, so as to ensure that adjustment and reform efforts are not put at risk by continued high debt and debt service burdens". [For more on the HIPC initiative, go to www.worldbank.org]
"The lives of school teachers and administrators should certainly improve once the country is granted admission to the HIPC initiative, which is a means of cancelling debt in favour of economic rehabilitation," Nguimbi said.
According to a 1999 report by the UN Children's Fund and the African Student Parents' Association, the school enrolment rate in the ROC - one of the few African countries where it used to be 100 percent - dropped to 78.9 percent in 1998. This, in conjunction with conflict and its aftermath, had served to increase the illiteracy rate to 24.9 percent, the report noted. Literacy for men was estimated at 83 percent, and for women at 67 percent. The average school dropout rate was 7 percent, the study said.
Presently, less than 50 percent of primary school students complete five years of schooling, according to the ROC government.