Running with purpose

Samantha Ickes

In the classrooms of a small school in Kirotshe, a village in the southern province of Kivu in the Democratic Republic of Congo, the hands of enthusiastic students shoot up in the air, each child eagerly waiting to be called on to answer questions prompted by the teacher.

In the lecture halls of Kent State, students half listen to the professor. With their laptops open and cellphones on, the students send text messages to their friends, browse their Facebook feed and tweet about how boring their economics class is.

Communication studies graduate student Daniel Socha saw a cultural juxtaposition between how students in the United States acted in the classroom versus students in the DRC.

“They want to go to school so bad, and so often what happens is because there’s not enough money to put food on the table in a lot of families they can’t afford to pay the school fees and so they can’t go to school,” Socha said. “This running program gives them a way to go to school and they just cherish that.”

Socha, who was funded by the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting, traveled to Congo to do research on the efforts of a non-profit organization, known as Project Kirotshe, which supports youth education in Congo.

Socha’s research has recently gained attention from the National Public Radio. His project was several years in the making, and began even before he returned to Kent State to complete graduate school.

Prior to applying for graduate school, Socha worked for Makorobondo “Dee” Salukombo, founder of Project Kirotshe, at a refugee facility where Salukombo helped train him.

When Salukombo moved back to Congo to put the project into effect, Socha felt motivated to see what was happening in Congo firsthand.

“His commitment to helping others, I thought, was so powerful,” Socha said.

According to Project Kirotshe’s website, Salukombo grew up in Congo until his family moved to Kampala, Uganda, as refugees after the First Congo War, which began in 1996.

The war claimed the lives of more than six million people, and Salukombo wrote in his biography on Project Kirotshe’s website that he considers himself lucky to have made it out of Congo with his family.

Three years later, the Cleveland Catholic Charities — through the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees — accepted Salukombo’s family to immigrant to Cleveland.

“To make a very long story short, I refused to take for granted the opportunity to study in America where for the first time I had all the resources I needed to succeed,” Salukombo wrote. “Project Kirotshe is about giving a chance to the kids in Kirotshe who will never get a chance like I had.”

Socha set out to Congo with the vision to help “this village and this community have voice and get more acknowledgement and have people start to change these connections we have about places like Congo.”

When Socha arrived in Congo, the villages surprised him. His perception of what Congo would be like was solely based on what he had seen in movies. He expected small villages made of mud that were distant and disconnected from one another.

While there were still some mud-walled houses, Socha found more modern-looking areas in these villages. He expected only 30 to 50 people living in these villages, but instead found 300 to 500 people and houses that you might see along streets in downtown Kent, with cars and trucks riding through the main street of the village.

“It breaks down a lot of the stereotypes, I think, that we have of villages,” Socha said. “Villages don’t exist in a bubble. My image of a village is that it exists in this bubble and that it takes care of itself. It’s not like that. Everything is connected. Everything is networked.”

In the United States, Project Kirotshe collects donations to help pay for the school fees for the students. In Congo, the students benefiting from this program get together and run.

Socha was able to witness the running program Salukombo began in Kirotshe and surrounding villages. Socha said three to four villages participated in the program and a group of kids between the ages of 10 and 23 would meet at 5 a.m. in the middle of the village to go running.

The students in Congo have been training for four years, and Socha said this past year Salukombo, and his student Beatrice Kamuchanga, both of whom participated in the 2016 Olympics, went to Congo to work with the students.

“There’s a lot of unemployment and not a lot of opportunities, and so the running program gives them a way to have goals and something to work toward,” Socha said.

Samantha Ickes is a features correspondent, contact her at [email protected].