Refugees from the Congo give themselves a voice with Babbel
About the blogger: Crisi is an old hand at Babbel and has been on board since 2008. It’s not only professionally that she loves to meet people and to learn with them: She has already travelled to 47 countries and in addition to souvenirs she also always brings home a smattering of local language with her. This is how to greet someone in Luganda, the other official language in Uganda alongside English: “Ki kati!”.
Whether you live in a rich country or a poor one, in a tiny village or amidst the bustle of a mega-city: It doesn’t take much to open up new perspectives for yourself – for example access to the Internet and a will to learn.
I had this experience once again last year in Uganda. In February, I travelled to Uganda for a month and met with Edmund Page from the Xavier Project in the capital, Kampala. This initiative and its sister project YARID (Young African Refugees for Integral Development) have made it their mission to provide access to education for the numerous refugees in the city.
Most refugees trying to build a new existence for themselves in peaceful Uganda come from the neighbouring Democratic Republic of the Congo, which has seen bloody conflicts flare up repeatedly over the past twenty years. So far, over five million people have been killed in the war for gold, diamonds and mineral resources and an estimated one to two million are currently displaced, of whom alone about 50,000 are living in Kampala. They lack everything, including accommodation, food and medical care. Even if they were expelled by the rebels as students, traders, mothers, nurses or teachers, they are not welcomed in Uganda with open arms as refugees speaking a different language. They can communicate very little, except with other people in the same circumstances, because in the Congo, alongside the local languages mostly French is spoken. In Uganda, however, it is mainly English that is spoken. So if you want to find work in Kampala and take part in public life, you need good English skills!
At YARID some of the refugees have the possibility to take part in an English course for free. Often it takes a lot of effort for them to be able to concentrate on learning, since beginner and advanced pupils are taught together, often about 70 people all at the same time in a small room. One of the volunteers is Robert, who fled the Congo in 2008 and now passes on the language skills he obtained to those that have followed him.
For an hour I helped Robert to teach the mostly adult students. It was really fun, because they were extremely enthusiastic! Although the teaching time was short, I was quite worn out because I was having to fight against the noise levels in the small corrugated iron hut. I also found it a real shame not to be able to address the individual course participants on their various learning levels – some were visibly bored, while others had a hard time to keep up with the lesson, in which mostly whole sentences were written up on the blackboard and repeated loudly in chorus. Especially the women on the course are very shy and don’t dare to come forward and to ask questions if they don’t understand something.
At first, however, it was only a half success: Out of the twelve outdated machines only two worked well enough and the Internet connection was painfully slow. I put my own laptop alongside them and always put two or three people on one computer. Most of them had never used a computer before and first of all needed to familiarise themselves with how you click with the mouse or which letter is to be found where on the keyboard. But once they arrived on the Babbel website, everything worked wonderfully: Lesson after lesson vocabulary was spoken out loud and typed in – long into the evening, until the room had to be closed.
In the days that followed I repeatedly held a “Ladies’ Day” and explicitly invited women from the English class in the afternoon to the computer room, including Fatou, who, at 60, is one of the older students. They didn’t let their initial struggles with the keyboard discourage them, and before long were posting requests on their Facebook accounts to all “moms” to do likewise and learn English in this way. To see how much fun Fatou and the other women had on the computer has motivated me to become an advocate for reliable access for refugees to Babbel courses.
Back in Berlin I launched a fundraising campaign within Babbel and my circle of friends, which was very successful. So, in November, I was able to return to Uganda with some laptops, speakers, and some money for a better Internet connection. This time I showed Alex, the new employee of the Xavier Project, how to set up Babbel accounts, redeem donated access codes and select courses that match one’s own ability level. From this month on, Alex will be conducting regular computer courses, where he shows his participants, amongst other things, how to use Babbel.
So the refugees in the project will be able to learn English with their own account, whenever they have time, and at the same time practise using a computer, which will give them an advantage when looking for a job. In so doing, each person can take the time that he or she needs to learn spoken and written English according to their own ability.
I am very pleased that the Congolese refugees in Kampala have a way to improve their situation with relatively little effort and I hope that many of them will soon become a part of Ugandan society. Often it only takes a small initiative, to produce something that makes the world much bigger. Or, as they say in Uganda in their down-to-earth way: “The best time to plant a tree was twenty years ago. The next best time is now.”