Students at Gorton Junior High are getting more than an education; they’re changing lives.
Last year, they raised $550 to help pay for the surgery of a young African boy, Ntaboba, whose leg became mangled when he stepped on a live grenade while out gathering firewood.
Ntaboba lives in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), which is a very poor part of the world overrun with a corrupt government and guerilla warfare. There are abandoned militia camps throughout the Congolese jungle and Ntaboba happened to be walking through one looking for firewood when he stepped on the grenade.
Determined to still get an education, which is one of the only ways to make it out of the Congo to a better life, Ntaboba used a metal pole to help him walk the five kilometers to and from school every day, a method that was not only awkward for him but was detrimental to his health, as it was twisting his spine. When Margaret Johnson, a student assistance counselor at Gorton at the time, was visiting the DRC nearly two years ago and learned of Ntaboba, she brought his story back to her students and they set about finding a way to help him.
“What you did is such a wonderful thing; it’s so incredibly generous,” Johnson told students on Friday, as they gathered in the auditorium for a presentation of thanks for their efforts. “You’ve given so much to help people in the Congo that you don’t even know about.”
In order to raise the money, the Student Council designed buttons with Ntaboba’s picture and the words, “No Fear,” which is what Ntaboba’s name means, and students sold them in the cafeteria for $2. In addition, the Student Council voted to donate $100 of the proceeds from the school’s annual Gong Show toward helping Ntaboba.
Johnson said the money was initially raised to pay for the airfare to fly Ntaboba to the U.S., where plans were in place for him to receive his surgery at Kent Hospital, free of charge.
When Johnson decided to spend her April vacation in the Congo visiting her friend Vicky, a psychologist that set up and runs the Ushindi Center to help and support Congolese women who are victims of rape, Johnson asked her friend Betty Merner to join her. The two planned to teach women at the Ushindi Center how to sew to help them earn some money. After visiting a pygmy village and meeting Amani Matabaro, who works with the international non-profit Enough Project and told them the story of Ntaboba, the women wanted to help. Merner, who works at a private school in Richmond, R.I., also relayed Ntaboba’s story to her students. When one of the students told her parents the story, her father, who works at Kent Hospital, decided to get involved.
“Kent really stepped up to the plate, they were wonderful,” Johnson said.
She said doctors at Kent looked at pictures and x-rays of Ntaboba’s leg and arranged to have an orthopedic surgeon perform the operation. Plans were set in motion for Ntaboba to obtain a passport, which took eight to nine months, and everything looked to be all set until it came time to obtain Power of Attorney, a document that doesn’t exist in the DRC but was necessary for Kent to do the surgery because Ntaboba needed someone to travel with him and also a place to stay during recovery.
Although it looked like Ntaboba wouldn’t be able to get the surgery, the money raised by Gorton students to fly him to the U.S. was sent to Africa and used for Ntaboba to travel to the neighboring city of Goma, which was still a ways away, where he was able to get the surgery.
According to Johnson, while Vicky was traveling between the U.S. and Africa, she struck up a conversation with a woman whose husband worked for Heal Africa in Goma. When Vicky told her the story of Ntaboba, she said her husband might be able to help.
“Everything was in place in four months,” Johnson said.
Matabaro, who was at Gorton Friday to thank students for their generosity, said the surgery was successful and Ntaboba is recovering and should be healed in four months. Matabaro also spoke to students at Winman, where Johnson currently serves as a student assistance counselor, and Toll Gate on Friday.
“Ntaboba’s father died in 1996 and his mother is very poor; he has no other family members. He required money, so thank you for your contribution and assistance,” Matabaro said. “Your donations made the surgery and his travel possible. Your support is making someone smile.”
Johnson told students Ntaboba is very smart and “will probably become a doctor because of you.”
Matabaro painted a picture for students, as he described what it’s like to grow up as a young boy in the DRC, and it wasn’t a pretty one. He said the area has been at war for decades, with soldiers killing, looting and raping villagers. He said the government is corrupt and doesn’t take care of children, which is part of the reason 8 million children are not in school.
“The militia war lords use the children for their armies and give them drugs and send them to fight on the front lines or to rape women,” he said. “We conducted a study with UNICEF that found they are taking boys when they’re 7 years old and giving them AK-47s to make them a solider to kill and rape.”
Matabaro explained that much of the war zone area is rich with minerals, which are mined and used in the technology for cell phones and computers.
Johnson said one of the reasons Matabaro was able to come and speak to the students is because he went to school and learned English and was able to make it out of the country.
“Amani has a vision and he’s moving it forward,” she said, referring to his efforts to raise $50,000 to build a peace school in Bukavu, the village where he’s from. “Never doubt your power. When you see different things going on in the world, decide to do something about it; you have that power.”
Matabaro said only 30 percent of Congolese children go to school. He said it costs $45 to $50 per year to attend primary school (grades 1-6) and double that for secondary school. He said students are required to wear uniforms, and if they don’t have one or can’t afford one, they are kicked out of school.
“There are 60 or 70 or 80 kids in one classroom in the first grade, but it drops down to about 25 or 30 by 5th grade,” Matabaro said, adding those that do go on to secondary school often don’t make it to college since the closest ones are in the city and many can’t afford it.
Johnson said the schools usually only consist of one classroom and are often nothing more than “a roof and a couple of walls, with some benches and maybe a chalkboard.”
In addition to raising money to help Ntaboba, Gorton students also donated money to help pay school fees for Congolese children. After hearing a presentation from Dominique Bikaba, who served as Johnson and Merner’s guide when they visited the DRC and was invited to speak at the school, Johnson said students reached into their pockets and dropped money off on the piano on their way out of the auditorium.
“The teachers threw in some money, too, and by the end, we had collected more than $200,” she said. “Sending a child to school is the best thing you can do for a person over there. Every mother wants their child to go to school.”
While visiting the DRC, Bikaba showed the two women pygmy villages and said the indigenous people there needed a place of their own to call home, as they were being pushed out because the Congolese jungle forests where they lived were designated as National Parks. Johnson and Merner then set up the Pygmy Land Project to raise funds to purchase land for the pygmy, in which Gorton students were instrumental in raising $500 toward the project.
Johnson said she was glad the students have the chance to hear from Matabaro and see the impact of their efforts.
“It’s so important for kids to realize they can make a profound difference and change someone’s life, and for them to see the end of this story is great,” she said.
Arianna Pafume, a seventh grader, said she was glad the school could make a big difference in a place like Africa.
“This is amazing what we did,” she said. “I like that we made a change in his life and can help him.”