An education change maker from the age of 14

Joseph MunyambanzaWith leadership training supported by scholarships at college and university, and helped by his three friends from school, he built an education programme and encouraged a raft of anti-poverty projects in his camp. Joseph Munyambanza fled North Kivu, in the war-torn east of the Democratic Republic of the Congo or DRC, when he was six.

Today he is 25, has graduated from Westminster College, Missouri, in the United States, and has moved back home to the same camp – at Kyangwali, Uganda, where his parents still live. His mission is to scale up an education project that he co-founded with three friends at the age of 14 – and has been running for the past 11 years – that is sending children to primary school and secondary school, and now also on to university.

This article is part of a series on Transformative Leadership published by University World News in partnership with Mastercard Foundation. University World News is solely responsible for the editorial content.

It is an extraordinary story of a young man and his friends that bears testimony to the belief that young people can find solutions to their community’s challenges if they are given support and training in leadership along the way, at school and university.

Kyangwali refugee camp, Uganda: CIYOTA primary school
Kyangwali is situated in Hoima District, western Uganda, and is home to more than 40,000 refugees from Burundi, the DRC, Ethiopia, Kenya, Rwanda, Somalia and South Sudan, a melting pot of ethnicities reflecting the recent history of conflict and uprooted populations in the region.

When he arrived, in 1996, eastern DRC – or Zaire as it was then known – was beset with ethnic problems and engulfed in violence following a Rwandan invasion in pursuit of the forces behind the Rwandan genocide who had set up camp there. The fighting led to the fall of the dictator Mobutu Sésé Seko and his replacement by rebel leader Laurent Kabila, who renamed the country.

“The fighting was everywhere and we fled to a temporary place, then into Uganda in a refugee camp at Kyangwali,” Munyambanza told University World News.

In one sense he was lucky to get out. Kivu has been troubled by repeated episodes of fighting since then, caught up in what became the deadliest conflict globally since the Second World War, claiming up to six million lives. Among the atrocities, there have been incidents of armed groups turning up to schools in Kivu with trucks and taking the children away to force them to become child soldiers.

But life in the camp was hard. “There are things you don’t understand are valuable when you are six years old – we liked to get some food, play with other kids and go to school with our friends and come back and play,” he says. “But by the time we got to the camp all that had changed. There was no food, some of my friends had passed away. Others had been displaced and going to school was very different – there were so many children, teachers were not qualified, and there was no good furniture to sit on.”

Dropped out

As a result many people dropped out of school. When he started in year two, there were 150 or more children in his class. By the time he finished in year seven there were only 17 – and only one of them was a girl – and Munyambanza was the only student to go on to secondary school.

So in 2005, when he was just 14 years old, he and some friends started thinking about how they could change the mentality of young people in the camp and create better opportunities.

“We realised that young people were not going to school, they were dropping out. Girls were getting married. Boys were resorting to alcohol and losing all their hope,” he says.

“We realised that education was the most challenging issue which would affect us for life, so we wanted to give others the opportunity to study.

“And I wanted to use my skills and experience to help them do well and motivate them to excel.”

So they set up a project called COBURWAS – named after the countries from which most refugees in the camp had come, Congo, Burundi, Rwanda and Sudan – and began a tutoring programme, initially for upper primary children to help them transition to secondary school.

“In Uganda, to get to secondary school, children have to sit for national exams and most of the time it is very hard. Children in the camps don’t have good teachers or materials. We wanted to see how we could prepare them for transition.”

So in the first year they took on 12 students, and tutored them during their holidays. The following year the numbers grew to 52 so Munyambanza asked other friends whom he trusted academically to come in and help.

“I was 14 at the time and I was in Senior Two. But we had a big team of people who worked together, with four or five leaders, and I was mostly in charge of academics and tutoring. I had no support. I was teacher, principal and everything else.”

Every time he came home from school – he was boarding in Duhaga 90km away from the refugee camp – he spent the mornings training one group and then after lunch he would train another.

Members of COBURWAS also provided mentoring on agriculture and undertook community activities, such as building houses for disabled people and orphans, to increase visibility in the community.

At the time the camp was swelling with increasing arrivals from more fighting in the DRC – originally there were 23,000 refugees at Kyangwali – and the project, to be more inclusive, changed its name to CIYOTA, short for COBURWAS International Youth Organisation to Transform Africa.

Leadership training

Munyambanza had completed four years of secondary school and earned a scholarship to attend the African Leadership Academy or ALA’s two-year programme on its campus in Johannesburg, South Africa.

The ALA handpicks young leaders aged 16-19 from across Africa “who have the potential to catalyse positive change on the continent” and provides them with a two-year pre-university programme with a unique curriculum that includes courses on entrepreneurial leadership, African studies, writing and rhetoric and Cambridge A-levels.

“The curriculum and the experience was really empowering,” he says. It enabled him to connect with top-performing students from all over the continent. And when it became too much to try to fit in all the school work and the work on his project, the leadership allowed him to do class projects connected to his work in Uganda and provide assessment, feedback and evaluation.

By the time he went to ALA in 2008, CIYOTA had been in operation for three years, with a large number of refugees from the camp performing well.

“We realised we needed a secondary school,” says Munyambanza, and the nearest one was 90km away at Duhaga, the same school he had attended.

So they set up a student hostel there by persuading local people to give them a house, a place where the students could eat together and would be secure and safe, and to pay the rent the project organisers went back to the community to dig their farmland in return for income.

In 2010 ALA allowed four or five students and two teachers to travel with Munyambanza to Uganda to run programmes in his project.

“They made it easier for me to work and learn how I can improve the community I was working in,” he says.

“My friends were running skills for life projects on tailoring, farming, microcredit and leadership for young women to empower them. We also opened a primary school for orphans, which started as a nursery school with 10 children, but later parents wanted their children to come, so we realised half can be orphans and half other children where parents contribute a monthly fee.”

In time, the reputation of CIYOTA grew. The ministry of education used it as a model for bringing social entrepreneurship at A-level, using it as a case study for how young people can contribute to transforming their community.

The programme has been recognised by the Global Changemakers. In 2011 Munyambanza presented the CIYOTA project to the World Economic Forum on Africa.

'Movement of transformative leaders’

In 2012, Munyambanza secured a MasterCard Foundation Scholarship to study biochemistry at Westminster College, a liberal arts college in Missouri.

The Foundation is committed to supporting 30,000 secondary and tertiary scholarships in a programme that aims to create a movement of transformative leaders who will “support and influence social and economic progress around the world, particularly in Africa”.

It tries to select individuals who have the potential and mindset to become the next generation of leaders who will “engage others in an ethical manner and generate lasting change”, according to Shona Bezanson, programme manager, education and learning at The MasterCard Foundation.

“They supported me throughout college, paying my fees, insurance, travel back home and accommodation. They cover everything,” Munyambanza says.

One of the key benefits – apart from graduating with a bachelor of arts degree last May – was that this enabled him to travel back home to the camp in the holidays to continue working on his project.

“It gave me the flexibility to learn and contribute to my project. It would be very difficult to do the work on the ground, to run it from here [in the US] when you are not able to go and meet the people involved and work together.”

The MasterCard Foundation, like the ALA, which is one of its partners, places a major emphasis on transformative leadership, bringing its scholars together in annual gatherings to share experience and network on this theme.

“It’s about leadership that empowers people, gives them the skills to address their own problems in their community, in the refugee camps for instance, and inspires them to create a better life for themselves,” says Munyambanza.

UN advisory role

Recognition of Munyambanza’s own contribution as a young leader is growing worldwide.

He was one of 15 young people chosen to advise the United Nations Secretary General, Ban Ki-moon, on efforts to achieve the Millennium Development Goals on education – he has campaigned alongside Malala Yousafzai on the issue – and in 2013 was invited by Ban Ki-moon to present the Education First Initiative for the Global Poverty Project at the Global Citizenship Festival attended by 60,000 people in New York’s Central Park, as part of an attempt to focus the attention of world leaders on the fight to end poverty.

He was also recognised along with President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf of Liberia as one of four Global Citizen Award winners that year. In addition, Munyambanza was named one of the 99 most influential Foreign Policy Leaders under the age of 33 by the Diplomatic Courier magazine. And he also awarded the Trailblazer Award by the African Leadership Academy in 2014.

The list of accolades goes on and was added to last week in Oxford, England, where he was selected as one of 12 young world leaders by the Skoll World Forum on Social Enterpreneurship attended by 1,000 young innovators from more than 60 countries.

Quietly spoken

But Munyambanza comes across as a humble, quietly spoken, grounded young man with a remarkable dedication to changing his own community in the refugee camp, where his parents and siblings still live.

Since he started COBURWAS (now CIYOTA), the programme has helped 600 young people complete high school. The primary school that began with 10 orphans now has 462 pupils and 22 full-time staff and the first cohort graduated last year. In the national primary exam it came in the top 20 out of hundreds in the district.

Munyambanza says he is inspired by “the Mandelas, Mbekis and Gandhis of the world, who stood for what was right and important for the future of all of us” but also at the community level by his mother, who “buffered my life and prevented me losing hope; she has empowered me”.

His quest now is to see how he can give students “more access to university opportunities, but also strengthen their passion and skills” to bring change. To that end he is building a CIYOTA leadership centre where he will train about 300 young people working in communities to “increase change”.

With the support of The MasterCard Foundation Scholars Program,19 young people from the CIYOTA education project in the camp have been admitted to university this year, bringing the total accessing higher education via the project to 33 since it began.

Many of them spent two or three years working on projects in the camp before going to university with a commitment to return to help their community. They all serve as role models inspiring young children to stick it out at school with the hope of getting to university.

Munyambanza says more than 1,200 people are now being trained, for instance in income-generation skills or healthy eating, or attending school and around 10,000 people are indirectly benefiting from the CIYOTA initiatives.

“We are fighting back against hopelessness,” he says. “And other people can learn from us that whenever you face challenges – and there are many bad things in the camp that could make us miserable – don’t sit and wait for the world to come; we can take the initiative ourselves.”