The Congo Literacy Project (The Democratic Republic of Congo)

  • Date published:
    28 February 2020

Programme Key Information

Programme Title Congo Literacy Project
Implementing Organization Africa Inter-Mennonite Mission
Language of Instruction Lingala, Tshiluba, Kikongo, and Swahili
(Regional Commercial Languages)
Date of Inception April 2017- Ongoing for at least six months ‘programme duration
Programme Partners Communauté Mennonite au Congo, Communauté Evangélique Mennonite, Communauté des Frères Mennonite au Congo
Funding Africa Inter-Mennonite Mission
Annual Programme Costs About $40,000
Programme Cost Per Learner About $15

Country Context and Background

The Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) is the largest country according to the territory in sub-Saharan Africa and the second-largest in all of Africa (after Algeria) with a population estimated at 84,068,091 million (UIS, 2018). It is also one of the poorest countries in the world, with a gross national income per capita of 870 dollars (World Bank, 2017). The DRC is a multilingual country with over 200 ethnic groups, of which the majority are Bantu people, and an estimated 242 languages are spoken in the country (Ethnologue, 2019). French is used as an official language in addition to four other regional languages, namely Lingala, Kikongo, Tshiluba and Swahili that are used until Grade three of primary education.

In DRC, religious organizations have always played a major role in educational provision. About 80% of the population is Christian, predominantly Roman Catholic (43%) but with a sizeable Protestant presence (25.8%); the remainder adhere to the Kimbanguist church, the first independent African church, and a very small minority to Islam (World Atlas, 2018). In 1977, the government of DRC entered into an agreement with representatives of these four major religions, under which the religious institutions provide education that conforms to national guidelines set by the government (World Bank, 2005). These guidelines cover curricula, class size, the qualifications and salaries of teachers and the system of assessment. A significant feature of this agreement is that schools belong to the state but can be managed by religious organizations (Poncelet et al., 2010; World Bank, 2005).

Many of these religious organizations are linked to churches or congregations in Europe and North America, and have traditionally received funds, materials and humanitarian assistance via these links on a regular basis. This hides shortcomings in DRC’s educational provision. For example, compared to many sub-Saharan African countries, the government of DRC contributes less funds to education. According to the World Bank (2015), and as shown in chart 1, only 2.3% of GDP was spent on education, while the average spending in sub-Saharan African countries is 4.6%. Along with other issues, this low spending results in low educational performance across all sub-sectors of education in the country.

Chart 1: Education Finance in Primary and Secondary Schools in DRC, source: World Bank (2015)

The country has also experienced a history of violent conflict, civil unrest and political crises that had threaten its existence. For instance, in the last 20 years, the DRC has been torn apart by armed conflicts. Decades of instability and inter-community violence have deprived millions of people of their fundamental right to education. As a result of this long period of conflict, millions of people have been forced to flee their homes, including hundreds of thousands who have sought refuge in other countries in the region. According to UNHCR, as of 31 August 2019, there were over 886,881 DRC refugees being hosted in other African countries, in addition to an estimated 4.5 million people displaced inside DRC (OCHA, 2020). Moreover, other direct consequences of the conflict that particularly affect the eastern part of DRC include; school closure, collateral damage and military use of school buildings, fear of sending children to school together with teachers’ fear of attending school due to targeted or threats of attacks, not to mention a generalized insecurity which reduces freedom of movement.

Today, the education system in DRC is plagued by low coverage, low quality and poor educational infrastructure, especially in rural areas. According to USAID (2018), 3.5 million children of primary school age are out of school, and 44% of those who do attend school started only after age six. Various statistical estimates by UNESCO, (2013) regarding secondary and tertiary education also reveal the difficulties facing the country. In DRC it is difficult to get a reliable estimate on the actual proportion of the population who can read and write, however, according to data from UIS (2016), the literacy rate of the population of 15 years and older in the country, is estimated to 77.04%. This rate is 88.5% for men and 66.5% for women.

There have been constant calls, particularly from political parties, civil society associations and some political leaders, for an enhanced adult literacy programme in the country. Article 44 of the new Constitution of the DRC, promulgated on 9 March 2006, stipulates: “the eradication of illiteracy is a national duty for which the Government shall draw up a specific programme “(p. 13). Subsequently, the National Strategy for the Development of Literacy and Non-Formal Education (2012—2020) was launched in 2012. The two-phase, four-year national strategy had the overall objective to reduce the proportion of youth and adults who lack basic literacy skills at a rate of 10% per year, through the improvement of access to education and the quality of educational provision, with the first phase from 2012 to 2016 and the second one from 2016 to 2020. Education is the key to a prosperous and peaceful future, but millions of Congolese lack basic literacy skills and remain in poverty. There is an urgent need for increasing the number of quality youth and adult educational programmes. It is in this context that the Congo Literacy Programme was initiated to provide literacy courses, primarily to women who lacked basic literacy skills and female facilitators were primarily hired to instruct in this programme.

Programme Overview

The Congo Literacy Programme (CLP) was initiated in 2017 by leaders of women’s groups in the Mennonite churches in DRC. The programme set out to address the oppression and suffering of women in the Mennonite community. Mennonite churches in DRC were founded by North American missionaries from this Protestant sect in the early 20th Century. They are now fully independent, although still in partnership with the North American churches. According to a 2012-13 survey conducted through this partnership, the percent of adult women who lack basic literacy skills is as high as 80% in most rural Mennonite congregations. However, low literacy skill is also increasing in both rural and urban areas among young people whose education has been thwarted by political instability and economic hardship. While this adult literacy programme was initially launched by women for women, it was immediately broadened to include educators and learners of all genders and ages. The CLP has so far been implemented in five provinces: Kinshasa, Kwilu, Kasai, Kasai-Central and Kasai-Oriental.

CLP is implemented by the Africa Inter-Mennonite Mission (AIMM), a faith-based organization founded in the USA in 1912. Today, AIMM is also active in Benin, Botswana, Burkina Faso, Ivory Coast, South Africa, Ethiopia, Ghana and Kenya together with African Mennonite conferences, AIMM is a full partner of the CLP, alongside the North American and European churches. AIMM also has national boards in both Canada and the USA for legal and financial purposes. Project plans and mission visions are usually initiated by the African churches rather than the Western partners. It is encouraging to see that, in the first two years of the programme, 131 new facilitators have been trained and over 103 classes set up in the above-mentioned provinces, serving approximately 2,600 participants. Meanwhile, in Kinshasa, where the first facilitators were trained, 128 learners have completed the course, been assessed, and received certificates. There have been three graduations since the programme’s inception in 2016.

Aims and Objectives

The programme aims to:

  • Offer literacy education through churches;
  • Empower women to take charge of their own lives economically and socially and to develop self-respect.
  • The long-term goal of this programme is to place one or more literacy instructors in each of approximately 700 Mennonite congregations in DRC. Most of these congregations are rural and most of their members are women, the majority of whom lack basic literacy skills. The key activities of the programme are: 1) recruiting, training and equipping volunteer adult literacy facilitators from the various churches, who will, in turn, 2) set up classes and recruit and teach adults in their community.

Target Group

The main target groups of the Congo Literacy Programme are out-of-school youth and adults aged 15 and over, especially girls and women from rural areas. Considering that most of the Mennonite congregations are rural, the majority of learners are women who have had either no schooling at all or at most one or two years. Many of them reside in disadvantaged areas of the country. They were unable to get an education when they were young because their families were unable or unwilling to pay the school fees. In many cases, in large families, boys were given preference over girls if family resources were limited. As a consequence, these women continue to live in deep poverty and to trail far behind their husbands and male relatives in educational and social skills.

CLP has also been organizing classes in areas affected by the 2016-17 violence in the Kasai region which led to 1.5 million persons being displaced from their homes. The programme takes into account the needs of these vulnerable people. One newly trained facilitator, a pastor who almost lost his own life in the violence, expressed his eagerness to return home to offer instruction to the many adults who had never learned to read and write, as well as the young people whose education had been disrupted. Others have set up classes for the displaced persons who fled to the urban areas of Kikwit (Kwilu Province) and Tshikapa (Kasai) in the western part of the country.

Picture 1: Nancy Myers, Fidélie Nkita Mbombo and Hélène José Mbombo

Programme Implementation

The Congo Literacy Programme (CLP) has been operative for less than two years and for only a few months in some locations. The programme is organized as a basic course of 60 lessons in reading and writing in one of DRC’s regional commercial languages, also known as Congolese regional lingua franca, succinctly explained in the following paragraphs. This 60-lesson course can theoretically be completed in 3 months. However, the average duration of the course so far has been about 6 months, given the irregularities in attendance due to political turmoil as well as to the challenges of daily life in DRC, including health-related issues.

Although French continues to be the official language in the country, regional languages are on the rise for standard oral and, increasingly, written communication. In DRC, generally speaking, few people who have not attended formal schooling speak French, whereas everyone speaks at least one regional language, and often more than one. Since spoken language fluency better facilitates reading and writing, the adult literacy courses provided by CLP are conducted in the Congolese national languages of Lingala, Tshiluba, Kikongo and Swahili. Most of the learners have one or more of these languages as either a mother tongue or a fluent second language.

Rather than creating a separate infrastructure, CLP seeks to recruit and train literacy facilitators from within each of the denominations’ congregations, and to make literacy education part of the church’s mission. Literacy classes are therefore mostly conducted on church premises, and learners are drawn from within the congregation as well as the neighbourhood. Sometimes facilitators conduct classes in their own homes. At least one facilitator has tutored a handicapped learner in the learner’s home. Some classes are conducted in the open air due to lack of a suitable physical classroom.

Teaching - Learning Approaches and Methodologies

The themes covered by CLP are as follows: literacy and rural development; literacy and gender; family literacy and intergenerational learning; literacy and human rights; literacy for health; literacy for economic self-sufficiency; and literacy in a multilingual context. The standard texts assume no experience or competence in reading and writing. While some learners are able to read and write a little, everyone seems to benefit by starting from basics. As shown in photo 2, the method proceeds from phonemes and syllables, not from the alphabet, and uses strategies such as linking pictures, words and the phonetic components of words via the techniques of repetition and independent response. The writing of syllables begins in the very first lesson. As well as words, phrases and sentences, each lesson includes a simplified passage from the Bible. Facilitators seek, above all, to demonstrate support for the participants. In this context, many Congolese who missed formal education welcome this alternative opportunity to improve their reading and writing skills.

Picture 2: A lesson being explained using a chart as visual aid

Programme Content (Curriculum) and Teaching Materials

The curriculum used for the CLP is developed by a Christian organization called Literacy and Evangelism International (LEI). The curriculum consists of two-volume textbooks for reading and writing as seen in photo 3.These textbooks are translated into specific Congolese regional languages. The content of the textbooks and the instructional approaches are built around short, simplified stories and moral lessons from the Bible (samples with Lingala text in photo 3 below). These result in the development of basic alphabet textbooks called as primes.

Picture 3: A cover page of Lingala primer

Course participants learn to read and write in 60 lessons taught to them over the course of three to six months.

Literacy & Evangelism International’s Bible-content method of literacy has been used in the development of primers in more than 240 languages around the world. The method in the first of the two manuals consists of the following 5 fundamental steps:

  1. Teach a word related to a picture on the page, introducing the new syllables and letters it contains.
  2. Learners find all examples on the page of the word that represents the picture.
  3. Teach the words in the boxes, dividing them into syllables and letters
  4. Use flash cards with the words.
  5. Read the “story” in the lesson.

Each lesson also includes writing letters, syllables, and words (see pictures above). The method in Volume 2 is similar to that used in Volume 1, but skipping step 2.

Picture 4: First Lesson in Lingala manuals from primers developed by Literacy & Evangelism International (Bible-content method of literacy)

Picture 5: Final lesson in Lingala manuals from primers developed by Literacy & Evangelism International (Bible-content method of literacy)

Recruitment and Training of Facilitators

Facilitators are trained volunteers and much is demanded of them. The fact that most of them volunteer to set up and conduct classes under very difficult circumstances is a testimony to the satisfaction they feel from being able to help others. The ideal average class size is 25 pupils. Many facilitators teach more than one class.

Picture 6: Training of literacy Facilitators in Mbuji Mayi

Criteria for the selection of facilitators include completion of secondary education, their willingness and ability to teach others, and a strong commitment to the work of the church and to women’s education. They are selected by the three women who are presidents of the national women’s groups of their respective Mennonite denominations. They, in turn, consult with the local pastors and women’s leaders who are their constituents to ensure that all local congregations have a chance to propose prospective facilitators who will be trained and return to set up literacy classes in the congregation.

Facilitators are trained in groups of 50 or 60 via a 7–day training workshop during which they learn the method used in the manuals. As mentioned above, each facilitator is provided by AIMM with a minimum of 25 textbooks, a blackboard, and other necessities. Minimal transportation expenses are also provided. The initial training workshops for facilitators were conducted by a Congolese instructor, Rev. Timothée Sila, who has extensive experience conducting training workshops in a number of African countries. He has also received training in the USA from Literacy and Evangelism International, the developer of the method used in this literacy programme.

Learners are encouraged to contribute voluntarily to their facilitators’ expenses but are not charged fees.

There has been great demand for literacy classes in rural areas. The programme reports from rural Kasai, an area hard hit by violence in 2016–17, show that one facilitator was trying to teach several classes. There were 80-90 learners per class. While it is difficult to teach such a large group effectively, it seemed to be too late to tell him to turn learners away, especially since nearby village chiefs were pressuring him to conduct classes in their villages as well. In the light of this, CLP providers elevated what had been a more distant goal to a top priority, namely turning more experienced facilitators into trainers so as to address the shortage of facilitators and maximize the use of scarce resources in their area. In July 2019 Rev. Sila conducted a two-week workshop to turn 16 experienced facilitators (those with one year or more of teaching experience) into programme certified facilitator-trainers, fully supported and accredited by the Africa Inter-Mennonite Mission (AIMM), which principally oversees the training of literacy instructors. The training was based on a 150-page manual called “Training Workshops for Facilitators: A Guide for Literacy Leaders”, published by Literacy & Evangelism International. This manual is used in the training of literacy trainers in the United States and around the world. The 16 facilitator-trainers will go on to conduct training courses in their various communities in order to meet the burgeoning demand for literacy facilitators in DRC

Picture 7: A facilitator in Kinshasa instructs a policewoman

Enrolment of Learners

Each facilitator is free to form classes and choose learners as he or she wishes. In most cases, this is done on a first-come, first-served basis, since the demand for the service is so high. Publicity is conducted mostly through word of mouth, sometimes through announcements in congregations or on the streets of the city or village. The only criteria for learners are a lack of basic literacy skills and their desire to learn. Generally, children of elementary school age are not accepted, although some exceptions are made when destitute families are unable to enrol children in school.

Monitoring and Evaluation

Some of the facilitators have received additional training and they are promoted as supervisors. As of July 2019, the programme began requiring facilitators to provide reports to supervisors three times annually. These reports are to list the number, ages and gender of learners, where and when classes meet, and the number of lessons conducted in each class. Where possible, supervisors also visit classes to observe and collect both anecdotal and statistical evidence of the programme’s effectiveness. Facilitators and supervisors are encouraged to meet in larger groups to evaluate their work and plan approaches. As well as teaching literacy classes, the supervisors play the role of monitoring and evaluating literacy classes in their region. Anecdotal, statistical, and pictorial evidence collected by the supervisors is reported to the AIMM, who analyse the information further with a view to improving the literacy programme. Supervisors, like facilitators, work as volunteers but receive supplementary funds for transportation. However, the difficulty of travelling to remote rural areas makes it challenging for supervisors to visit all the classes. This means that some of the classes have yet to be visited. Contact with these classes is maintained on the phone.

AIMM North American personnel visit the DRC once or twice a year to attend trainings, visit literacy classes, advise facilitators and supervisors, and often participate in graduation ceremonies

The CLP is an informal programme that does not conform to the academic year, particular standards, or certification. Rather, learners are given the opportunity to follow classes until they believe and can demonstrate that they have mastered the basic skills of reading and writing, having progressed through all the lessons of the two-volume manuals. The satisfaction of being able to read and write is the learner’s chief reward. Functional literacy, rather than the achievement of academic standards, is the goal.

Picture 8: Anselme is a widowed literacy learner who is now able to read (2018)

However, in order to judge the effectiveness of this adult literacy initiative, learners take exams upon completion of the course to assess their competency levels in reading and writing. The exam includes a dictation and an oral demonstration of reading competence. The supervisors present certificates to those who demonstrate competence. The emphasis is not on scoring but on the supervisors’ judgement as to whether the learner has mastered the ability to read and write at the level of the final lessons in the course. Because the programme is church-related, a useful standard for reading ability is whether a learner can read the Bible in the language in which he/she was taught. A simple dictation provides evidence of writing ability. Learners who have not achieved such competence are not shamed but are encouraged to repeat the course or rejoint a class in progress. So far, the vast majority of learners who have attended regularly and persisted until the end of the course are able to demonstrate competence. However, the programme is too new in most areas of the country outside Kinshasa (the capital city) for learners to have progressed this far. When possible, a festive “graduation” ceremony is organized, which is open to families, other learners and other facilitators in the same region.

Achievements and Impact

As of early 2019, 131 facilitators were trained to conduct literacy courses in 103 literacy centres, and approximately 2,600 adult learners had attended or were attending CLP.

Many of those enrolled come from a particular subgroup of vagrant urban youth, who are often embarrassed to admit that they lack basic literacy skills. One instructor in a rough area of Kinshasa reports that learners in their teens and twenties depend on him for emotional support as they find new self-respect by learning to read and write for the first time, or improving their skills. Some are eager to move beyond the scope of the programme, which offers only basic literacy in regional languages, and to learn to read and write in French. These learners entered the programme unable to read the simplest words and often unable to write their names. They leave the programme when they are able to read and write one of the Congolese national languages . By way of illustration, photo 2 in the text describes a sample of reading and writing in Lingala.

The programme has also contributed greatly to women’s empowerment and to raising their status in the church and community. Many of those who have participated in the programme are now able to read their Bible and participate in community development activities.

Testimonies and Impact Stories

Kizela is a woman in Kikwit who suffered paralysis from polio as a toddler and never went to school. After completing the CLP in 2016, Kizela wrote a letter to AIMM in Kikongo thanking those responsible for developing her literacy skills, which allow her to read the Bible.

Another learner who benefitted from the course was Claudine Lutondo who was embarrassed to admit that she lacked functional literacy. She had been elected by churchwomen in Kinshasa to serve as their district secretary. After completing the literacy course she was able to carry out her duties with pride and enthusiasm.

Hélène Mpukela in Mbuji-Mayi says that she was too careless to study as a young person but regretted it later, when her husband threatened to divorce her for not being able to read and write. In her words, “Now he sees me reading and writing more than those who go to school. I am in control of our children who are going to school."

“Now that I have learned to read and write, I have finally joined the human race.” Natacha Yamba, adult learner, Kinshasa.

“I’m able to stand up in front of the women [in church] and read the Bible. I am finding my place”, shared Antoinette Odia, an adult learner from Kasai Oriental.

“I was born in a diamond city where going to school seemed pointless. I was going to transport gravel to earn money but I risked losing my marriage because of being unable to read and write. I am happy that I started reading and writing. I'm uninhibited.” Jeanne Kaluwa, Kasai Oriental.

Pictrue 9: A facilitator-in-training demonstrates the method to her colleagues. Kasai-Orientale, 2018.


Some project areas saw a decrease in enrolment rates, and some learners dropped out of the programme due to socio-economic difficulties or harsh conditions in the literacy centres, such as a lack of convenient venues and necessary equipment like benches. The majority of these centres use church halls where meetings of all kinds take place. Moreover, as some literacy classes take place in the open air, learners are often interfered by passers-by.

In some project sites, AIMM found it difficult to meet the increasing demand for literacy classes. For instance, as mentioned above, one facilitator in rural Kasai had to conduct several classes for 80-90 adult learners. The gap in the ratio of facilitators to learners reduced the quality of literacy classes.

Since the programme is implemented in rural areas, it is difficult for supervisors to carry out consistent reporting and supervision on the work of facilitators. Communication by phone is often inadequate. The poor condition of roads makes travel time-consuming and arduous. Nevertheless, the programme provides travel money specifically for supervisory visits. It also provides computers and cameras to programme coordinators to facilitate reporting, though internet access is often intermittent.

Another challenge is recruiting qualified and dedicated facilitators. In some cases, the selection of potential facilitators did not follow the programme guidelines given to church leaders, especially as regards to the need for facilitators to have completed secondary education. This resulted in facilitators being recruited who struggled to master the required skills within a week. One way in which the programme is addressing this challenge is by offering these facilitators a chance to assist and learn from fully trained and competent facilitators before they set up their own classes. A “train-the-trainers” workshop was also conducted in July 2019, which increased the number of trainers who can train others to work with them.

The low stipends (travel money only) and heavy workload have caused some facilitators to leave the programme. However, after much consultation with participants, the leaders have decided that facilitators should continue to work as volunteers, with their expenses (especially transportation) covered to the maximum extent possible.


The CLP project has been supported by a foundation grant as well as by individual donors. However, additional foundational support is still being sought. The literacy programme is less than two years old as of this reporting. The first two years have been intensively focused on training facilitators, the largest expense of the programme. Over 130 facilitators have been trained and equipped at a total cost to the foreign donor (AIMM) of about $80,000. The project anticipates continuing to support facilitator training but at a diminishing rate. Ongoing costs to the outside donor to support working facilitators (supplies, supervision, and transportation stipends) are about $100-200 per facilitator. Because the learning population is recruited from the poorest of the poor in one of the most impoverished countries in the world, all funds so far have come from the donor organization, AIMM, rather than from learner fees. The in-kind contribution of the newly trained volunteer facilitators is invaluable.

In terms of perspectives for the future of CLP, monitoring visits will be conducted by assigned supervisors, and at least once a year by provincial programme coordinators, while national coordinators will also maintain regular and sometimes spontaneous visits. The CLP is seeking the approval of International Literacy and Evangelism to download and print the literacy materials in order to meet high demand and circumvent the problem of the high cost of learning materials.


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Rod Hollinger-Janzen
Executive Coordinator
Africa Inter-Mennonite Mission (AIMM)
1013 Division St., Goshen, IN 46528
Website: www.aimmintl.org

For citation please use

Chatzigianni, Sofia. Last update: 28 February 2020. The Congo Literacy Project (The Democratic Republic of Congo). UIL. (Accessed on: 29 May 2023, 09:37 CEST)

PDF in Arabic

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