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ANGOLA: Portuguese lessons give hope to returning refugees

NAIROBI, 1 February 2005 (IRIN In-Depth) -

Returning Angolan children learning Portuguese - their homeland’s national language- but new to them after years abroad as refugees.
Credit: IRIN
For all of her 11 years, Marcelina Vite has spoken only Luvale and a smattering of Portuguese, which she picked up from fellow Angolans in Zambia's refugee camps.

As refugees living in Zambia, her inability to speak Portuguese did not seem to matter, but now that the family has returned home to Angola, learning the official language of her mother country has become a priority.

"I like coming to school and learning to speak and write Portuguese," Vite said, before starting her morning literacy class in the village of Chipoia, near Cazombo in Angola's eastern Moxico province. "But it's very difficult."

Since the UN refugee agency, UNHCR, started its voluntary repatriation programme in June 2004, around 9,500 Angolans have returned to Cazombo in convoys from neighbouring Zambia. Eager to get home after the end of a 27-year civil war, another 2,200 or more have made their way back, unassisted, since the start of the year 2004.

Lack of Portuguese an obstacle

However, with many speaking only the local Luvale language during their absence, there are fears that not understanding Portuguese will prove a real obstacle when it comes to community re-integration, such as education or employment opportunities.

In 2003, the Jesuit Refugee Services (JRS), supported by UNHCR, started intensive Portuguese lessons for returnee children aged seven to 17 in Cazombo and Luau, also in Moxico, with the aim of teaching them sufficient Portuguese in order to enrol in local schools.

"Especially for the children, it's a problem that they don't speak Portuguese because without Portuguese they cannot enter the Angolan education system," Nelito Fortuna, project director for JRS in Cazombo, said.

"It is important for these children to have [an] education, so that they improve - then they have a better chance of development," Fortuna, himself a returning refugee, added.

The demand for the courses has certainly been high, and the project, in which JRS and UNHCR provide the teaching and classroom materials, quickly got off the ground with parents keen to lend a hand in constructing the school buildings.

"When we started the programme, we only had limited funds - enough to enrol only 600 and many parents were asking us 'Why so few?'," Fortuna said. In 2004 we increased this to 6,000 and in 2005 we want to reach another 6,000.

JRS and UNHCR plan to extend the idea to include literacy courses for adults and women in particular, so they can communicate, get involved in local issues and increase their chances of employment.

"This project has been very, very helpful," Frances Olayiwola, UNHCR's field officer in Cazombo, said. "One of the issues which stops people coming back is the question of how will they integrate - how will their children integrate?

Classrooms are basic, with old milk cans doubling as seats for returnee kids.
Credit: IRIN

"The literacy project for 2005 will also help with the re-integration of the returnee population," Olayiwola added. "It will facilitate whatever they are doing and they will feel they are part of the country."

Back in Vite's class, the children get to work. The intensive three-month course uses Portuguese lessons to teach the children mathematics, sciences and important tips on hygiene and safety.

Eleven-year-old Alexo Domingos, initially shy when asked to show off his language skills, explained why the school - housed in a wooden straw-roofed structure - is so important to him.

"I want to understand the others and when I go to Angolan school I need to understand the teachers," he said.

"We write, we read and we use pictures and the blackboard to learn all kinds of things," Domingos said, adding that he tries to speak Portuguese at home and enjoys correcting the rest of his family when they get words wrong.

The free classes, designed for 35 children, are popular in the local villages and extra children often turn up to see what they can pick up.

Problems of access

The project is not just confined to Cazombo centre. In Cahanganhi, around five km from Cazombo along a bumpy red sand road, Jorge Paulo Sapaulo is busy teaching his students about domestic animals.

"They are very good students," he said. "They have a lot of enthusiasm and they really want to learn."

As in all of Angola, poor access and a lack of funding have hampered the growth of the project and many returnees who make it home to even more remote villages are cut off from such development initiatives.

"There are other places requesting the same programme, but they are difficult for us to reach because of destroyed bridges, impassable roads and landmines," Fortuna said. "The major problem is access."

Even for those lucky enough to have a class nearby, there are no guarantees of a place in an Angolan school once they make it through the course. The war also took a heavy toll on the country's education system and there are few schools and fewer teachers to cope with the rising demand.

"The nearest Angolan school for these children is five km away in Chissamba," Sapaulo said. "Some of the bigger children can make the journey on foot, but for the smaller ones, it is too far."

The Angolan government is constructing new school buildings across the municipality, but finding qualified teachers and the money to pay them is difficult.

Still, many children are just happy to be back in their home country and keen to take part in its rebirth.

"I believe these Angolan children want to create better lives for themselves and I want to help them with that," Sapaulo said. "Maybe there are future doctors and teachers sitting here - perhaps even a future president."

Theme(s): (IRIN) Children, (IRIN) Education, (IRIN) Refugees/IDPs


[This report does not necessarily reflect the views of the United Nations]
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