Since 2007, the Bloomington-based nonprofit Giving Back to Africa has worked to improve education for school children in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC). The organization’s efforts recently took a major step forward when, in 2011, Congolese physician and community-development expert Dr. Jerry Kindomba got on board as project manager to help create a new curriculum focused on experiential learning in Congolese schools.

“In my previous community work, I had realized that one of the main issues in the DRC is leadership,” says Kindomba, who had worked with a USAID-funded health initiative. “I was attracted by Giving Back to Africa’s goal of investing in young people to help them become community leaders.”

Working with Giving Back to Africa’s Executive Director Michael Valliant and the organization’s cofounders, Dr. Jim Calli and Ann Marie Thomson, in March 2011 Kindomba began what would evolve into a multistep process to implement a new curriculum. After selecting a school with existing ties to Giving Back to Africa in Mpasa II (a refugee settlement several miles outside of the capital Kinshasa), the most crucial step involved building trust with students, teachers, and others in the community.

“We wanted to develop the curriculum organically from within the community rather than trying to impose something on them,” Thomson says. “We went in saying, ‘We have these ideas about leadership we want to explore with you.’”

Although the proposed type of experience-based, hands-on learning was unprecedented in Mpasa schools, students and teachers were enthusiastic. In short order they identified lack of clean water as the issue around which to build lessons and, eventually, took what they had learned (how to protect water and the links between contaminated water and disease) into the community to educate others.

“It was incredible to see the students beginning to help make real changes, such as instructing people to wash hands by pouring water over them instead of dipping them into stagnant basins of used water,” says Kindomba, who this past September came to the United States for the first time to help raise awareness and funds to promote Giving Back to Africa. “The skills the students learned are skills they can apply not only to water issues but to all challenges in the future.”