Several years ago Birmingham-based community development worker – Heidi Bentley- visited the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) on an internship programme with international humanitarian charity, Tearfund.  Little did she know that this, along with a chance meeting with a Canadian, would change her life and positively impact the lives of hundreds of young people in the process.

Q: How did the Congo Tree start?

I first visited the Democratic Republic of Congo as an intern with Tearfund in September 2011. Shortly after I arrived in DRC, the general elections were taking place, so the whole team was evacuated to neighbouring Rwanda as a precautionary measure. That’s when I met Amy, who is Canadian and the co-founder of The Congo Tree.

Interview Q&A with the Co-Founder of the Congo Tree charity

Heidi and Amy, Co-Founders of The Congo Tree charity, ‘never intended to start the charity’

We never intended to start the charity. Amy and I visited several youth projects while working in DRC and were constantly hearing from the young people we met, how much they wanted things to change for the better. They had lots of passion, vision and amazing ideas but not necessarily the resources or motivational planning to make that happen.

Amy and I were unsure how we could help but decided to problem-solve along with our Congolese friends – Hebdavi, Muhindo and Patrick. When we returned to England, Amy and I took a few months to gather some ideas. We ended up creating some training resources in leadership and transferable skills to send over. The materials were well received but our Congolese friends were not sure how to apply the resources, so invited us back to deliver the training. We returned and ran a pilot programme in April 2013, with Hebdavi and Muhindo working as co-facilitators (and translators!). The pilot was successful and the charity began from there.

Q: How does the Congo Tree work?

Interview Q&A with the Co-Founder of the Congo Tree charity

A team building exercise

We run our leadership development programme for Young Leaders (aged 14-18) and Leader Mentors (aged 18-25). The young people must apply to be on the programme. The first part of the programme is delivered as an intensive 3-4 day course, and then we have a series of monthly meetings for the whole group. Mentors are paired up with a Young Leader, who they are committed to mentoring for a year. All participants get involved in a social action in their communities or develop an enterprise idea which benefits the local community; That’s the ‘fruit’ of the tree. In essence, we see training as the root, mentoring the trunk and the fruit is whatever social action emerges; that’s what constitutes The Congo Tree.

Q: How is the Congo Tree funded and what projects are you specifically seeking funding for?

The charity has been entirely funded by friends, family and others who have heard about the project. This has been through one-off giving and regular donations; their support has been such a blessing. Similarly Amy and I have contributed our own money as well as having given up working full time to commit 1-2 days a week to the charity; which has been the case for the past 3 years.

Our fundraising priorities at the moment are for an in-country project coordinator to lead our team of 4 amazing interns; a new office facility which is more accessible for the young people and funds to enable us to reach more rural communities.

Q: How do you find / recruit young people?

Interview Q&A with the Co-Founder of the Congo Tree charity

A group shot of the participants

Most of the young people come to us through word of mouth and existing relationships. We work with various community leaders such as churches, schools, universities and others to recruit young people.

Q: How many people have you supported?

We have trained over 100 young people in Goma (where we are based), many of whom are still connected to The Congo Tree in some way. 15% of those are now in full time employment and have credited the Congo Tree with helping them with communication and team-work skills, and to better understand their strengths and weaknesses, information they have used to their advantage enabling them to find suitable work. For example, one of my favourite stories which illustrates this well, is of a young man who took part in our pilot. He got a job at a large bank just 2 months after completing the course. As a result of participating in the programme, he realised he had an analytic mind and so developed this. His employers noticed his progress and commitment which led to a promotion within 6 months.  He advanced past most of his peers with whom he started.

Another story I am really proud of is a group of peacemakers – former child soldiers – who had been in rehabilitation for 1-2 years. 12 of these young men came up with some of the best social enterprise project ideas I have ever heard. They delivered some amazing presentations and each group were given 50 dollars in order to launch their various projects.  To date, there has been some fantastic outcomes from this group; one enterprise was so successful that the profit paid for the annual school fees of two children in the village! Another one of the initiatives, a community pond, currently has fishlings in it, which once fully grown will be both a source of food and income for the village.

These children were once soldiers and joined the militia which the village was very fearful of. They have now returned and have had to find ways to regain trust and prove they are committed to peace.  It has been amazing to see how 50 dollars, in some small way, has bought back their reputation.

Q:  What has been your proudest moment?

The first graduation ceremony from the pilot project. Seeing the young people receive their certificates after having been with us for two years was amazing. Similarly seeing the smiles of the 12 young men (the peacemakers), when they were entrusted with the 50 dollars towards their projects was also a priceless moment. We were very intentional about the Congolese mentors being the ones to give them the money rather than us (the White people); we didn’t want to reinforce colonial stereotypes.

Q: What has been the greatest challenge?

Constantly ensuring the work we do fits in with what we understand is ‘good aid’. We are extremely careful that what we do is not about making ourselves feel better or voluntourism. We are constantly asking ourselves if it is sustainable and beneficial to those we are supporting.

The Congo Tree is founded on the peer learning approach; we all have different strengths and weaknesses therefore we need each other and only together can we find the right solutions.

Q:  What are your future plans for the Congo Tree?

Interview Q&A with the Co-Founder of the Congo Tree charity

One of the participants holding the phrase ‘changing the world’ in French

We hope to work in more locations outside of Goma and are preparing our team for the task. We also have several areas of interest we are looking to develop. This includes working with young people who are considered at-risk either of dropping out of school or are having to fend for themselves; children who have experienced the traumas of conflict and taking The Congo Tree into new places outside of Goma.

This year we will launch the World Youth Leadership Development programme (WYLD) – this is our existing youth leadership development programme in Congo which has been repackaged so it can be delivered in other countries. We are hoping to take WYLD to Nigeria for the first time this summer and have had interest from other countries. We are really excited about its potential, specifically with young people who have grown up in areas of conflict.

To find out more about The Congo Tree please visit their website.

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