From pencil to professor

One day, during his second year of elementary school in his tiny village in the Democratic Republic of Congo, Ikanga Tchomba lost his pencil.

Now a 53-year-old, he remembers how upset his family was.

No other child in their village of Kipombo had anything more than a miniscule nub of a pencil. Tchomba’s father had bought him a whole one.

“For me, whenever I see a pencil, I say this is a treasure,” said Tchomba, an associate professor of French and Francophone studies at Baton Rouge Community College.

A subsistence farmer in the Congo, Tchomba’s father desired that his children improve their minds and have a better life.

“My dad passed away last year. He said, ‘Even if I’m sick and I die, I am happy because I know you got your education. That is the good way to live,’” Tchomba said.

Tchomba wants the same for the children who remain in his village.

Today, his village is threatened by rebel soldiers from the Congo and neighboring countries who have raped, kidnapped and killed civilians in a long-lasting civil war.

Education can help save his country, he believes. From Baton Rouge, on an associate professor’s salary, he is sending money, raising funds and collecting books, pencils and notebooks to improve tiny village schools.

“He has a belief that education is the way out of any situation, and whatever sacrifices you have to make or your family has to make, that is really the long-term goal and hope for anyone,” said David Barry, the retired dean of the College of Liberal Arts at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette, where Tchomba studied for his doctorate. “Nobody embodies that more than Ikanga did.”

During Tchomba’s childhood, eastern Congo was stable. Life was good, he said.

“By good, I mean that they could eat, not that they had money,” Tchomba said. “They don’t really have money in the villages.”

His village’s school stopped after two years, so he walked seven miles to another village to continue. For high school, he moved to a large city 50 miles away and stayed with another family.

To afford his first year of college, Tchomba sold peanuts to men who worked in mines near his family’s village. Once he made enough, he walked for two days to the provincial capital, where he began taking classes.

“When you want to achieve your goal, I don’t see something that’s going to stop you,” he said.

He wrote poetry and plays and taught college classes in Kenya. When war broke out in his home country in the late 1990s, Tchomba came to the United States seeking asylum and first moved to Ohio, his wife and children following him. He moved to Louisiana to teach at BRCC and to earn his doctorate in Francophone studies at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette.

Without a car, Tchomba took the Greyhound bus to his classes in Lafayette in the evening after teaching in Baton Rouge.

“The best word to describe Ikanga is persistent,” said Barry, who oversaw Tchomba’s doctoral dissertation in graduate school. “He would never give up on his dreams.”

While he worked to achieve his educational goal, Tchomba was constantly reminded of the hardships his family and country faced. Illegal mining for the mineral columbite-tantalite, used in electronics, especially cellphones, exacerbated the violence in his village.

Rebels and soldiers from other countries mine the mineral in remote, forested areas like Kipombo, according to studies published by the United Nations. Tchomba even moved his family from the village to a city for their safety.

“I remember the day when people were celebrating 4G (service) for their phones,” Tchomba recalled. “I think, ‘This is the blood of my people.’”

He had to do something.

In 2009, Tchomba collected 500 pounds of school supplies to ship back to Kipombo and partnered with BRCC to pay the shipping. Every year since, he has sent pencils and notebooks and money for the teachers.

He calls his program Afri-Kid. In the Congo, they call it the Ikanga Foundation.

This year Tchomba began raising funds to build desks for 200 children at his village’s school to replace the ramshackle table tops pieced together from scraps of wood.

On his own, he thinks it will take two years to pay the carpenter, so he is looking for help.

“I see the suffering in Africa there,” Tchomba said. “Let me help the people there be happier.”