Woodstock Residents Rally To Help Village in Congo

Saturday, July 20, 2013
Woodstock — Two years ago, several Woodstock residents placed their faith in the hands of a Congolese man with a vision of bettering the lives of those in his hometown village — and he didn’t disappoint.

Jean du Dieu Tshileu, a Woodstock resident originally from the Democratic Republic of Congo, made connections with a Woodstock family when both were in Washington, D.C., and after arriving in Vermont in 2004 with that family who he now calls his own, he started fulfilling a lifelong dream.

That vision: a three-legged-stool plan that promoted economic stability and education in his village of Bakwa-Tshileu by building a school, a farming program and a sports field, that he hoped would become financially self-sustainable.

Now the vision is well on its way to reality.

“He came to Woodstock with a project plan but was having trouble getting it started,” said Leigh Woods, a board member with Team Congo, which has 12 members interested in supporting the project.

“When he got involved in the Woodstock community a bunch of people got together; just a bunch of folks who, like him, like what he’s trying to do and are trying to support him,” said board member Joby Thompson.

Tshileu, 40, who divides his time between the United States and Congo, flew to the States two-weeks-ago in light of Woodstock’s next Congo fundraising event to help further develop his village’s land. On Sunday from 5 to 7:30 p.m., on the green in front of St. James Episcopal Church in Woodstock, Tshileu will update those interested in the progress that’s been made on the project since February. A barbecue and live entertainment will follow.

In the most recent and third phase of the Congo Village School Project, Tshileu said he is working on making the sustainability and financing portion of the project stronger through the recently developed farmland and livestock, Tshileu explained.

“We have to make sure the project is not really dependent on continually raising money,” he said, noting the 62-acres of farm land, which was created in part with funds from Woodstock, feeds the villagers as well as generates revenue for the village. “It’s an income-generating activity.”

Secondly, part of phase three entails finding a clean and close water source — or Tshileu hopes so.

Currently, villagers, mostly women and girls, have to walk three hours round-trip to the river, or ride a bicycle, to fill up water jugs and haul them back to base. During phase two of the project, Vermont and New Hampshire residents Lynda and Ray Talkington, who own Geosphere N.H., a company in Exeter, N.H., that specializes in water systems, went to the village last year to partner in digging wells. However, their efforts were unsuccessful as the equipment was not sufficient.

“We all were devastated. They thought we would have a geyser of water shooting out of the ground, and so did I,” Lynda Talkington said. But that didn’t happen. She explained the equipment lacked the horse power to drill through a large rock surface, stalling efforts to reach water.

With the money raised on Tshileu’s current visit to Woodstock, he hopes to put it toward a second attempt to drill a well during the third week in August. The Talkingtons will make it for this trip as well.

“There is nothing that could prevent us from getting back there,” Talkington said.

Tshileu said the 2013-2014 annual budget of $100,000, of which 50 percent was from money generated by Woodstock residents has been instrumental in helping him transform the land.

To date, the funds have helped build a school with two classrooms that enrolls 140 students ages 8 to 20, 40 percent female, build a soccer program and field, obtain cows and other farm animals and create the crop land.

“No one has ever had access to fresh milk in my village,” Tshileu said of his village of 3,000.

Woodstock children have previously been involved in the efforts as well, donating soccer balls, cleats and jerseys. In addition, the French Club at the Woodstock Union High School cooked “crepes for the Congo” and the middle school raised $1,000 during a coin drive last year.

“It’s a dream come true,” Tshileu said. “I will give credit again to the people of the U.S. If they did not care about the story I told them the project wouldn’t have been — and I was at the point where I was going to give up.”

“They didn’t have to help these people,” he added. “But they understood this story and believed and opened up their hearts and their wallets.”

The project has had its share of bumps, such as the lack of a clean water source nearby and lack of space to store crops, which forced the village to utilize the school house for storage leaving the children without a school for a short period of time.

Tshileu said the project is on a five-year time line and is currently about to begin its third year. By the end, he said he hopes the project will be sustainable and in the hands of the villagers. Since the beginning of the project, village children and some adults have learned English, fractions and other mathematics, history and geography.

“Three-years-ago no one in that village knew how to greet someone in English, no one in that village had a vision of thinking that ‘I may become a soccer star,’ and no woman in that village even had a chance to play soccer,” Tshileu said. “It’s a miracle.”

Jordan Cuddemi can be reached at jcuddemi@vnews.com or 603-727-3248.