When Albert Nyembwe held a shoe drive last summer in Blaine to help poor children in his homeland in the Democratic Republic of Congo, Africa, the most he had hoped for was 200 pairs of shoes. Instead, he got 900.
Recently, Albert’s son Jimmy Nyembwe, 33, returned from the Congo after delivering 120 pairs of shoes – a pair for each student – to All Grace School, an elementary school serving children ages six to 12.
“If it doesn’t fit you, it can fit one of your family members,” Jimmy told the students as he distributed the much needed shoes.
Albert of Blaine is founder and executive director of the nonprofit Cilongo Foundation, which he started in 2001.
Cilongo’s mission (the word means brotherhood) is to support educational initiatives, to help provide education to those in need in Africa and to help students in the United States access scholarship opportunities for higher education.
“Some of the children go to school hungry. Others have no shoes,” Albert said about some African children in an interview.
Albert taught French and Latin for 25 years in his homeland before immigrating to America from Lubumbashi, Africa, in June 1995.
Jimmy, in charge of public relations for Cilongo, arrived in the U.S. from Africa at age 14 and later graduated from Edison High School in Minneapolis.
Now a Coon Rapids resident, he earned a bachelor’s degree in marketing from Minnesota State University, Mankato. He went on to study project management and currently works as a student learning advocate at Anoka Middle School for the Arts.
This was Jimmy’s first trip to the Congolese school, which the foundation has been sponsoring for seven years. He left for Africa June 12 and returned to America July 17.
“In a nutshell, we want to help the school financially and technically,” he said.
Jimmy’s trip to Africa earlier this summer not only brought shoes to kids, it stirred up curiosity among townsfolk.
He arrived by taxi in the capital city of Mbuji-Mayi in the province of East Kasai, Democratic Republic of the Congo, where All Grace School is located.
A car motoring along a dirt road near the school is a rarity. Kids and their parents, about 30 total, soon began gathering and following the car. They wanted to find out what was happening.
Jimmy arrives at All Grace. He enters the school. It is in disrepair with broken windows, no electricity, an outside bathroom and cracked floors with two-by-fours holding up the tin roof. Plaster is peeled from the walls. A door to a classroom is missing.
Thieves stole the door, probably, to sell in the open market, according to the Nyembwes.
Unemployment is high in the city in an area that once was a booming diamond mining hub.
“Now people are basically living from day to day, selling stuff at market,” Jimmy said.
Munosco, the United Nations organization with a stabilization mission in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and the European Union employ a majority of the people (Jimmy estimates about 40 percent) in security, finance, human resources and administration jobs.
The rest run grocery stores, food trucks. Many sell their goods – clothing, shoes and food – in the open market.
Roadblock to education
Jimmy arrives in Africa in the dry season, with temperatures ranging from about 70 degrees to 85 degrees Fahrenheit.
The kids are neatly dressed in school uniforms. They sit behind simple, wooden desks. But the $20 trimester fees for school are a burden to some families who can’t afford to send their kids.
“I saw many kids who were not going because of them,” Jimmy said.
Jimmy’s visit is a surprise to the children. He is introduced as a donor from Minnesota who wants to give shoes to the kids. He distributes them. The children’s faces light up.
“They were very happy,” Jimmy said. “They wanted more. They thought it was a blessing because they never have had people come and give them stuff. They were satisfied and they were very gracious.”
He also gives each child three Dum Dum lollipops, an extra treat he brought from America.
When he leaves, he gives Dum Dums to the curiosity seekers waiting outside the school as well.
The cost to transport the 120 pairs of shoes to Africa by air was $854.
Was Jimmy’s effort worth it?
“Yes,” he said. To ship the shoes via a shipping service would have cost the foundation more, he said.
Also, the post office in the Congo is unreliable and the shoes may never have ended up at the school, Jimmy said.
With Jimmy personally delivering the shoes, the foundation was sure the children received them.
Jimmy plans to return to the Congo to continue the foundation’s efforts.
“We want to keep it close in our hearts to help those kids,” said Jimmy, who has three daughters, ages six, three and one with his wife, Catherine.
In addition to the Congo, the Cilongo Foundation has supported schools in Liberia, Sierra Leone, Kenya and Zambia.
Some of the shoes from the Blaine shoe drive also went to the needy in Sierra Leone and Liberia.
Some winter boots were donated to Blaine High School, which in turn donated them to the Anoka-Hennepin School District’s Family Welcome Center in Coon Rapids.
Albert Nyembwe lives by a philosophy, an old adage: “When you climb the ladder, remember those who stayed at the bottom,” he says. “Always remember people who helped you rise from the bottom to get to where you are.”
For now, a shoe drive is not being planned for this year. The foundation is figuring out ways to find funds to pay for shipment of the remainder of the shoes and to pay for children’s school fees in Africa.
Cilongo Foundation has about 500 remaining shoes to distribute, according to Albert.
“We are committed to helping these kids because we know how much they are suffering,” Albert said.
For more information or if you are interested in donating funds to the Cilongo Foundation, visit the foundation’s website at www.cilongofoundation.org or call 763-767-0986. Or send a check made out to the Cilongo Foundation, 13099 Isanti St. NE, Blaine, MN 55449.
Elyse Kaner is at