Reflections | August 28, 2018

Sharing work and soda in Burundi

Photo by Donna Parcell

As we passed the tubs of concrete along the bucket brigade, our Burundian colleagues began to sing. The song was call and response—one of them sang a line in Kirundi, and everyone yelled either Kora! (work) or Cola! (soda) in turn. We couldn’t understand exactly what the song was saying, but the meaning was clear: work hard, so we can relax together and drink a soda.

This work day was one of many during the young adult workcamp trip to Burundi in early June. Located south of Rwanda, Burundi is consistently ranked among the poorest countries in the world. In 2017, the GDP per capita was just $818, according to the International Monetary Fund. Burundi has a history of genocide, and more recently has experienced political tension. Just a week before our workcamp started, the country held a referendum that sparked election violence, resulting in the deaths of 15 people.

Burundi is incredibly beautiful, and there is a sense of life and vibrancy throughout the country. Banana trees lined the mountain roads we used to get from town to town, and villages were populated by families wearing colorful fabrics and carrying all sorts of produce. Men on bikes held on to the back of trucks for a lift up each hill, and cheerful schoolchildren walked together on their way home from classes.

This beauty stood in stark contrast to the realities of everyday life in poorer regions of the country. Even as I admired the women and children walking along the roads in their colorful patterned clothing, I was reminded that these walks were often miles long and undertaken for survival rather than recreation. Every adorable gaggle of schoolchildren was followed by another gaggle of children who weren’t wearing school uniforms. Tiny children, barefoot along dirt roads, carried their even tinier siblings on their backs. Our group saw firsthand the extreme poverty, lack of healthy political dialogue, and trauma inflicted by genocide. The joy that these Burundians displayed often disguised the harsh reality that there is a lot of humanitarian and human rights progress to be made.

In response to this need, there is a significant amount of non-governmental organization (NGO) activity, from both the international community and local organizations. Our workcamp was hosted by one of these local organizations, called Trauma Healing and Reconciliation Services (THARS). A partner of the Church of the Brethren’s Global Mission and Service office, THARS offers trauma healing and economic empowerment services to those affected by Burundi’s history of violence.

One of the programs that the Church of the Brethren funds through THARS is a mid-day meal for Twa schoolchildren. Children had been skipping school, afraid that their parents would eat meals while they were away. To increase attendance, THARS began feeding the children lunch before they went to class.

The impact of this program was made clear to me as I passed by the Twa children one afternoon. I smiled and waved at one boy as he ate, and asked in English how he was doing. Kirundi is the language most commonly spoken in the country, followed by French for business purposes, so I wasn’t expecting more than a smile and wave back. I was pleasantly surprised, then, when the boy broke into a big smile and told me he was doing very well—in English. His response was a testament to the education he is receiving.

Something that is often emphasized in modern peacebuilding and humanitarian work is the importance of local leadership and the empowerment of beneficiaries of aid. This makes the work of the US church in places like Burundi complicated. We seek to be helpful and to have a healthy dynamic between the US church and our international partners, without approaching the situation from a place of arrogance or pity. This is easier to theorize about than to accomplish.

Victoria Bateman is associate in the Church of the Brethren Office of Peacebuilding and Policy, serving through Brethren Volunteer Service.