October 12, 2021

Ending hunger in Burundi

Man with name tag standing at podium.
David Niyonzima presenting at a Mission Alive conference. Photo by Cheryl Brumbaugh-Cayford.

Global Food Initiative manager Jeff Boshart posed a series of questions to David Niyonzima, Trauma Healing and Reconciliation Services (THARS), Burundi.

In promoting psychosocial approaches to rebuilding communities after atrocities in my country – Burundi, I founded Trauma Healing and Reconciliation Services (THARS) in 2000, when I was the general superintendent and legal representative of the Burundi Quakers. As a teacher and psychotherapist, concerned with community resilience, I am still convinced that economic development and healing are necessary for the promotion of social wellbeing, lasting peace, and reconciliation. Since 2016, I am the vice chancellor of the International Leadership University-Burundi, a higher learning institution that develops leaders of integrity for a holistic transformation of the communities.

My faith impacts my work in the area of leadership. It is my understanding that I have to lead and move people to God’s agenda. My conviction is that Jesus has come so that people may have life to the fullest, physically as well as spiritually. I am not here referring to the concept of prosperity but to the fact of having enough to live on and be satisfied by it. Servanthood, as the way that Jesus calls his people to relate to one another, is what I intentionally want and pray that I may be and do. I believe that serving others and identifying with the community I serve is in alignment with Jesus’ principles of humility.

Putting myself in the same shoes as that of the people I serve is what I think will make me successful in my mission. My faith informs me of the principle of Jesus to empty oneself in order to bring about the change that is needed. Paul, in Philippians 2:7, depicts what Jesus did by “emptying himself.” I understand this to mean laying aside what might counteract my work with the community. I have a title and an education that my community might not have, but these must be laid aside and at the same time be used for their holistic transformation. 

What is the situation with hunger in Burundi, and why are there hungry people in your country? What are some of the causes of hunger?

Burundi’s long-running ethnic conflicts between Hutus and Tutsi since independence in 1962, and which continued into the late 1990s, could be one of the reasons for hunger in Burundi. In addition to trauma that caused the community to be hopeless for the future, and therefore not engage in productivity, many have fled or became displaced, which means they relied on handouts. Even though significant progress toward lasting peace occurred when a new democratic government began on Aug. 26, 2005, Burundi remains among the world’s poorest countries with a per capita annual income of just $140, according to UNICEF.

How is it that there are farming families who don’t have enough food to eat?

Economic activity and farming have been hampered by the lack of a sufficient level of political and social stability. Added to this is also the ignorance of some farming techniques for how to cultivate in small plots and produce more. Another reason is the lack of understanding that, as the family grows, with many children being added to families in smaller lands or plots, farming families might not match productivity with the growth rate.

Women represent the majority (51.5 percent) of the population and nearly half (45 percent) of the population is aged 15 or under (children below 5 represent 19.9 percent), constraining household resources. Burundi is the fourth least developed country in the world, with almost 68 percent of the population living below the poverty line. Over 94.3 percent of the population is dependent on small-holder agriculture.

What are some of the barriers that prevent people from getting out of poverty?

1. Lack of awareness of how to farm in sustainable ways. There is need for sensitization on how to farm. It must be done for sustainability of the community in order to secure strong food security.

2. Exponential growth rate with less productivity. On average, there is a trend for each household to have seven children, added to husband and wife. This number is relatively large and not proportionate to the production that is being done.

3. Ignorance of appropriate farming skills. There is need for training on appropriate farming skills such as how to utilize smaller land and work on it to produce more, the terracing of sloping lands, mulching when it is possible, planting selected seeds, etc.

4. Indifference about the necessity of taking care of the environment. Unfortunately, some people, out of ignorance, do not see their role in caring for the environment. In some parts of the country, wild fires are still observable and plastic trash is still thrown in inappropriate places including on cultivable lands.

5. In some cases, the reliance on handouts prevents people from engaging in initiatives that will get them out of poverty. There are some unfortunate cases of people whose mentality has not changed. Instead of working hard on their own they still rely on handouts. 

What’s the connection between environmental degradation, and/or climate change, and hunger?

We have observed some connections between environmental degradation, or climate change, and hunger through the implementation of the project that we named “Farming in God’s Way.” This type of farming is being practiced after people in poorer communities are trained on how to farm with respect for the creation. In doing farming this way, the farmers ensure that the environment is taken care of and not destroyed. For example, they learn that when they burn the grass instead of using it for mulching they further contribute to environmental degradation. Those who did terracing to fight soil erosion, in comparison to those who did not, realized that their environment was not degraded.

Of course, the fight against climate change is a collective initiative, but the population has to be sensitized on how to do their part. For example, practices such as the use of composting and avoiding throwing plastics everywhere, or simply avoiding plastics as much as they can, will help increase productivity and thus reduce hunger in the long run. 

Are there any connections between Burundian government or international policies and hunger in your country?

In the past, when our country did not have any policy to regulate or control the environment, when people could set wild fires on the hills in the name of allowing fresh grass for their cows, it was so sad to see that this indifference or lack of action contributed to the hunger of the population. We think that the lack of policies to disallow the substances that further reinforce the degradation of the environment was very unfortunate and caused hunger.

On a positive note, the Burundi government has decrees regarding the use of plastics and other materials that are harmful to the environment. We see the connection here as a means to keep the environment safe and keep it productive so that it may produce more. We appreciate the international policies that align themselves with those initiatives to support the production of enough food. Those projects that support food security initiatives are helpful. And here we see the World Food Organization and other international nongovernmental organizations that are helping reduce hunger in the country.

Burundi’s and the international community’s numerous initiatives and mechanisms related to war prevention and peacebuilding are key to reducing hunger in our country. We have experienced, for example, that the burning of houses, materials, and tires, and refugee situations contributed very much in increasing hunger. For example, around the refugee camps no trees would grow because the community in the camps needed them to cook the little food they could lay hands on.    

Is there more or less hunger now than there was 20-30 years ago?

I believe there is more hunger now than there was 20-30 years ago, mostly because of the growth rate of the population and urbanization which, in my opinion, does not take into account construction spaces and farming spaces. Evidently, 20-30 years ago our towns were smaller. Many people lived in villages and did farming. Even the population was smaller in number.

Now towns have grown much with less farming being done because there is no space in town to farm on. Also, people in town are expected to be fed by whatever little is produced by farmers, while the farmers are not growing enough for themselves.

Hungry people are more visible in towns than they were about 20-30 years ago. For example, there were fewer or no street children or street families during those years. Those who do not have enough food tend to think that there may be food in town because of the commercial activities going on in town.

Do you have any inspiring or hopeful stories of people who have come out of poverty and are now thriving?

The communities that have been introduced to the project of the Farmer Field School for Sustainable Development have a lot of positive insights. I know they may not say boldly that they have come out of poverty, but they can testify that they have enough to feed their families today. I have in mind Adelaide who, in addition to being helped to heal of her trauma and being trained on quilt and basket making, says that she and her children are now better off. After participating in the sessions on Farming in God’s Way, she went back and applied all she learned.

Adelaide always gives testimonies about how she has been transformed. She was widowed in 1993. Her husband was murdered, leaving her with only one daughter. Her daughter got married and has now three children. She and her husband live with Adelaide, whose house is being constructed and is about 90 percent complete. She is building her own house from the money she made as she sold her harvest. But her son-in-law lives away from their home, therefore she is the one who is providing food at her table. 

Adelaide’s case is not common because her family is smaller, but her story is compelling. We like to tell her story because she is practical, skillful as well as a visionary. She is an example of those people who moved from being desperate to being hopeful and capable of seeing her future as bright. She was empowered and worked to gain an economic resilience. Her self-esteem is raised up and she is happy. She has been learning all the skills that were taught and applied them in her own life. She learned sewing for the first time in her life and now she makes quilts, tote bags, and other clothes made out of fabrics, which she is selling to get her out of poverty. 

As a devout Christian she thanks God for saving her life, both spiritually and physically. She is so happy to be in God’s will and still continues to express her Christian faith to others about the change that she got out those programs. In addition to this, she says that as she was moving from poverty to economic resilience it became easier to forgive those who killed her husband. Poverty reinforced thoughts of revenge because she thought that if her husband were still alive she would not be in material misery.   

What are some solutions to ending hunger in Burundi?

The environmental degradation has to be stopped, as a joint effort of national and international concerned bodies. Some efforts will have to be done on higher levels, like the international lobbies on climate change, but others will have to be done on local levels, like the reduction or stopping use of chemical fertilizers that destroy nutrients which help the soil to produce enough to feed communities.

Appropriate farming technologies must be introduced. These must be in alignment with farming that respects the creation, and communities must be sensitized to get involved wholeheartedly. Non-governmental organizations like THARS should be supported to continue making a difference in this regard.  

This is a hard question in the sense that ending hunger in Burundi will be a process that will take joint actions. Burundians themselves will have to stand up and change their mentality and get a new worldview that takes into account what we have said above. There will be need for the government to help encourage the population through intensive sensitization that hunger can be ended if everyone tries to remove causes of war and conflicts.

I could end from where I started. As we said, when there was war in the country people did not work and therefore were hungry. Also traumatized people see no need to work because for them the future is blurry. Trauma must be healed in order for the economic development to take place, because no trauma healing means no wellbeing.

Hunger can be ended in Burundi.