Learning to Reach for the Top

Grade 11 Bulletinsjpg

A new school year has begun, and I’m happy to report that all our high school students passed their year and advanced, by no means a foregone conclusion even for bright, hard-working young people in Burundi’s dysfunctional education system. We held a party in July for Estella, Claude, and Gertrude, the three students we’re supporting in senior high school, who came 3rd, 5th, and 7th in their class. The girls’ families made the long bus trip down from Mutaho to join us for the party, bringing two chickens the fathers had promised us after the meeting we held on Workers’ Day in May to address serious domestic conflict in Gertrude’s family. Gertrude has since spent a good summer with her family,End SY Dinner where she tells us that all the children have been getting along better with her father and step-mother. I’m so grateful for this small miracle of domestic transformation. It shows me the real value of what we’re doing – not just funding young people’s education at arm’s length, but actively following their progress and maintaining contact with their families.


BeachOver the summer, our wonderful counselor, Sister Emmanuella, worked on another minor miracle – obtaining permission from the Ministry of Education to transfer Estella, Claude and Gertrude into the state lycée system. Herself the Bursar at one of the country’s top lycées, Sr Emmanuella had been telling me since last year that we needed to move them into this more rigorous track so they could better compete for places at the national university after Grade 13. Moving them was easier said than done. First, Sr. Emmanuella used her personal capital to obtain promises of three Grade 12 places in public lycées: one for Claude in aSr Emmanuella state supported boarding school, and two for the girls in one of Bujumbura’s best lycées. Before they could be admitted, however, we had to gather six separate documents from their junior high and primary schools to obtain the all-important letter of transfer from the Ministry of Education. They’re all in their new schools now, adjusting to the higher standards of academic performance and discipline. Sr. Emmanuella, already a very busy school administrator and now the superior of her religious community, worked all through August and half of September to make this possible. One of the things I love most about her is that every time I thank her for what she’s doing for us, she says, “No, it’s I who thank you for caring about our children.” Many people in this resource-poor country will not lift a finger for anyone outside their family network. Not so Sr. Emmanuella!

Kids with suppliesSo we’ve moved the girls into new housing in Bujumbura, and sent Claude off to boarding school with supplies we hastily bought one evening in Bujumbura. After some initial fear about moving to a new school without his former classmates, Claude is now very happy at Lycée Muramvya, where he tells us that he’s following well in class and making friends. The girls are still adjusting to Lycée Scheppers in Bujumbura, as their transfer was held back a little longer than Claude’s. They’ve got a lot of notes to copy out from missed classes, and are still trying to break into the social network. I remind them that it was also difficult for them at the beginning Hands Over Headof last year, before they’d had a chance to make new friends. And they have each other, unlike Claude, who had to brave a new school alone. Most of all, though, I tell them to remember why they’re in school – to develop their skills and their very real gifts of intelligence and perseverance to the highest level. Coming from the poverty and isolation of their hills in rural Burundi, they could never have dreamed of attending one of the best lycées in the nation’s capital. Rural girls are taught to set their sights so low. One of the most important things we’re doing is to tell them to reach for the top. And to show them by our joint efforts – Burundian and North American – that they’re worthy of the highest opportunities.

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Surgery in Rural Burundi

Three weeks ago, I had thyroid surgery at Kibuye Hospital in Gitega dressing changeProvince, right in the center of Burundi. A wonderful and generous American ENT surgeon, Dr. Mike McGee, operated free of charge, and he and his family looked after me in their home on the hospital campus after the operation until I was well enough to go back to Bujumbura, where I’m recovering nicely.

SoavisThis has been a great experience for me. Other than having my wisdom teeth out, I’d never had surgery before. I feel as though I’ve been reborn — given back my life after three hours with my throat slit open, and half a vital organ cut out. The valiant remaining lobe of my thyroid continues to produce the right amount of thyroid hormone, Choir Dancethe incision is healing, and I’m recovering more strength and energy daily. My one great sacrifice is that I’m not allowed to sing again until September. I really miss my choir, feel less connected to worship without being able to lift my voice, and am forever having to cut myself off at home as I begin to warble something to lift my spirits. I’ve decided to make up for it by dancing twice as much. I don’t have a recent dancing photo, but here I am going off-stage with my choir at a concert we gave in April.

Women on pathThis experience has also deepened my relationship with Burundi, a country I’ve now lived in for over five years. Kibuye Hospital is in the north-central region where I spent my first four years in Burundi. I went for a walk in the late afternoon the day before my surgery, greeting people and sinking back into the rural Burundi I love: the red dirt, the unfired brick houses, the women in colorful wraps with babies on their backs, loads on their heads, and hoes over their shoulders, the children in their ragged after-school clothes calling out with shy giggles for a stranger, the men hanging out at the cabarets or leading theirPascal & Haciyimana goats home for the night. After nearly a year in the capital, it felt like coming home. The next morning, as I lay on the operating table waiting for the anesthetic to take effect, I chatted softly in Kirundi with Dukundane (“Let Us Love One Another”) the site-trained anesthesiologist and Haciyimana (“God Dropped By Here”), another mission-trained OR attendant who is also a Twa man. I came to Burundi to work at a school for Twa (pygmies), and it was such a comfort to me to hear his voice as I went under.

Macy DressingThe other great sound of comfort was 20-year-old Macy McGee and her friends Chelsea McKee and Macall Leslie humming “It is well with my soul,” the last thing I sang before beginning my long singing hiatus. Macy held my head throughout the operation to keep me from getting blood in my hair. Chelsea apparently sewed the last stitch in my incision, and the three of them took turns sitting with me and taking my vital signs every 15 minutesRecovery Table for the rest of the day, speaking words of encouragement, and helping me make it through the only really hard part of the process, my three hours of recovery time next to the OR on a board with a rock under my head. “My tongue is lonely,” I told them as I came back into consciousness with a terrible thirst and an ache in every muscle of my back. “Can’t I please lie on my side?” When the whole family came to take me back to the house, I realized why they’d raised my head. I had no more neck strength than a newborn baby. As they hoisted me into a wheelchair, I stole a peak at the board with the rock. It was a perfectly serviceable medical table with a raised end.

Leann & JodiI spent the next few days recovering with the McGee family in a small brick house that reminded me a lot of my own home upcountry at Burasira seminary. Their loving care and conversation did as much for me as any medicine might have. Leann McGee had served in the chaplaincy at Nairobi University in the 1970s and 1980s, and I loved hearing about her work there during a tumultuous period in Kenya and neighboring Uganda. Between volunteering in the hospital, playing volleyball with the medical students, and doing a video exercise class called “Insanity,” the girlsCookies helped me with my throat dressing, talked to me about literature, and shared their great spirit of fun and adventure. I’m sometimes discouraged by the self-absorption and self-promotion of young Americans who claim to be coming to serve small, vulnerable nations like Burundi. These girls were a great antidote to that: truly dedicated to the significant work they were doing in the hospital, genuinely interested in Burundi’s people and culture, and perfectly normal young adults figuring out what path they will take in life. Macy is preparing to be a physiotherapist. Macall is a pre-med student. Chelsea (who just finished high school) wants to study nursing. They will all be great.

AngeOne of my great joys was visiting with other patients in the hospital, particularly other women who’d had thyroid surgery. Most of them had had grapefruit-sized goiters removed. My nodule was smaller and internal, but it had apparently already pushed my esophagus and windpipe together and toward the back of my throat. One woman with a bandaged throat gave me a grinHope of Africa with two thumbs up when she saw my incision, and I knew just what she was feeling: Victory! We had both made the decision to risk surgery in that little hospital, and we had both come through. Right before we passed the point of no return and stepped into the operating room, we saw the same small sign pinned up over two sinks. She probably couldn’t read it, and mightn’t have understood the English words if she had. But I did. I took them with me into surgery, and I carry them with me still. They’re the name of the hospital, and the 10-year-old university in Bujumbura that now sponsors it: Hope of Africa.

That’s why I’m still here in Burundi, still working to support bright, disadvantaged youth in their struggle to get a decent education, still training teachers to serve them better. Hope of Africa. Hope of Burundi, a tiny country in the heart of this great continent, which has once again been ranked the poorest nation in the world. I’m so honored to be able to participate in this hope, and to have been given a concrete opportunity share it with some brave and tenacious women on the ground I love.Eugénie & Fidessa

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Teaching at the University of Burundi

NB This post is about my work as a State Department English Language Fellow at the University of Burundi, rather than my direct work with On the Ground in Burundi. I wanted to share the experience on this site to give you an idea of the challenges facing Burundian education at every level. The views expressed in my blog are my own, and do not necessarily reflect those of the State Department or the University of Burundi.
Jodi at board
This week, I was scheduled to begin teaching a course on 19th-century American literature at the University of Burundi. It’s a challenging assignment, as there are more than 200 students in the class, and they don’t have any books. After talking with a Cameroonian colleague who usually teaches the course, I saw the wisdom of making up a syllabus of short stories. Students could afford to photocopy them from old anthologies in the English Department library, and would have time to read them in the compressed schedule the department uses, where we often teach a 30-hour course in two weeks.

Yellow Wall-paperIt would also allow them to read a range of authors spanning the century, from Washington Irving, who was born in the last year of the Revolutionary War, to Charlotte Perkins Gilman, who was an active proponent of the feminist movement at the turn of the 20th century. The short story was arguably invented by the American writers Nathaniel Hawthorne and Edgar Allan Poe in this period, so it’s a genuinely American form, created in the new nation rather than adapted from older European models. I was excited to share this material with Burundian students, whose country celebrated its 50th anniversary of independence last year in 2012. Some of them are aspiring writers, and I wanted them to see how Americans had risen to the challenge of creating a national literature in their first full century of independence.

AmphitheatreAfter pouring over anthologies, making hard choices, reading up on the period and meditating on how to shape the course, I received the discouraging news that the students had begun another strike because their state bursaries had not been paid in two months. These are regular occurrences at the university of Burundi, where most students are from the poor rural interior, and can’t afford to attend university without some state support. It seemed for a moment that an exception might be made for my course, since I’m a visiting professor, but when I arrived to give my opening lecture, only a dozen of the 200+ students in the class were sitting in the amphitheatre.

NegotiatingMany of the others were outside under a tree near one of their dormitories, talking with their class representative. I asked if I could speak to them, and they agreed. I told them how much I wanted to teach their class again, a strong group whom I taught twice last year, and why I was particularly excited to share the American literature of this period with them. They responded that they also wanted to take another course with me, and were especially keen to be taught American literature by an American. But without their bursaries, they wouldn’t be able to eat enough to concentrate in class, nor would they have the money to make photocopies of the readings I wanted to assign them. Furthermore, many of their classmates had returned to their homes upcountry when the strike began, and would not return until it was resolved.

I accepted that we could not begin the course under these conditions. The students were hopeful, however, that they would receive their bursaries by the end of the week, which would bring their absent classmates back to the capital. If the course could begin the following week (May 27th), and run for two weeks without any parallel classes, they were confident they could attend lectures in the mornings and do the reading in the afternoons. We could finish in time for me to keep a teacher-training commitment I have in mid-June, and still examine them and mark all their (200+) exam papers before the end of my teaching fellowship in early July. We’re still waiting to hear from the chair of the English department about whether this can all be scheduled as we’d like, but it was at least a hopeful and cordial end to our negotiations. If the strike resolves as they expect, I hope to be with them in the amphitheatre next Monday. If not, we’ll meet again under the tree and see what we can work out. If nothing else, it’s a beautiful place to talk. J + Students under Tree

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Fathers and Daughters

Yesterday we celebrated International Workers’ Day in Burundi. Although it was a national holiday, On the Ground in Burundi worked hard with two of our students and their fathers to address a domestic problem that was becoming increasingly serious. I taught these students when I lived in rural Burundi, and know them and their fathers well. During their last year of junior high school, the community had been concerned about beatings one of them was receiving from her father, which even by rural norms were deemed to be severe and unwarranted. So we were particularly pleased to be able to offer her lodging and tuition at a private school in Burundi’s capital Bujumbura for senior high school.

During Christmas vacation, Gertrude had felt unwelcome at home, and a few days into Easter vacation, she fled her father’s house after he beat her for no reason she could understand. Concerned as we were for her distress, we nevertheless encouraged her to spend at least one night at home before returning to school. When she returned to Bujumbura without having done so, we worried about whether she would be able to go home at the end of the school year in early July.

Fortunately, I ran into Gertrude’s father Gerard during a recent trip upcountry. Taking my courage in both hands, I broached the subject with him in my far from perfect Kirundi, and he agreed to come to Bujumbura on the Workers’ Day holiday to meet with us and his daughter. Philippe, the father of our student Estella, accompanied him, and we invited the pastor from the girls’ church in Bujumbura to join us for the meeting.

It started slowly and awkwardly, as it was bound to do, but really took off under Pastor Eli’s leadership. He’s a senior member of the Quaker church in Burundi, and has a lot of experience in conflict transformation and reconciliation. Using humor, gentle insistence with Gertrude, understanding exchanges with Gerard, and generous examples from his own family of adolescent children, he opened the way for father and daughter to agree to moderate their behavior on both sides. I was particularly moved when Estella’s father Philippe intervened to emphasize the importance of dialogue between parents and children, as I remembered an incident three years ago when he had beaten his own daughter quite severely. I’d noted the improvement in their relationship since, which was strongly evident in the relaxed and affectionate way they interacted during our meeting.

As we came to the end of our 2.5-hour meeting, Gérard expressed his thanks, saying that he’d worried that the situation was beyond mending. We said we’d had similar concerns, and were so grateful that he and Philippe had made the long bus journey to Bujumbura on the holiday — a testament to how much they both love their daughters. Pastor Eli went home to his family, and the rest of us enjoyed a meal prepared by Gertrude, Estella, and Claude, the senior high school students we’re sponsoring in Bujumbura. We also took the opportunity to share the students’ report cards with their fathers, as they had left for vacation before they were ready. All three are passing, and Philippe was particularly pleased to see that Estella came second in her class. Later that afternoon, we went for a walk in the neighborhood and onto the University of Burundi campus to show the fathers where I teach. Although Gerard and Gertrude weren’t as cozy as Estella and her father, they did talk a bit, and we’re optimistic about improvement in their relationship (and the treatment of other sisters still at home) over time.

I’d been looking forward to a quiet day by the lake on Workers’ Day, after several busy weeks of grading and travel for workshops and a conference. But at the end of a hot, humid afternoon indoors trying to follow a multi-person conversation in Kirundi, I couldn’t have been happier. It’s such a privilege to play a role in helping families educate their children under challenging circumstances. I’m especially happy to be able to intervene on behalf of rural girls, who fall by the wayside in secondary school precisely because of pressure and misunderstandings at home. As concerned as I’ve been about the way he treats his daughter, I also like and admire Gerard, a self-made man with a 6th-Grade education who is responding philosophically to the recent looting of his store upcountry. I look forward to the day when I can see the same warmth between him and Gertrude that I now observe between Estella and her father, who has promised to continue to counsel Gerard when they return home. But my real reward was to hear the laughter come back into Gertrude, Estella, and Claude, who had all been sharing the burden of worrying about Gertrude’s situation. I’d trade any number of lake days for that.

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We held a party this weekend to celebrate the graduation of three girls and one Twa boy I taught at the Hope School of Nyangungu during my first two years in rural Burundi. They all passed the state exam at the end of Grade 10, but because the Hope School had never sent candidates before, they were not accorded places in the local senior high schools. They found this out less than a week before school started. The Hope School’s founding organization focused on finding places for the local Twa youth (all boys) who had passed, and On the Ground in Burundi looked for places for two girls and one Twa boy from another province, promising to cover school fees and supplies, uniforms, healthcare, and room and board for a year. I am very happy to report that all three just completed their first week of 11th Grade at a senior high school in Bujumbura, where they live about a half-hour walk from my own new home in Burundi’s capital city. We gathered at my home on Saturday to celebrate their achievement, and to reconnect with two of their former teachers from Nyangungu who are now at the national university, and another young woman from Nyangungu whom we’re supporting in her fourth year of medical school. As we went around the room sharing our family histories in education, we learned that only one had an older sibling who had gone to senior high school. The university students were all the first in their families to make it to that level. Here are some snapshots of our senior high pioneers.

Jean-Claude Mbonimpa is a remarkable Twa boy from Cibitoke Province in the west of Burundi. When the Hope School brought a group of Twa youth from this province to study in north-central Burundi for two years, they elected Claude as the head student of their fledgling boarding facility. He led them faithfully through conflicts with the administration over religious freedom (many, including Claude, were Seventh Day Adventists), regular shortfalls in their food budget (I once discovered they’d gone four days without a meal), and the inevitable internal struggles between young people living under nearly impossible circumstances. When the boarding experiment failed after two years, Claude made his way to Nyangungu on his own and found a family to live with so he could finish Tenth Grade there. He has tremendous initiative, intelligence, and faith. When I consider who might be the first Twa President of Burundi, I think of Claude, pictured here with Aaron Hakizimana, one of his former Hope School teachers who’s now training formally at the national university to be a high school English teacher.

Estella Niyonsenga and Gertrude Manishimwe have been in school together since 5th Grade, when Estella’s family returned from a refugee camp in Tanzania. Gertrude is the oldest girl in a large family, and Estella, the eldest child of nine. That means they bear the brunt of their mothers’ overwork, and don’t get much time to study at home. Both were strong students when I taught them in Seventh and Eighth Grades at the Hope School, with Estella being particularly brilliant in everything from her academic subjects to music, drawing, and public speaking. She was also the only girl who would speak up in Human Rights class to defend her sex against some of the charges the (more than twice as many) boys would make: that girls lied about the fathers of their babies; that their enrolments fell off in high school because they were lazy; that they seduced their teachers to get good marks. As Estella and Gertrude moved into Ninth and Tenth Grades, where regular study at home is essential, I heard that both had started falling behind and even failing some subjects in which they’d previously excelled. Their principal blamed their home situations, although I think more could have been done at school to support and encourage them. Through sheer determination, they managed to make the grade to get into senior high school. When the Hope School graduates didn’t get placed in a local senior high school, I asked their former teacher Aaron to go up to Nyangungu and talk to Estella and Gertrude and their families about studying in Bujumbura. The girls came down the day before school started, accompanied by their fathers, who had come with them “to manifest their joy” at this opportunity for their daughters. When they arrived, I was surprised and delighted as Gertrude, normally shy and reserved, burst through the door and gave me a big hug.

I am so happy to have these bright girls and Claude in senior high school in Bujumbura, where they can devote themselves wholeheartedly to their studies and begin to imagine a broader range of things they might do with their lives. Thank you so much for your continuing support, which makes it possible for us to help these young people prepare a better future for themselves and their country.

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School’s out in Burundi for the summer, and I’ve been making the rounds of proclamation days. The Hope School of Nyangungu graduated its first group of Tenth Graders this year, seven of whom did well enough on the national exam to advance into the specialized tracks of senior high school. These rural girls and boys (including four Twa boys, but alas no Twa girls) have balloted to major in fields ranging from paramedical studies to law, information technology, primary school teaching, and general humanities.

After the ceremony, I joined Jérémie Ndikumana, the local education administrator, and Béatrice Munezero, the Hope School’s founder, at the annual staff party, where we shared drinks and barbecued shish kebabs of local goat meat before breaking out into swing dancing after a round of speeches celebrating the achievements of another school year.

A week later, I was across the river at Gitamo Primary School on my own hill, where I’d been told the proclamation ceremony would start at 9:00 a.m. Teachers were still filling in bulletins when I arrived at 10:00, and the principal was more or less imprisoned in his office by the throngs of parents eager to register their children for First Grade next year. This crucial year is the hardest hit by Burundi’s unmanageable education demographics. Some schools can have as many as 400 first-graders register, and must struggle to recruit extra teachers and find classroom space so that they can at least study half-days in smaller groups (which still often exceed 80 per class). Nation-wide, nearly 40% of First Graders fail their year, and another 14% drop out — a real challenge to Burundi’s goal of universal primary education by 2015.

As I joined the parents, pupils, and older brothers and sisters gathering “kwumva amanota” (to hear their grades), I wondered how much the detailed and minutely calculated school bulletins over which the teachers were laboring actually convey to parents (many of whom are illiterate), or even to most primary school pupils. Yet when they were finally handed out, the bulletins proved to be objects of keen interest to everyone.

It was mid-afternoon when we were finally done kwumva amanota for the 1000+ pupils of Gitamo Primary School. I walked up the road with the teachers and members of the school management committee to the local administrator’s cabaret, where we shared drinks, shish kebabs, roasted green bananas, and cabbage salad. On an earlier visit to the school, I’d noticed that construction had begun on a much needed additional classroom, to be financed mostly by parents’ donations of materials and labor. They’d had to dig the school garden under, however, to make room for the classroom, and were thus losing a small source of income. That had gotten me thinking about my own half acre, a five-minute walk down the main road from the school. I’d conferred with the principal about it, and during the speeches at the cabaret, I announced that I would be giving the school the use of my land for a year to see if they could make any money from farming it. A few days later, we went to inspect it with the principal, Aimable Nkundwa, and the chief of Gitamo Hill, Sylvestre Nzeyimana, who is also a member of the school management committee. My only condition was that they not use chemical fertilizers. They said they’d be asking children to bring in compost or ash instead on planting days. They’re going to repair the fencing at the bottom (which has suffered from the depredations of local goat farmers), manure the banana trees I’ve planted in my irrigation ditches, and farm the rest with cassava root as a cash crop, and beans to enrich the soil. I’m thrilled to know that my little itongo (piece of land) will be farmed now by the community, and helping contribute to education on my hill.

I’m sometimes filled with consternation when I consider the overall education picture in Burundi, particularly rural Burundi, with its inadequate school infrastructure, unmanageable class sizes, heartbreaking failure and dropout rates, and lack of the most basic teaching and learning materials. Yet when I see school staff pouring over the gift of a bilingual French-English dictionary, and the joy of a whole community over the possibility of using my small piece of land for a year, I realize how little it takes to encourage adults and children alike to persevere and make something out of what few resources they have. I remember that this is a country less than a decade out of brutal civil war that raged for as many as fifteen years. I consider that the joint efforts of government, international organizations, and local communities have already built more than 11,000 classrooms since 2005, and will build another 9,000 over the next three years. And I start to believe that maybe Burundi may hit its target of universal primary education by 2015 after all. It’s certainly a worthy goal to be striving for. The effort itself is worth celebrating.

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The art of conversation is one of the things that makes us human, and we start learning it in our earliest years. The teachers I’ve been training to teach the new primary school English curriculum have told me that one of their personal development goals is to be able to have a conversation in English. They’d like to learn common expressions, as well as some sayings and proverbs, which are very important to significant conversation in Kirundi. They’ve also told me they’d like to be able to tell a story in English, or discuss something they’ve read.

Out of these requests, I developed a teachers’ conversation group for the middle term of Burundi’s school year. We used a young reading collection of Aesop’s Fables as our text, filled with common English idioms (to take a closer look; he breathed a sigh of relief; not if I can help it!), and of course some of our most cherished sayings: One good turn deserves another; Slow but steady wins the race; If at first you don’t succeed, try, try, try again. I would stop in the middle of a fable to ask teachers to speculate on how the drama would work out.
Question: The ant knew the dove was in trouble, but what could he do?
(1) He could call to the man and say, “Stop!” and the man would look to see who had called him and the dove would fly away. (Léocadie Bakundukize)
(2) He could bite the man, and then the man would lose his balance and the dove would fly away. (Nazaire Nshizirungu)
These are pretty sophisticated answers in terms of grammar and syntax, and we would spend some time working out the tense sequences together. Then we’d read the end of the fable and discuss the moral. (The equivalent of One good turn deserves another in Kirundi means something like A good thing gets the load taken off its own head by another — Ineza yiturwa iyindi.)

To practise the expressions learned in the fables, the teachers would act them out in small groups, appreciating and reinforcing one another’s efforts. Helpless ants were rescued by wise and loving doves, while vain crows were flattered out of their cheese by wily foxes.

At the excellent suggestion of the teachers, we also went on a nature walk one afternoon, learning to name what we saw, and to talk about the essential activities of rural Burundi, namely, farming and raising animals. We began in my backyard with herbs and salad greens, and then moved on to the fruit trees and animals at the seminary next door. We had lots to compare notes on, from farming to cooking to close calls with bulls.

Human beings have been having conversations like this for thousands of years.

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The Great Lakes Region of Africa

Girls from rural Burundi on the shore of Lake Tanganyika after receiving eye exams and glasses in the capital Bujumbura.

I was born in the Great Lakes Region of North America, in London, Ontario, about an hour’s drive from Lakes Huron, Erie, and Ontario. I now live in the Great Lakes Region of Africa, a little over three hours’ drive from Lake Tanganyika. Burundi is nestled against the eastern shore of Lake Tanganyika, with its capital Bujumbura at the northern tip. On clear days, the mountains of Eastern Congo offer a gorgeous vista across the Lake, reminding me of when our family lived in Lausanne when I was girl, and we could see the Alps of eastern France across Lac Léman (Lake Geneva) from our apartment balcony. I’ve come to love Tanganyika, and am always a little surprised not to taste or smell salt when I dive into this vast body of water. I’ve also visited Lake Kivu in Rwanda, another natural border with Eastern Congo, whose beautiful, faded city of Bukavu I contemplated from the Rwandan side in Cyangugu. Kampala offered me a glimpse of Lake Victoria, and my hope is eventually to follow the Rift Valley as far south as Lakes Malawi and Nyasa.

The Great Lakes Region of Africa stops short of Malawi and Mozambique, however, and is generally understood to comprise Burundi, Rwanda, (Eastern) Congo, Tanzania, Uganda, and Kenya. It’s the region where our species originated, and has thus known humans longer than any other part of Earth. In more recent years, it has also been the site of terrible conflict and human devastation. Burundi’s long civil war, Rwanda’s genocide, the multinational war of the late 1990s and early 2000s in Eastern Congo that may have taken over three million lives, the post-election violence in Kenya in 2007-2008, and twenty years of child abduction and warfare in Northern Uganda — it’s a grim list. Add to it South Sudan, across the border from Uganda, and you have a recent chronicle of human misery that probably cannot be surpassed anywhere in the world. Only Tanzania has managed to establish a stable and peaceful society, although still a very poor one.

The people of the Great Lakes Region understand that their precarious stability depends very much on what is happening in neighboring nations, and have been developing regional organizations and programs to study and reinforce peace in the region. Since 2009, I’ve been participating in one of these programs. It’s called the Great Lakes Initiative, and is sponsored by the Center for Reconciliation of Duke Divinity School, along with some partner organizations in the region. Representatives of the Great Lakes countries meet once a year for study, prayer, sharing, and a pilgrimage to an inspirational site. This year, we spent a week together in Kampala. I went as part of the Burundian delegation, and also as a French/English translator. In our morning plenary sessions, we heard reports from the different countries participating. Here are some of the comments that most struck me. From South Sudan: “Corruption is as serious a concern for us as terrorism for the United States; 75-85% of funds can’t be traced.” From Kenya, regarding upcoming national elections in 2012, the first since the violence after the 2007 elections: “Inside, the Kenyan person is still not healed, despite programs, structures, and tribunals since the post-election violence. Kenya is in deep groaning still.” From Congo: “Congo has become a sanctuary of rape.”

After translating plenary sessions in the morning, I participated in an afternoon seminar for leaders of educational institutions. Our group included Congolese, Ugandans, Tanzanians, South Sudanese, Burundians, and Americans. Our leader (the rector of a university) began provocatively with these words: “I hate schools. I hate education. Education is dangerous. So much of the turbulence in the Great Lakes Region comes out of education, especially higher education.” Responding to his invitation, we catalogued all the things we deplore in education in the region: the harshly punitive environment of most schools; the high failure rates, suggesting that failure itself is a goal of the system; the mutual fear of learners and teachers; the sexual exploitation of girls; the pitiful remuneration of teachers; the emphasis on rote learning and obedience rather than discovery and creative thinking; the rigid and unrealistic requirements established by administrative bodies; the culture of corruption. Then we were asked to imagine an ideal educational institution, one in which we would like to serve. After several minutes of silent reflection, we each shared one element of our vision. Here they are: no distinction between faculty and staff; all children go to school, and the whole population knows how to read and write; a system that isn’t too bookish and theoretical, that prepares a child to learn practical skills they can do something with; a dedicated group of colleagues; early childhood development as a base; qualified faculty in all disciplines; a university producing graduates of high moral uprightness; more universities and secondary schools; state salaries for teachers; a continued celebration of difference and a decrease in division.

The leader of our seminar, Dr. David Kasali, does more than talk about his vision of education. In 2007, his organization, Congo Initiative, founded a new university in Beni, North Kivu Province of the Democratic Republic of Congo: Université Chrétienne Bilingue du Congo (UCBC). It’s the only university in Congo that uses English as well as French as the language of instruction, and it graduated its first class in 2011. After the Great Lakes Initiative Leadership Institute in Kampala, I visited UCBC in Eastern Congo at the invitation of David and his wife Kaswera Kasali, with whom I spent an inspiring week that gave me hope for the whole region. UCBC’s goal is to transform Congo by raising up a generation of transformed young people. One of the key elements in this process is taking on gender inequality and the oppression of women and girls — the situation that led the spokesperson of the Congolese delegation to the Great Lakes Institute to say that their country has become a sanctuary of rape. I met with a group of young women studying at the university who told me they felt it was the only institution in the country where they could be safe from sexual harassment and violence on campus. During classes I visited or taught myself, I was impressed at both the number and the lively participation of women studying at UCBC. The staff told me that women’s enrollments go up each year, and that they have also seen a marked rise in the level and assurance of women’s participation. Great work, UCBC! Look at what can be done in only four years.

During the Great Lakes Institute in Kampala, we heard other stories of how people in the region are creatively transforming situations of violence, injustice, and extreme poverty. That gave us things to celebrate as well as lament. I’m impressed at how the Great Lakes Institute makes room for both, neither glossing over the real and long-standing afflictions of the region, nor sinking into despair. It gives me faith in the capacity of our species to adapt and transform itself once again in the region of our birth.

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Teaching Teachers

Jodi with teachers Dorothée Nizigiyimana, Audace Ciza, Léocadie Bakundukize, and Diomède Shimirimana at Gitamo Primary School

Those who can’t do, teach; those who can’t teach, teach teachers. . . . I don’t think so. I love teachers the world over and am eager to help those in rural Burundi in any way I can. When I reflect on my own teaching conditions over fifteen years at Wellesley College, I’m deeply humbled by the dedication and resourcefulness of teachers in rural Burundi. They face so many challenges: classes of 70 – 80 young children squeezed into spaces meant for 50; class time lost to heavy rains that either keep children from coming on time or interrupt lessons because of the din on the roof and the darkness in unlit classrooms; high levels of absenteeism among pupils whose malnutrition brings on frequent illnesses; and the difficulty of introducing pupils to a European language they hear nowhere but school (French), and which becomes the sole language of instruction by the Fifth Grade.

Added to these challenges is the new one of integrating a Francophone country into the East Africa Community, where English and Swahili are the international languages. The Burundian government has responded by requiring English and Swahili to be taught in every grade of primary school. Each year, they train a small group of teachers (theoretically one per school, but in fact far fewer) to teach the next grade level of English or Swahili. But most primary school teachers have no training in these new languages, and often no idea of how to pronounce even the simplest lessons in counting, classrooms objects, or greetings. As responsible professionals, they’re acutely aware of their shortcomings. And as residents of East Africa, they’re eager to develop their personal capacities to communicate with Kenyans, Ugandans, and Tanzanians in the common language of English.

So in January, in response to numerous requests from teachers, I developed and taught an intensive English course for them. Participants came from five different schools in two provinces to meet at the Gitamo Primary School in the afternoons. I used poems and songs to build confidence and capacity in English pronunciation, intonation, and speech rhythms. We began a lesson on clothing with A. A. Milne’s wonderful stomp, Happiness: “John had Great Big Waterproof BOOTS on, John had a Great Big Waterproof HAT, John had a Great Big Waterproof MACKINTOSH, and THAT (said John) is THAT!” The class was delighted to learn to sing Sam Cooke’s classic pop song, “Wonderful World,” which helped them learn and pronounce school subjects in English (Hi-sto-ry, not Hee-sto-ry; Bie-aw-luh-gy, not Bee-o-lo-jee): “Don’t know much about History, Don’t know much Biology, Don’t much about a Science book, Don’t much about the French I took . . . ”

Participants also loved the picture books that some of you have generously given me. Grow, Tree, Grow, with its simple text, was great for reading aloud and teaching about the four seasons we experience in the northern hemisphere, so that the terms Spring, Summer, Fall, and Winter might have some meaning for people living five degrees from the equator in alternating rainy and dry seasons. Two books beautifully illustrated with Caribbean scenes presented more recognizable images of rural markets, banana-farming, and family gatherings that might be in Burundi. They also allowed us to work on the present continuous tense that we use so often in English: What are they doing? — They’re loading bananas into the lorry. — What’s happening? — The people are waving flags and celebrating independence.

Audace Ciza and Salathiel Barasumbana consider Jodi’s question, with curious onlookers at the classroom door.

I also taught action songs and games to use in class. Simon Says was a big hit with the teachers, who enjoyed stumping one another, and equally with the school children and others passers-by who crowded against the windows to watch them, grinning and laughing as they observed the leaders of their community bending to touch their toes, jumping up and down, or waving their hands over their heads. Lots of good action verbs, and of course, the parts of the body in English. We drew our biggest crowds after class, though, when I opened my laptop outside to see if I could get online with my thumb drive modem. That’s one of the beauties of teaching teachers — you know that everything they learn will reach a whole community.


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Christmas in Burundi

Merry Christmas and Happy New Year! I spent Christmas in a remarkable place called Buta, nestled into a landscape of gentle hills in southern Burundi. Over the last decade or so, Buta has become a pilgrimage site where people come to pray and honor the memory of a group of high school students who stood together against the inter-ethnic violence that ravaged Burundi during its long civil war. On April 30th, 1997, their boarding school was attacked at dawn by one of the armed groups that terrorized Burundi during the civil war. After several hours of machine-gun fire, the attackers descended the hill from which they’d been shelling the school and surrounded the senior dormitory. When they entered, they ordered the students to separate by ethnicity so they could kill the group they considered to be their enemies. The students, who had recently returned from an eight-day retreat emphasizing unity, refused to separate, saying that they were all sons of God. After three futile attempts to make them separate, the attackers opened fire on all the students, killing forty and wounding others.

This may not seem like holiday reading. But what I want to share with you is what has grown from the sacrificial love these students expressed for one another in the moment of truth when they refused to be separated. Buta now has a sanctuary in their honor, called Martyrs to Fraternity, where Burundians of all backgrounds gather to pray for lasting peace and justice in their country. I had the joy and privilege of attending mass there on Christmas Eve in a standing-room-only assembly enlivened by girls’ and boys’ dance groups and a wonderful youth choir. The day before, I greeted some of the current students at Buta as they waited for their rides at the end of the fall term. They were as excited as young people anywhere preparing to go home for Christmas.


After the Mass on Christmas Eve, I joined the community at the Monastery of Mary Queen of Peace, just up the road. The monastery has been founded by Father Zacharie Bukuru, who was principal of Buta at the time of the massacre. Father Zacharie’s book, Les 40 Jeunes Martyrs de Buta (Karthala 2004), describes how he worked with his students over a period of years to create a culture of peace at Buta, reviving traditional dance and other cultural activities that would draw students together as Burundians, and spending long hours with them in the evenings to hear and transform the messages of hatred and violence that many were hearing in their families as the civil war took its toll. Near the end of his book, Father Zacharie affirms that certain students came to the point where they could offer their lives after a long work of inner peace-building — “Certains élèves en sont venus à offrir leur vie au term d’un long travail d’apaisement intérieur.”

Father Zacharie himself is no stranger to this work. In the days and weeks that followed the massacre, he prevailed upon the local community and the army not to take the kind of indiscriminate ethnic reprisals that often followed such events during the civil war. He himself has long forgiven the attackers who killed students whom he loved and had formed over a period of years, and has founded his monastery to pray and work for peace and stability in Burundi. Nearing sixty now, he is a man of radiant joy, mischievous humor, and complete commitment to the ongoing transformation of Burundi. As he beamed at the dancers on Christmas Eve, I was reminded of a comment made to me by an official during the ceremony to open the road project near my home in northern Burundi. Gesturing toward a group of women dancers, the official turned to me and said, “This is how Burundians will heal themselves.” To be sure, it takes more than dancing to recover from a long civil war, but as I joined in the Christmas Eve celebrations at Buta, I felt the strength that Burundi is drawing from its own traditions in the work of rebuilding communities of trust. It’s a privilege to be serving alongside them, and to be invited to share in their joy.



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