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, 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.
Over 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 a 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!
So 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 of 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.