Archive | February, 2013

Amy Parker – New Horizons

7 Feb

…the years and years of people telling them that they are “not able, not worth it and can’t” have left a people unable to see what on earth they have to offer to, and how they fit into today’s Burundian society. 

Amy Parker, Children in Crisis Programme Manager, reports on her recent meetings with the Batwa community of Burundi. Isolated and ostracised in one of the world’s poorest countries, Children in Crisis are committed to working with the Batwa community and finding solutions to the distressing levels of illiteracy and child mortality that they suffer.

Batwa Mother and Baby outside their house, Gasorwe, Burundi

Batwa Mother and Baby outside their house, Gasorwe, Burundi

New Horizons…

The stunning drive through the winding hills of Burundi is a stark contrast to the rugged and vast space that is the Plateau region of eastern DR Congo. Burundi shares its border with eastern DR Congo, and having worked on Children in Crisis’ education programme in DR Congo for the last year, I was intrigued to find out what Burundi had in store for me as we drove up to Muyinga Province in the far north east of the country. I was accompanied by Ruben Ruganza from Famille Maintenant (FAMA) – Family Now, a local organisation working in the area.

That first visit in February 2012 was an initial trip between FAMA and Children in Crisis to explore the possibility of working together to build on the work FAMA had been doing with the Batwa community since 2006. The Batwa (sometimes known as pygmies, although this is a pejorative term) are the first inhabitants of Sub-Saharan Africa. Traditionally hunter-gatherers and potters, they were nomads who lived off and in harmony with the vast equatorial forest that once stretched from Cameroon in the west to Burundi in the east. Ngurizina Abraham, one of the elders of the Gasorwe Batwa community where FAMA work, said that in his grandfather and father’s generation when Burundi was still a kingdom, the Batwa made pots for kings and princesses; “everyone wanted them from top to bottom”.

Colonial and post-colonial times have wrought great changes in the region. Deforestation along with the creation of National Parks has resulted in the Batwa no longer able to live their nomadic life and being forced to settle. The problem, however, is that the Batwa have very little access to land, or no land at all in what is Africa’s second most densely populated country. Having little access to land and few agricultural skills, they are at odds in a country where over 90% of people live from subsistence farming. To make matters worse, their pottery, once so sought after, has been replaced by metal and plastic imported goods. As with many indigenous peoples the world over, the Batwa, so long discriminated against and regarded as inferior and ‘different’, find their exclusion further compounded and deepened as time goes on, living on the periphery of Burundian society, with little knowledge of or access to basic services and their human rights.

Back in 2006, not a single Batwa child from Gasorwe Commune was in school. Six years later, over 150 are now enrolled and attend primary school thanks to FAMA’s interventions; a tip of the iceberg, but a big step in the right direction. 40 families have benefitted from improved houses and there is talk in the community of wanting to learn skills, sending more children to school and parents being able to provide enough food, shelter and care for their families.

Batwa Children

Batwa Children

A second visit in November 2012, this time with John Norton from Development Workshop France, Francois Karake, a specialist in community-based action, alongside FAMA and Children in Crisis gave us more time with the local communities in Gasorwe. What became progressively more apparent was the ingrained ‘can’t do’ attitude regarding the Batwa, present at all levels of society, from district and commune officials, education staff to the Batwa themselves. Most worrying were Batwa women and men’s responses when asked about what their culture was, what stories and music and traditions such as medicines and dancing and pottery they regarded as important today. The unanimous reply was “nothing. We need to be modern”. This loss of identity and self-worth is perhaps the crux of the problem. If you don’t believe in yourself, who else will? And the years and years of people telling them that they are “not able, not worth it and can’t” have left a people unable to see what on earth they have to offer to, and how they fit into today’s Burundian society.

So what next? Well, Children in Crisis is looking at how best to work with the Batwa community in Muyinga. We are drawing on technical expertise from Development Workshop France who have for years worked in west and southern Africa as well as Asia on improved construction methods and vocational skills training with remote and vulnerable communities. We are also exploring links with Dutabarane, a local Burundian organisation who work in other areas of the country on a very successful Village Savings and Loan Association (VSLA) programme targeting the poorest members of society to better manage their household finances through regular saving and access to small credits – a way to deal not only with daily expenses but also those larger expenses such as school fees, medical costs and home improvements without getting into debt or relying on handouts.

VSLAs - Gatumba, Burundi

VSLAs – Gatumba, Burundi

Whilst still one of the poorest countries in the world, Burundi is developing. A member of the East African Community, she is in a club of more developed countries like Uganda, Kenya and Rwanda. Technology is moving fast and seeing fibre optic cable being laid 50 metres from a Batwa community where no-one can read and write and where more than half of children die before their 5th birthday is both peculiar and scandalous. The Batwa will find themselves falling further and further behind; and we at Children in Crisis along with other organisations wanting and willing to work with these first peoples of Africa are committed to finding solutions with the Batwa community to pave the way to a brighter future.

If you’re interested in Children in Crisis’ work with the Batwa community of Burundi please contact Children in Crisis on 020 7627 1040 /