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Sarah Rowse – DR Congo / Burundi – A report from a little known crisis

20 May

“There was something particularly undignified at seeing teenagers – on the cusp of adulthood – forced to sit on makeshift benches more akin to what one would find in a nursery school.”

I’m not long returned from a trip to eastern DR Congo where I was visiting Children in Crisis’ work with young Burundian refugees.

These teenagers, many of whom are unaccompanied minors – separated from their parents and siblings – have fled an unfolding and worsening crisis in their country.

It’s a lesser known crisis, one that hasn’t hit the headlines. Indeed, Burundi is a lesser known country that few have heard of, but what’s abundantly clear to me, from visiting the refugee camp and spending time with the young Burundian refugees with whom we’re working, is that this unfolding humanitarian crisis is no less important.

Since the crisis in Burundi first erupted two years ago, ignited by the unconstitutional and deeply divisive decision by incumbent President Nkurunziza to run for a third term, Burundi has been thrust into political and economic turmoil. Government crackdowns against opposition movements, suppression of the media, an increase in violence and extrajudicial arrests – have resulted in upwards of 260,000 refugees (the majority women and children) having fled to neighbouring Rwanda, Tanzania, DR Congo and Uganda.

Those that have fled to eastern DR Congo, some 16,000 of them, are living in a refugee camp on the shores of Lake Tanganyika.

Lusenda is already home to over 16,000 Burundian refugees who have fled increasing violence and extrajudicial arrests. © MONUSCO

Lusenda is already home to over 16,000 Burundian refugees who have fled increasing violence and extrajudicial arrests. © MONUSCO

Since November 2015, Children in Crisis alongside our dedicated local partner, Eben Ezer Ministry International (EMI), have been working predominantly with young people from this camp and with head teachers and teachers from the surrounding Congolese secondary schools. These schools, whilst doing their best to accommodate the young refugees, are struggling.

To this end, we’ve thus far supplied much-needed teaching and learning materials to the host schools to accommodate increased enrolment. We provided just over 1,000 school kits and uniforms – responding to the very real needs of these young Burundians who have fled, literally with the clothes on their back. We’ve applied our extensive pedagogical expertise to provide much-needed training to Congolese teachers from the host schools to help them respond to the changed classroom environment that the refugee crisis has brought, and we’ve established drama clubs for refugee and non-refugees alike, helping young people to express themselves and make sense of the situation they find themselves in.

We have supplied over 1,000 school kits and uniforms. What became clear during our conversations with Burundian students is that, apart from the clothes they were wearing when fleeing their homes, these uniforms are the only other clothes that they now have. Photo credit: a photo taken by Burundian students who borrowed our camera to show us their school and friends.

We have supplied over 1,000 school kits and uniforms. What became clear during our conversations with Burundian students is that, apart from the clothes they were wearing when fleeing their homes, these uniforms are the only other clothes that they now have. This photo taken by Burundian students who borrowed our camera to show us their school and friends.

Children in Crisis’ focus on education – both formal and non-formal – in this emergency context, is essential; it is also a mammoth task.

It is essential for the following reasons:-

  • At a time when young people are facing the toughest of times, uprooted from friends and family , going to school and maintaining their education provides some precious normality and stability in their lives.
  • In refugee situations, as has sadly been played out time and time again, young people are far more vulnerable to abuse and exploitation; the risk of recruitment into militias is a very real one, and girls in particular are at greater risk of sexual violence. The protective function that going to school plays in such situations can’t be understated.

But the task, as I mentioned, is a mammoth one.

With the crisis in Burundi showing no signs of abating, refugee numbers are predicted to increase.

The host Congolese secondary schools, even before the refugee crisis, were woefully under-resourced.

School buildings are small, cramped and dilapidated and there is a need to construct new schools and classrooms to cope with the doubling, in some cases, trebling, of enrolment.

In one of the schools I visited, Institute Lokololo, the head teacher had taken the initiative to rent an additional building to accommodate increased enrolment of refugee and non-refugee students, but the school lacked the means to furnish the school and, as a result, students were reduced to sitting on planks of wood or on upturned bricks on the dirt floor. There was something particularly undignified at seeing teenagers – on the cusp of adulthood – forced to sit on makeshift benches more akin to what one would find in a nursery school.

The planks which make for benches used by teenage students at one of the host Congolese schools.

The planks which make for benches used by teenage students at one of the host Congolese schools (photo taken by Burundian students).

A school toilet.

A school toilet (photo taken by Burundian students).

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Temporary classrooms have quickly fallen into a bad state (photo taken by Thea Lacey).

And these teenagers – like teenagers the world over – are bright, articulate, creative, intelligent, proud individuals.

Each that I spoke too had ambitions and hopes.

Each were clearly deeply anxious and troubled by the situation they find themselves in.

Each had harrowing stories to tell of what forced them to flee.

Children in Crisis and EMI are the only organisations responding to young people’s secondary educational needs at this time. We can and must do more to respond to the plight of these young people; with over 10 years skills and experience working in the region, in the field of education and with displaced communities, we know what to do and how best to do it, in response.

A photo taken by Burundian students who borrowed our camera to show us their school and friends.

A photo taken by Burundian students who borrowed our camera to show us their school and friends.

If we are able to secure the necessary support, this is what we will do:

Increase the secondary school premises available in Lusenda as the current situation is untenable. We are currently drawing up plans to construct a new school building.

Address the gap in out-of-school activities for young people of secondary school age (both in and out of school) in a way that combines several different goals, such as :

  • boosting intra-community cohesion
  • providing young people with positive ways to spend their free time (reducing the risk of them being attracted to anti-social and harmful activities)
  • creating ‘edu-tainment’ opportunities through which important public health and protection messages relating to early marriage, sexual and reproductive health can be communicated to other young people and the wider community.

In addition to additional teacher and school management training provide support to schools to establish enterprises; enabling them to generate a school income & increase resources such as classroom furniture and learning materials (which are currently at a very low level and which will need maintaining into the future).

The establishment of school enterprises would also enable young people to learn enterprise and business skills. Such skills would be highly relevant to young Burundians at this time, helping them to offset any dependency created as a result of their refugee status.

Advocacy & support

We need help in order to sustain our activities in the longer term. We need advocates and supporters to raise awareness of the plight of these young people and of this little known crisis that is unfolding in this little known country on the shores of Lake Tanganyika.

Please don’t hesitate to get in touch or donate online if you think that you can help today.

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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 / info@childrenincrisis.org