The return journey of Burundi refugees
(LWI) - A brick-colored dirt road contrasts with the surrounding nature of banana trees and rice crops. This road is the red line connecting Bujumbura, the economic capital of Burundi, to the small town of Cankuzo, near the border with Tanzania. LWF Burundi is particularly active in this isolated, and sometimes forgotten part of the country.
On the side of the road, a memorial with the inscription "Plus jamais ça" (“Never again” in French) recalls the country's darkest hours. In 1993, Burundi was the scene of a civil and ethnic war, the result of years of tension between Hutus and Tutsis. The war lasted 12 years and resulted in 300,000 deaths. Although a 2000 agreement restored peace, Burundi experienced a new crisis in 2015 when its president pushed to run for reelection despite disputes on his eligibility for a third term.
This road connecting Bujumbura to Cankuzo goes all the way to Tanzania. Many Burundians take it to seek seasonal work there. Hundreds of thousands used this road to flee to Tanzania during the years of conflict. Today, many of these refugees are returning to Burundi. They face poverty and lack of land and professional opportunities.
On the road to cooperation
LWF Burundi launched its operations in 2006 to support the population facing these challenges. Part of the answer lies on another road, a secondary one this time, going through the Mishiha hill in Cankuzo province. This is where LWF Burundi, with Canadian Food Grains Bank and Canadian Lutheran World Relief, has launched ten micro-projects benefiting 4,500 people. Emmanuel Ndamurokore, LWF food security specialist explains, "everyone is participating in building the strength of the community. Internally displaced persons, returnees and even the most vulnerable groups see the importance of their contribution. Together, they analyze priorities and decide which micro-projects to implement."
Everyone is participating in building the strength of the community. Internally displaced persons, returnees and even the most vulnerable groups see the importance of their contribution.
In a country long divided, cooperation and collaboration are key to success. Currently, community participants are working together to build another country road and make a little income along the way. For six kilometers of road rehabilitation, the group will work for 14 days.
The group is working to establish a road through Mishiha Hill as part of the 10 micro-projects implemented by LWF Burundi and the Canadian Food Grains Bank.
Sezariya Ntihabose is a widow and mother of three. In 2015, she fled Burundi for Tanzania, scared for her life. Even after returning home in 2019, she walked two hours a day to work in Tanzania. With the additional income from the project, she no longer needs to walk there every day. She explains, "I am very happy because we now have a well-maintained road," before adding with a laugh that she is "also happy to receive 3,000 Burundian francs (USD 1.5) per day!"
Beyond additional income, beneficiaries gain skills in various areas through tailored training. "I learned about gender equality in the household and how to fight against sexual and gender-based violence. I also participate in the Farmer Field School where I learn about agriculture. I am a member of the committee and I have taken different trainings. I can now share what I have learned with the community," Sezariya explains.
Sezariya Ntihabose working on the Mishiha secondary road as part of the LWF Burundi and Canadian Food Grain Bank project.
Collaboration is also at the heart of another project implemented by LWF Burundi with the support of its partners German National Committee and Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. This initiative enables 1,000 young people in the Cankuzo and Ruyigi provinces to make a little income, while ensuring food security for the most vulnerable households. Participants learn modern farming techniques and join cooperatives to diversify their activities.
Sidace Minani is the president of one of such cooperative, which has 32 members (18 women and 14 men). They have all received training in agriculture and accounting, seeds and a milling machine.
Left: Sidace Minani, the president of the cooperative. Right: Jonas Hakizimana uses their new milling machine
"Before, we used to grow large fields and use a lot of seeds for a small harvest. Now we use less seeds, but we have better results," explains Sidace.
The group's work is so good that it is inspiring others: "I'm grateful to see how well my group members are doing and that new members want to join us. Many ask to join the group and others ask us to train them. We have helped our neighbors apply the techniques we have learned," says Sidace with pride.
With the profits made, the group has managed to diversify its activities. It launched a bakery in April 2022, using its own flour. The cooperative has also set up a village savings and loan association (VSLA). Jonas Hakizimana, a member of the group, laughs as he explains: "Before I joined the group, I lived in a house with a grass roof. When it rained, I would wake up in the middle of the night because the water would fall on my ears! I am married but I felt lesser than a man! After the training, I joined the group and started saving money. I decided to invest in iron roof for my house and now I sleep much better!"
Jonas Hakizimana, a member of the cooperative, in front of his house with a new tin roof.
Women pave the way
While working together is key, so is equality. Women have a harder time. They have no access to inherited land and are responsible for running the household in addition to their work in the fields. They have little knowledge of their rights and the actions they can take to defend them.
Making their own income is a first step towards new skills and more autonomy. Down the road from the bakery run by Sidace and his group, another cooperative is at work. Péline Nkunzimana chairs a group of 35 women who create colorful woven baskets made of dried grass and old shopping bags. They also tailor clothes.
Members of Péline’s cooperative make woven baskets for additional income.
Members of the cooperative have improved their designs and the quality of their products. With these new skills has come additional income. They mainly bring back the profits to their homes. "With the money, I can buy notebooks, pens, and uniforms for my children," says Péline, a mother of six. She has also invested in livestock, rabbits and chickens.
Further up the hill in Cendajuru, other women are committed to their community. They participated in LWF training in leadership and conflict resolution. Community members come to them for support and advice on their day-to-day difficulties.
Women leaders help solve conflicts peacefully. From left to right: Gabrielle Ncabukoroka, Clothilde Mbonigaba, Léoncie Ntibitangira.
Clothilde Mbonigaba (middle) is part of this group. She shares her experience, "this training allowed me to acquire a lot of skills and knowledge because often women do not know their rights. I learned how to give advice to other women, how to support with women in difficulty, how to create a women's association or how to create a vegetable garden. I am happy to do this work. I am recognized by people in the community, and I am proud that they come to me for advice."
While stable, the situation in Burundi is still precarious and the country is consistently ranked among the poorest in the world. However, like Sezariya and the other participants collaborating on the Mishiha Hill road, the path to resilience for Burundi passes through collective effort and cooperation.
Text and photos by LWF/L. Gillabert.