Wednesday, 6 June 2012

What will it take for girls in Burundi to have a stake in their society?

Bienvenue is in the fifth year of her primary education. She’s very proud that she can now read and write. At 17, she is much older than most of her classmates. But she doesn’t mind.

In this village of the sous-colline of Mahara in central Burundi, the people live in poverty and precariously. Our visit is an event: many of the villagers have come to watch and have crowded round. We ask Bienvenue about her education and aspirations. She has both. She sees she has a platform, lifts her head and pronounces: “I urge those parents who do not yet send their children to school to do so now because I am witness to the enormous advantages of school”.

It wasn’t until she was 12 that it occurred to Bienvenue’s father, Pierre Magaranamazi to educate his children. It occurred to him because he was himself learning to read and write. The change to his life that this brought lead to nothing short of an epiphany: “I realised I was really backward”, he said “I asked myself: ‘are my children to suffer from illiteracy as I have done?’ ”

According to the Forum for African Women Educationalists (FAWE), enrolment to primary education in Burundi stands at 99%. This despite the fact that rural poverty (over 60% of the population lives in rural poverty in Burundi[1]) means many cannot afford the requisite uniforms and books. It is perhaps partly because of this that the overall drop out rate is high. And FAWE statistics show that only 27% of girls manage to complete primary education.[2] In a speech on 25th April this year, Burundi’s Minister for Education, Joséphine Bangurambona, put poor results for those girls who do stay at school down partly to the high rate of pregnancy in girls from the 6th to 10th grade. She urged teachers to concentrate more on girls and warned of sanctions against those who cause schoolgirls to get pregnant.[3]

In another village, Muhingira, I had already met a group of children all of whom attend school. One girl, through her broken French, told me her name was Thérèse and she was 17 and at secondary school. I asked what she wants to do when she leaves school. “I’ll grow maize”, she said. “And beans”.

In rural areas at least, women and girls are bound by tradition and a deep-rooted patriarchal mindset. They mind the house and the children as well as working in the fields. But they are not traditionally encouraged to go to school or to aspire.

This country is also still recovering from a war that destroyed crops, decimated livestock, razed schools and villages and killed community members - even whole communities - indiscriminately. The conflict also destroyed Burundian society as a whole, such that women were never safe from violent attack and they have few legal rights. Tensions still exist in a country where political affiliations are flown from village flagpoles countrywide, where food costs are rising but employment falling and high population density means land ownership disputes regularly result in murder. Burundi stands at the bottom of the UN’s human development index, above only the DRC and Niger[4]. In Burundi, at least, there is a need to change the world.

Burundi’s President, Pierre Nkurunziza knows this only too well. Soon after his re-election in 2010, he asked Burundians to “Change yourselves, change your families and change your country”[5] He added that “women will be well represented in all areas of national life – taking into account their abilities”. Which brings us back to education.

Bienvenue’s father has great ambitions for his children. “My greatest wish is to see my children learn and earn their diploma. It will be a passport to employment … and they’ll be able to help me out too”.

Bienvenue goes on to describe what education can do for her: “I could become, God willing, a teacher,” she declares, “or work in administration”. The audacity surges up within her and her voice quavers over the hushed silence: “Or even a member of government!” The village erupts into wolf whistles and applause, as Bienvenue hangs her head in embarrassment.
In the battle to change the world, is education the most powerful weapon we can use? It is a momentous battle that needs a full arsenal – to which education is a significant contribution.

In Burundi, with its complexity of problems, education must be the first salvo in promoting gender equality and general change throughout the country. Greatest or not, education cannot be the only weapon that makes change happen, however. In this poor and isolated rural village it has, surely, taken more than education to give Bienvenue the power to dare to believe she could achieve great things.

What that is might be reflected in the shy smile of pride that now plays on her lips. The same smile that beams across her father’s face from the shade of the banana trees.

[1] Based on population numbers and number of people living in rural poverty quoted in IFAD’s Rural Poverty report
[3] Burundi RTNB TV report, 25th April, 2012 and
[4] UNDP HDI -

Tuesday, 5 June 2012

Five Signs of Famine - a crisis in the Sahel is approaching and the signs are there to see

It’s a Wednesday in mid April and there’s a group of children running through a herd of goats under the shade of a baobab tree at the luomo or market at Kerrpateh in the Gambia’s Northern Region. The children play without a care in the world, but watching the activities of farmers and traders here can be a clear indicator of how life is going in this part of West Africa and this year all the signs are bad. There’s a crisis and the number one sign is that the market is full of livestock and it’s all for sale at rock bottom prices. Everyone is selling off their animals, even the village leader, Mammud Drammeh has resorted to selling his last goat. “If you don’t have anything to eat, you’ll catch anything running around in your compound and go and sell it. Goats, horse, sheep, cattle, whatever you have, you sell it” he says looking over at the animals. Senegalese traders have made the short journey over the border and are buying up the lot. These traders and middlemen know how desperate the locals are and with a flooded market, they can pay such low prices to make the journey worthwhile. Mammud shrugs, “At the market if you’re selling, you look out for your own interests. If the animal you’ve brought is worth 10,000, even if they offer you 5,000, you’ll sell it because you need to get money for food, so you can buy rice. You don’t think about what the price should be, you just want to get food for your family.”

            The Gambia has declared this season a total crop failure. Even though it’s a relatively small country with the powerful Gambia river running through, the river’s tributaries carry salty water which means that much of the crops here are rain fed and without those rains, there is little hope for a harvest. This year the rains didn’t come and because of that, the situation here, as in many other parts of the Sahel, is about to get much worse. A second sign of such crisis is that apart from animals, there isn’t much other food on offer at Kerrpateh market. When asked how this year compares to previous years, Mammud grimaces a little and shakes his head, “Well, when you have something and when you have absolutely nothing, how can you compare the two? There’s no millet. No groundnuts. No maize. In fact by now some people have eaten all they had in their stores. There’s nothing. No food.” Areas of the market usually teeming with traders are eerily quiet. Adama Njai stands by his silent milling machine waiting for customers. “This year we haven’t had any produce because the rains were so bad. In previous years you couldn’t walk around here because there was so much produce. But you can see this year there’s hardly anything. People just bring in small amounts to mill, maybe just enough for a single meal.” And unlike the animals which are going cheap, what little food there is for sale is too expensive for many locals like Mammud to buy, “I wanted to buy a bag of millet today,” says the village leader “but I can’t because its too expensive. They were selling a kilo for 15 Gambian Dalasi before. Now it’s more than 30 Dalasi and the price will continue to rise.”

            There are still children running about, ducking in and out of the stalls, but crisis sign number three is evident all around them. Farmers here are selling off all their equipment and Mammud is no exception “We’ve already sold off all the farming tools that we had. Most of it went to Guinea Bissau.” His admission bodes even worse for the future, as without tools, seeds, animals, or fertilisers, he and his fellow farmers will have no way of growing anything next season, even if the rains do come.

            At the exit to the market is crisis sign number four. There are firewood sellers set up at the side of the road in places where they never usually are. People need money so badly that they’re resorting to cutting down the few remaining trees to buy food to feed their families. Despite all the sensitization drives carried out by international aid agencies and local NGOs, people here are hungry and too desperate to think about the environment.

            On the road from Kerrpateh market to the regional capital Kerewan, a group of women provide a fifth sign of serious crisis. The women are from the village of Daresalame and are part of a two hundred strong group who grow rice on two hundred hectares of land. They point to the rice crop in their field which stands abandoned because this year they aren’t even bothering to harvest it. One of the women, Jankeh Fafana explains “The rains didn’t come and so the rice didn’t mature.“ She pulls at the heads of some rice plants. The panicles have nothing in them and crumble to dust at her touch. “We‘ve wasted sixty days of work, preparing the fields, planting and weeding and we have to walk five kilometres here and back every day to work.” Apart from the labour and energy invested for nothing, these women have also lost money spent on seeds and fertiliser amounting to 4150 Gambian Dalasi ($138) each, a huge amount to a poor smallholder farmer.

            Although no-one is starving yet and children may be still playing in the market, these five signs of crisis clearly show people on the brink of starvation. The simple fact remains that if action isn’t taken now another major human catastrophe is inevitable and then those children will be emaciated and staring at the cameras of the world’s press.