Kari Costanza reports from Burundi.
The drive from Bujumbura to Gasorwe takes four hours, giving us a good opportunity to view Burundi from the ground and to think about our Monday afternoon interview with Simon Heliso, World Vision’s national director in Burundi.
Simon runs an office of 136 staff in the survival business, working from an office with high walls ribboned in barbed wire and guards who survey oncoming vehicles from a watchtower. World Vision’s work in Burundi ramped up in 1995, bringing aid to 800,000 citizens through relief programs. In the last five years, 100,000 Burundian children have benefited from school feeding programs—plates of nutritious, tasty rice and beans that often serve as their only daily meal. I ate a similar World Food Programme-provided school lunch back in 2007 in Zimbabwe. It was delicious and kept me going until dinnertime. World Vision has also rebuilt homes destroyed in the civil conflict and provided mosquito nets to guard against malaria, Burundi’s biggest killer disease.
Now, says Simon, it is time to move from relief to recovery. “World Vision is one of the first agencies in Burundi to think about long-term development,” he told us. Although Bujumbura, the city where he lives with his family, was a battleground as recently as last year, Simon says things are getting better and the time is right for child sponsorship.
The people he’s met in Burundi agree. “When you go out to the communities and talk to them they say they are tired of conflict,” he says. Development through sponsorship programs is a proven solution, Simon told us. “World Vision has succeeded before in conflict areas,” he says. “Development in itself is peacekeeping. When people have something, they are more hesitant to ruin it all.”
Today, World Vision is beginning five new child sponsorship programs in Burundi—the one in Gasorwe to be funded by donors in the United States. Right now, 1,500 children, chosen by the community, are being registered for sponsorship. We’ll get to watch the process unfold in Gasorwe.
The work will not be easy. World Vision U.S. President Rich Stearns likes to say that development is rocket science, and the more I learn about the genesis of a sponsorship program, the more I grasp the meaning of the statement. “It’s fragile. It’s difficult,” says Simon. “But today we need to take a conscientious step toward peace.”
Gasorwe is one of the places I’ve read about in the book by the former U.S. ambassador to Burundi Bob Krueger—and it’s one of the reasons I was a little nervous to come here. It was the scene of violent civil conflict that left countless men, women, and children dead in the mid ’90s.
The chapter on Gasorwe is titled “Gasorwe—Hundreds Massacred and a Reporter Murdered.” Both ominous-sounding events. The people we are working with in Gasorwe are still fresh from terrifying experiences. I am told that they don’t like to speak about the horrors—that they’re very private. The experience has left them with huge trust issues.
I hope they will trust us enough to tell us their stories. And I hope that there can be some kind of catharsis for them in the process. We’ll be working with a wonderful project manager named Ferdinand Nzokirantevye. His last name means, “it will take time for me to get well,” making him perfectly named to run this program.
It will take time for Burundi to recover—to get well again—and that time is starting now. I am amazed, honored, and a little nervous to be at the birth of it all.