In a small country in the heart of Africa, families yearn to put decades of violence behind them and repair their fragmented lives for the good of their children. Now, child sponsors in the U.S. can help.
From movies, books, and the news, most people know what happened in Rwanda—how on April 6, 1994, the plane carrying the Rwandan president was shot down over the capital, Kigali. How that night, the killings began—an incomprehensible slaughter of men, women, and children. How in 100 days, nearly a million people, primarily Tutsis and moderate Hutus, were hacked to death—machetes the weapon of choice. How in July 1994, the carnage was halted by then-Tutsi rebel force leader, now-President Paul Kagame, who had retaken Kigali from the Hutu wartime government.
Yet most know little of what happened across the border in Burundi.
Burundi’s conflict between the same two ethnic groups—Hutus and Tutsis—never received as much press as Rwanda’s. But in 1972, 20 years before the genocide in Rwanda, tension between the two groups in Burundi erupted as a Hutu uprising against the Tutsi-led government incited the massacre of 150,000 Hutus.
In 1993, the country’s first democratically elected president was assassinated. Burundi’s next president was aboard the same plane as the Rwandan president shot down over Kigali in April 1994. During the following decade of civil war, conflict claimed 300,000 lives; 800,000 Burundians fled the country; and 150,000 more ran from their homes, searching for safety within Burundi’s borders.
In the end, as in Rwanda, the most vulnerable suffered most.
Conflict and Children
“The conflict was hardest on the children,” says Patricie Niyibitanga, 31, a government administrator working to develop Gasorwe, the war-torn community of 71,000 where World Vision is starting child sponsorship.
In Gasorwe, says Patricie, children shoulder the consequences of conflict. “Many are orphans,” she says. “Others are street children. Others are handicapped because of the war. They are very sick and don’t get health care. They don’t go to school. Their life is not very good.”
“When [families] ran from their houses [in 1993], they left everything behind,” says World Vision operations director, Leonidas Ndikuriyo, 46.
Leonidas joined the World Vision team that had begun to rebuild his country in 1995. “We started a food-security program,” he says. “We helped with house building; we supplied iron sheets. We distributed animals and goats. We distributed things, but most importantly, we visited [families]. People began to recover their lives.”
But relief spawned dependency. The team knew that progress could only happen if communities took ownership of the work.
Clearly, the time was ripe for child sponsorship. But as conditions improved in Burundi, economic turmoil created havoc and financial fear around the world. Would sponsors reach out to 1,500 children in this little-known African country? The needs were obvious, but was this the right time to guarantee funds for an estimated 15-year project? In July 2009, World Vision’s U.S. office gave the green light for sponsorship in Gasorwe, and, like a rocket, the work took off.
If the rocket has a captain in Gasorwe, he is Ferdinand Nzokirantevye. Ferdinand, 45, a health expert, started laying the foundation for sponsorship in Gasorwe two years ago. “We chose leaders of the community, organized people, and held group discussions in playgrounds,” he says. He listened to their needs—food, water, education, health.
Ferdinand went to every hill, as communities are called in Burundi, to meet with each chief—29 hills in all. “We heard resistance,” says Ferdinand. The chiefs told him: “Oh, you guys, you want to send our children to the USA.” Ferdinand explained the process of child sponsorship to everyone he met. “At the beginning, they had some fears,” he says, “but now it’s OK. They understand what sponsorship is.”
But on this morning, at a registration in Masasu Hill, Ferdinand explains sponsorship again. He tells a crowd of parents who have come to register their children: “The objective is that our children will have well-being—that they are born in good conditions and grow up in good conditions.”
Many here do not know much about the United States or have any idea what a sponsor does, so Ferdinand explains: “They will be people from America with the hearts to help others, who are concerned for our country,” he says. “If they have two Fantas, they drink one and give the other away. It’s not that they are rich, but they want to help others.” The murmur that rolls through the crowd ends in a collective smile—these Americans share their soda pop and their love. Opportunity is coming to Masasu Hill.
Registering for Change
One family at the registration is hanging on by a prayer—a mother and her three children, two of whom have come to be registered for sponsorship. Amid the babies crying at their first sight of a camera as World Vision workers take children’s pictures, wide-eyed toddlers being weighed and measured, and small children clutching pencils to create their first drawings for those who will soon sponsor them, 25-year-old Venantie Coyitungiye and her children wait quietly. Maybe it’s because they haven’t eaten yet today. Maybe it’s because the night before, they ate potatoes so small—harvested so early—they fit in her youngest child’s palm.
Venantie became a widow in 2005, when her husband died of hunger. Today, she survives like a refugee in her own land. Venantie and her three children live in a falling-down hut made of banana leaves, mud, and eucalyptus branches. When it rains, they huddle together in the one place that stays fairly dry.
“When I wake up in the morning, I pray,” Venantie says. “It’s just a way to commit the day to Jesus Christ, because I have nothing to give my children.”
The rest of the day is spent looking for work. If she is asked to cultivate on a nearby farm, she gives thanks. “It is an answer to prayer,” she says.
At night, she prepares what little food she can find to feed her children. The four share whatever they have, often potatoes and beans—never meat—eating their only meal from two bowls with two broken spoons.
They have one prized possession—a chicken. It’s the family’s insurance policy. If they completely run out of food, they will sell the chicken and buy vegetables. It is more valuable as an asset than as food. Because they are afraid of thieves, the chicken sleeps with the family.
Water is a struggle. A spring shared by hundreds of people is a 40-minute walk down a steep hill, with pushing and shoving at the bottom as people jockey for position. “We can wait two hours for water. Everyone fights,” Venantie says. It’s safer for her to go by the light of the moon.
And yet, Venantie’s spirits stay high. “At night, I praise God for keeping me the whole day,” she says. The next day she begins again—on her knees.
Two of Venantie’s children, daughter Collette, 7, and son Pascal, 5, are registered for sponsorship. Collette acts as a second mother to Pascal and baby sister Cishahayo, nearly 3, while Venantie works all day.
Collecting firewood, cooking lunch for her brothers—if there is any food—and fetching water have taken their toll on Collette. So has hunger. Last year, she failed first grade. “If she’s hungry, she can’t go to school,” says Venantie.
But Collette has gumption. Explains Venantie, “The parents usually make the request for their child to stay in school, but Collette went herself.”
“The headmaster is a man,” says Collette. “He asked me what I wanted. I told him I wanted to retake the class.” Next year, says Collette, things will be different. “I will keep courageous,” she says. “I will try to go to school even when I am hungry.”
Venantie speaks little about the decade of conflict in Burundi. She remembers gunfire and running from the violence. “We were not sure we would arrive where we were going,” she says. She misses her hard-working husband but says she sees him every day—in her children.
What War Wrought
Venantie’s neighbor, Gaspard Bizimana, 42, is more willing to talk about the past. He grew up on Masasu Hill. “There was injustice here and there, but there was no war. We lived peacefully together,” he says. “Things changed in 1993. The first democratically elected president won, and the leadership was jealous. They couldn’t agree, and they killed him. We, the simple people, were affected by this. We thought he was killed because of his ethnic belonging.”
As in Rwanda, the radio was used to incite people to violence against their neighbors. But, Gaspard says, there is a key difference between Burundi and Rwanda. In Burundi, everyone feels at fault. “Hutus killed Tutsi and Tutsi killed Hutu,” he says. “We have to get past it and start at zero.” And, while Rwanda’s reconciliation process has been burned into the national psyche, Gaspard feels Burundians just need to move on. “If we start saying who did what, we’ll never finish, and we don’t have enough prisons to put people in,” he says.
Gaspard lost everything during the war. He and his wife divorced. Now remarried to a woman orphaned during the war, Gaspard has two rambunctious little boys who are registered for sponsorship.
Gaspard says this is the right time for sponsorship. “We are lucky that the international community is helping. Peace is a reality in Gasorwe,” he says. “Come and see for yourself.”
Life and Death in Gasorwe
Peace has arrived with no time to spare. The people of Masasu Hill face daily hunger, lack of water, and poor shelter. Malnutrition is high, affecting 54 percent of the children. So are the rates of preventable diseases like malaria and pneumonia.
At St. Teresa’s Health Clinic in Gasorwe, nuns mourn the death of a child lost to a respiratory disease. “It was too late—even if we’d had amoxicillin,” says Sister Hilda. The baby lies wrapped in cloth on a bed while his parents search for a coffin for his burial.
At the Kizi Health Center, administrator Felicitie Nikuze, 26, says her clinic is always short of medicine. “In some cases, children die between here and the hospital because of diarrhea,” she says. The clinic also lacks electricity. “When we have to use a flashlight to deliver babies, it’s a serious issue,” she says. The clinic doesn’t have clean plastic sheeting, so women have to deliver babies on their wraparound skirts. “We used to give them amoxicillin to prevent infection,” says Felicitie. But the clinic hasn’t had the medicine in four months.
A Clean Start
Venantie vigorously scrubs the family’s few pieces of clothing with a precious bar of soap, preparing for church the next day. Their well-worn clothes turn the water a coffee-colored brown. Her youngest child, Cishahayo, plays happily in the soap suds.
“I was so happy at the registration,” she says, dumping a tub of brown water and judiciously adding clean water from her jerry can. She and her neighbors have high hopes for what sponsorship will accomplish , through God’s provision. “If we could have houses and clean water, we would worship the Almighty God for that.”
Suds fill Cishahayo’s eyes, so Venantie wipes them away with her clean skirt. She then lays the freshly washed clothes on the grass to dry. But when she goes back to her washing, she can’t find the soap. Cishahayo is rubbing it on her belly. Venantie laughs, her eyes crinkling with glee.
Collette says that she feels different now that she’s been registered for sponsorship. “They told us that in five years, things will be changed,” she says. “For me, change means a house covered with iron sheets with water that comes from a tap—available to everyone on Masasu Hill.”
The wind whispers through the leaves of the banana trees. The family’s treasured chicken struts by. On this warm afternoon on the equator, anything seems possible.
Kari Costanza’s blog posts about Burundi: