Burundi – March 23 2022

Not going to school is Jean’s greatest fear

8-year-old Jean does not want to miss out on education like some children in his neighbourhood. Every day, on his way to school, he sees children his age, sometimes younger, forced to work in unsafe conditions to contribute to their family’s income.

Jean and his family live in Buterere slum, on the outskirts of Bujumbura, Burundi’s capital. Near his home, there is a sprawling garbage dump, where most locals spend their days rummaging through the rubbish, looking for recyclable materials to sell.

Hungry barefoot children brave the smoke from burning plastic and scavenge for food. Some children from the community have run away from home in search of a better life on the streets of Bujumbura.

Jean feels lucky that his mother, Alima, did not ask him to work when she could not pay his school expenses. He stayed home with his three brothers.

Alima tilled people’s farms for a living after her husband died. She could only afford to feed her family one meal per day.

“I was always hungry,” says Jean. “We never had enough to eat but I went to school anyway. Sometimes the teacher sent me home when I did not have books.

“I know the value of education,” says Alima. “I hope to keep my children in school because it gives them a chance to escape poverty.”

Burundi is one of the five poorest countries in the world according to the Human Development Index (UNDP 2020). The education rate is low. Out of 5.1 million school-age children and adolescents, about 1.9 million are out of school. Although schooling in Burundi is free, school uniforms and supplies are not.

More than two-thirds of Burundian children live in poverty.

Help for Jean’s family

To address the hardship Alima faced, the family was enlisted for the SOS Children’s Villages family strengthening programme in 2018. The service works towards the well-being of children and their families. With support, families stay together and children can grow up in supportive environments. They access education, nutrition, and healthcare. 

In order for Jean and his brothers to return to school, they received school uniforms, stationery, school bags and the other supplies they needed.

To earn a living, Alima used the grant she received to buy innerwear across the border, in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), which she sold in Bujumbura.

”With the money I made, I was able to feed my children nutritious meals three times a day, and they carried snacks to school. We were very happy and felt alive,” says Alima.

She was planning to move her children to a better neighbourhood, when COVID-19 struck in March 2020. The border closed to curb the spread of the virus, resulting in loss of work for traders like Alima.

“My small trade was flourishing,” she says, “but the closure of the Burundian-Congolese border seriously hurt our lives. I could no longer get supplies from DRC because I could not afford to pay for the costly COVID tests required before crossing the border.”

Although the COVID-19 burden on Burundi remained low, drastic measures to mitigate the disease has had a great impact on people’s lives, their income, and livelihoods.

With the collapse of his mother’s business, Jean began to see the change on his plate. “I did not understand what was going on in our family,” he says. “At one point, I asked mum why we no longer ate fresh fish and why she forced us to eat food we did not like. I also asked her why my brothers and I no longer had tea in the morning before going to school."

Alima says Jean also worried that the virus would prevent him from going to school, but she reassured him.

"I know he is afraid of ending up in the dumpsite. That is always on his mind. So I told him not to be afraid. Even when I did not have money, he would continue his studies because FSP (family strengthening programme) was supporting us.”

School for Jean is a place of refuge where he can dream about his own life and future. “I will make a lot of money when I become a pilot one day,” he says, “so I can help children from poor families. I feel bad for the children in my neighborhood who cannot go to school because they cannot achieve their dreams.”

FSP has supported Alima to start a new business selling groceries. With the borders now open, her intention is to return to her old business of selling wears after raising enough capital.

*Names changed for privacy reasons.

*Text and photo by Joselyne Ndikumasabo​.