In August 2010, Timo Mosca, CEO of MOSCA GmbH, suggested the idea to me of supporting an international social aid project. Mosca has been a major supporter of regional projects for decades, but the idea of stepping onto the international stage represented a new challenge for us.
After intensive research, I decided to get in touch with the charity World Vision. From our first contact, I sensed that I was in good hands. World Vision is a Christian relief organization whose work focuses on sustainable development cooperation, humanitarian aid and development policy advocacy. At the heart of their work lies the support of children, families and their communities in overcoming poverty and injustice.
Following a series of thought-provoking conversations with Eva Martin, Project Manager at World Vision, we decided to support an aid project in Burundi
1. The initial situation in Burundi
Burundi is a small, densely populated landlocked country in East Africa and is one of the world’s poorest countries. The history of Burundi is marked by clashes between the Hutu and Tutsi ethnic groups and a violent civil war broke out in 1994. Despite a peace agreement in 2000, sporadic violence continues to flare up. Hundreds of thousands of people have lost their lives – simply ignored and forgotten by the global public.
The country has stabilized since 2009 but the traces of war are still visible, notably in the education system. Many school buildings and much essential infrastructure were destroyed and have yet to be rebuilt. During the war, qualified teachers fled the country and never returned. Although elementary education is free, the journey to school is often too long, classes usually far too large and the teaching program inadequate.
In spite of 99% of children across the country being enrolled in school, only 74% regularly attend elementary school, of which only 66% reach the fifth grade. Even when children do attend school, it is far from certain that they will later be able to actually read and write well. Conditions in Burundi are only improving very slowly and many internal factors contribute to this situation. For this reason, the country needs support from outside.
2. The aim of the project
In 2011, the children were either still being taught in the ramshackle old schoolhouse or not receiving any education at all. The aim was to build a new school with capacity for 400 children. The proposed design included disabled access, large windows and ventilation grilles. It was also intended that the new building should benefit everyone, with the rooms and meeting places serving as a venue for village events, tutoring and adult education.
Education forms a very important aspect of Burundi’s targets, particularly as it will enable the next generation to lift themselves out of poverty, laying the foundations for sustainable development.
The project was completed in a little over three years and the school building and library can now be used to the full. By supporting this international aid project, Mosca will also be able to put its beliefs in sustainability to the test. Rather than making a single one-off donation, the company aimed to successfully accompany an entire project through continuous and regular support. To see what this sustainability meant on the ground, I set off on my journey to Burundi early on the morning of 13 March 2015. Finally, it was time.
By evening the next day, I would be in Bujumbura, capital of Burundi. What could I expect there? Would I be able to understand and cope with everything? What would the situation be on the ground? Way too much time had passed between World Vision asking me to travel with them to Burundi and our actual departure. In the internet age, we read too many reports and take the Foreign Office travel warnings more seriously with each day that passes.
I wanted to see as many World Vision projects as possible “in the flesh”. On the other hand, of course, I also wanted to discover Burundi as a country and get to know the people. What do you do in Burundi? What can you experience and learn? One thing you should definitely not expect to see is a developed tourist infrastructure with the usual comforts and conveniences of the sort offered by the highly organized “Africa experience” trips in places like Kenya, Namibia or South Africa. What you will find is a country with deep scars and challenges, but also one with very charming and committed people and some truly breathtaking experiences and panoramas.
Alongside the stunning scenery, of course, there are the downsides and challenges of a poor country. And perspectives. How do people make their money? The answer is that they live from their education. That is what provides the basis for development and sustainability. World Vision invests its financial resources in education and training: preschool projects (reading camps), schools, health education, agricultural projects, micro-credit for young women. All these projects were on our itinerary.
3. The visiting tour
On arrival in Bujumbura, the first thing that struck me was the clean streets. I had prepared myself for the worst in terms of both people and the environment. We were greeted by two German World Vision employees currently working in Burundi. After an interesting and varied day in the capital, we set off next morning in three jeeps on the road to Cankuzo, the easternmost province of Burundi. That meant travelling across the entire country. By the end of the day and throughout my time there, I realized why we were traveling in four-wheel-drive jeeps. Outside the major cities, the roads were in very poor condition.
Our journey took us over one hill after another, mostly at an altitude of between 1,500 and 1,800 meters. Travelling by day is considered relatively safe, but you are advised to reach your accommodation before nightfall. Our drivers were naturally aware of this and so our drive often resembled the Paris-Dakar Rally. But this was nothing compared to the road habits of the ubiquitous cyclists.
For young men, the bike is the main mode of local transportation. Huge loads of wood, bananas, vegetables, baskets and all kinds of goods are piled up on their racks. Not satisfied with the challenge presented by this vast extra bulk, the young men raced from their fields down the steep mountain roads towards the countless markets. Speeds of 50-60 kilometers per hour were not unusual. Even more exciting, however, were the uphill stretches. On their unladed return journeys, the cyclists hung onto trucks and cars – obviously a great help going uphill – and allowed themselves to be dragged along at insane speeds while enjoying the invigorating fresh air of the exhaust.
I had expected a lot of things, but I wasn’t prepared for quite such stunning scenery. Rarely have I seen such a diverse country. The bulk of the country is spread across a vast upland that descends like a series of steps from 1,800 meters in the west to 1,200 meters in the east. The upland consists largely of wet savannah and the mountain areas of tropical rain forest, while the northeast is made up of extensive wetlands. It is all incredibly beautiful.
It was evening when we first reached the Cankuzo district. This lies in a province of the same name in the eastern lowlands of Burundi and is one of the country’s poorest regions. After a very dusty drive, we were all looking forward to a refreshing beer. However, this was not to be had at our motel. So after checking in (room rate 8.00 Euros) we headed down the footpath to the next motel in absolute darkness. Electricity and running water are rarely available in the region. In the days that followed, we learned to greatly appreciate the torch, a bucket of rainwater or a bottle of water.
We were greeted by numerous curious children with cries of “Muzungu!”, a word we were to hear repeated many times in the next few days. In Kirundi, this means “white person”. The kindly Letizia, who worked for World Vision in Cankuzo, told us that we should respond with a friendly “Amahoro”, meaning “hello”.
You are conspicuous as a white person in Burundi, at least in the country. Away from the capital Bujumbura, few whites tend to stay for long. A short anecdote in passing: One evening, a young man spoke to us and asked if we were from England. When we answered in the negative, he told us that someone from England had once been here some years ago.
A busy schedule awaited us the next day. At 07:30, we were on our way to the World Vision office in Cankuzo. From there we went directly to visit the Regional Minister of the province, who gave us a warm welcome. Once the formalities were over, we were finally able to set off to visit the aid projects, accompanied by a heavily armed escort. The escort was not there, as we first thought, for our protection. They were the minister’s bodyguards.
After about 45 kilometers over hill and dale across the wilderness, we arrived at our school project in Gatete. Around 400 children were waiting for us and greeted us with African dances and singing. We were met by a wave of warmth, which was to be repeated at all the subsequent projects we visited. Long before my trip, I had speculated about what might be waiting for me and how I should deal with it. Now I was here, I let myself be guided by my feelings and just tried to integrate myself into the group of children. They all wanted to get close to us, and only when we allowed them to could we capture that “special feeling”. It’s something that’s very difficult to express in words – you just have to experience it. Many of the children had never seen a white person before, or perhaps only once.
What we saw at Gatete completely exceeded our expectations: a school and grounds that could hardly be beaten in terms of cleanliness and neatness. Even experienced World Vision colleagues Eva and Oli had never before encountered such a flagship project on the African continent.
World Vision inaugurated the first building of the Gatete elementary school in September 2012. The school took a year to build and replaced the old building, which was in danger of collapse and only had room for 117 students. The new school can now teach up to 400 children in child-friendly and safe buildings. Most of the children run up to five kilometers to get there each morning.
Because the six bright and friendly classrooms have been built barrier-free, they can easily be accessed by children with disabilities. The new premises offer more space for tables, which means the children can now sit two to a desk rather than four, as used to be the case. An additional building houses the staff room and a small library. World Vision has also mounted large blackboards outside the classrooms, so that all the villagers can learn together. This facility is also used for extra tutoring or adult education. The new teacher accommodation building was completed in 2013.
One very important aspect was the construction of two new toilet facilities and the installation of hand-washing equipment in front of each classroom to reduce the spread of disease. The students and teachers are delighted that they are now able to wash their hands with clean water and that using the toilet is no longer dependent on the surrounding bushes and shrubs – a real victory on the road to improving hygiene conditions at the school.
My time at the school passed all too soon – an experience that I would not have missed for the world – and we were on our way to lay the foundation stone of another school building in Muyaga. In close cooperation with the local community and the school board, World Vision had built a school there in 2014. The old school building was dilapidated, poorly equipped and only offered accommodation for around 200 students. The new school offers eight spacious classrooms and an additional administration building. And with construction starting on a further building, all students will in future be able to have lessons simultaneously rather than in shifts.
Our afternoon schedule included two more highlights. A very special moment was our visit to World Vision’s recently launched “Reading Camps”. These initiatives enable the sustainable and creative promotion of literacy in children aged 3 to 6. In simple huts made from mud and banana leaves, volunteers teach preschool kids to read and write at the first attempt. I have never seen such enthusiastic learning among children as I experienced in Burundi. We could hardly believe that almost all 3-6-year-olds who attended the reading camp were able to read and write. Many more of these reading camps are to follow.
At the end of this very busy and exciting day, we visited the secondary school in Cankuzo. Hundreds young people had prepared an overwhelming reception for us. With the help of donations, a multi-generational library had been built on the school grounds.
Books are in short supply: The library built in previous years was equipped with new reading material in 2014. Following a careful analysis, project staff worked with the teachers and representatives of the education authority to identify the reading needs of children, adolescents and adults. They then acquired the necessary books and delivered them to the library. Many books needed to be imported from abroad as they were not obtainable on the local market. There are only a handful of bookshops in the entire country and no functional publishing house. Since opening, the Cankuzo library is now being used by around 3,000 people every month.
Day three came to an end and we reached our hotel again shortly after nightfall. Tired but overwhelmed by our impressions, we ended the day with a well-earned beer.
On the fourth day, as every morning, we were awoken at 05:00 by the prayers of the muezzin. That meant two hours until breakfast. Our morning wash was usually a cursory affair as there was almost invariably no running water available. At 07:30, we began our next fully packed day. The first project we visited was a small village in the countryside, where we met the godson of my fellow travelers, Judy Bailey Depuhl and Patrick Depuhl. Judy Bailey Depuhl is a Christian pop music singer, composer and musician and has been a World Vision ambassador for many years.
Achieving constant improvements in the lives of needy children is only possible if their environment is altered. The help of a World Vision sponsorship is therefore not limited to the godchild – the child’s family and environment are also involved.
At 09:30, we headed off to visit World Vision’s FARN project in Muterero. The FARN project is intended to fight malnutrition among children. To this end, mothers receive training in nutrition, cultivation and cooking skills. In the process, the women learn how to prepare nutritious and balanced meals using locally available foods.
An adequate and balanced diet is the basis for ensuring that children can develop healthily. In Cankuzo, however, many children are malnourished. They rarely have enough to eat and even if the amount is sufficient, their food often lacks essential vitamins and nutrients. As a consequence, the children are underweight or even experience retarded growth, both of which have long-term consequences for their health and achievement potential.
One very special moment was when I met my little namesake “Frank”. Judy Bailey Depuhl and I settled down on the straw mats among all the mothers and children to learn more about their worries and fears. My little friend Frank came up to me and sat on my lap, showing no fear of contact with the big, gray-haired man. He laughed and played with me – and it was at precisely this moment that I knew our donations had arrived at exactly the right place and with the right partner.
Two hours later, it was once again time to say goodbye. With a heavy heart we continued our round of visits.
Forget for a moment anything you thought you knew about pineapples. As we continued our journey through the province, we were given the opportunity to visit a pineapple plantation. We were greeted by Charles, a man whose charisma would have made him perfectly suited to take a part in any movie about Africa. He stood in front of a farmers’ collective, established by World Vision. Spread over several hectares, the principle crop is pineapple. The project is going well and sales of the products are working.
Within one year, the area of ground under cultivation had been increased from two to seven hectares. We had the good fortune to be given some pineapple, freshly cut from the low-growing shrubs – a flavor that could simply not be matched by anything we could buy at home. Through their training activities, World Vision has already helped 7,654 smallholders to apply resource-saving methods of farming. As a result, approximately one-third of them have already increased their incomes by at least 20%.
The final item on our trip was a visit to a women’s savings group – a path out of poverty. Here, women are supported in the establishment of savings groups. The women save together. Through joint savings, the members build up their own capital. From this capital, they can in turn mutually fund small loans, which are used as seed money for ideas. This system, which thrives on the cohesion of the village and group community, works extremely well. Repayment rates are almost 100 percent.
And so the last day of our trip came to an end. A journey that left so many impressions that I will probably need weeks to sort and classify them all. An experience that I would not have missed for anything. I would very much like to return to this corner of the earth again to personally evaluate the development of the country and the people.
4. What happens next?
Over the next three years, working together with World Vision, Mosca GmbH will support many more educational projects in Cankuzo. We aim to build more new elementary schools or to renovate or extend existing facilities.
In addition, we will invest even more in the quality of education. One central change indicator will be the reading skills of children, because it has been scientifically proven that this is a key competence for further child development. Teachers will be trained to achieve this goal. Children and young people will be supported to learn reading, writing and arithmetic in an improved school and home environment. It is important that other family members and neighbors help in this work – and we will ensure that they get the support they need.
Further, local reading materials will be produced. Supported by local World Vision staff and using specific software, the people in Cankuzo will be able to produce locally adapted literacy, teaching and learning materials. In this way, they will themselves become authors and publishers. This will not only provide valuable new reading material to enrich the currently modest provision. The participation of adults and children in producing books will also stimulate their creativity and self-reliance while promoting reading skills and concentration.