Tag Archives: Burundi

Burundi: The role of Savings Groups in the Midst of Crisis

Despite all the upheaval in Burundi, Plant With Purpose’s programs there continue to function much as before, with the exception of those closest to the capital, where the violence has been the worst. One thing that we are quite interested in understanding better is how the work we are doing in communities is helping people weather the current upheaval, helping them to continue to farm their land and to maintain trust in their communities. One statistic that we track very closely is the average weekly savings rate across the program. We currently have 6,500 families in 268 groups. The savings rate over the last six quarters is shown here:

Burundi Crisis Savings

What does the increase in savings rate mean? While it might reflect a measure of fearfulness and lack of opportuntity to invest money on things like crop inputs, hopefully it also reflects the deep level of trust amongst that VSLA groups help to foster. One would also hope that the trust fostered by these groups could also help prevent a deepening cycle of violence in Burundi.

A Village Savings and Loan Association (VSLA) meetings in southern Burundi

A Village Savings and Loan Association (VSLA) meetings in southern Burundi

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Creation Care in Burundi

Burundi has been in our throughts and prayers a lot lately, as they struggle with violence surrounding the president’s bid for a third term. I’ve been privileged to visit Burundi a few times in the last couple of years and shot this video of the Nyakazu Gorge. It does a pretty good job a highlighting some of Burundi’s incredible natural beauty, as well as the problems of poverty and environmental decline that farmers are working to overcome. If you like it, or have any feedback, leave a comment! Thanks.

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Spectacular hike through Nyakazu or “German’s Gorge” in Burundi

I had the privilege of hiking though this watershed and under this spectacular waterfall when I was in Burundi in January. Our team put the rough footage together into a three-minute video and I think it came out great! We were told we were the first people in 18 years to descend this gorge.

Even better, we just got a significant amount of the funding that we had needed to begin expanding our work in and protect this beautiful area.

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Planting Bananas and Peace in Burundi

Plant With Purpose works with some remarkable and dedicated local leaders. I met one of these recently on my trip to Burundi. Pastor Damien is the founder of the Horeb Church on the outskirts of Bujumbura, the capital of Burundi.

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Damien, at right, with Plant With Purpose board member J.K. Shea and Burundi Director Lazare Sebereko

Pastor Damien has a lot of be thankful for these days, with a thriving church of 150 people, a village savings and loan (VSLA) group of 25 people that meets in the church. In addition, the church grows and sells disease-resistant banana plants for $1.00 each and has already sold almost 300. Recently even the president of Burundi visited the church and, to show his appreciation, Damien gave the president a gift of 40 banana seedlings from the church’s nursery.

Plant With Purpose has supported all these aspects of Damien’s work, including helping build the tree nursery, providing banana cuttings and supporting and training the VSLA group. The church also hosts a Theology of Work group, which is training church and community leaders, many of whom have spent years languishing on refugees camps, on the importance of productive work.

Speaking with Damien, one might never guess all the difficulties that he has been through. In fact, his church was founded out of his experience of a serious illness, followed by his near-execution by a local militia. He explains, “I was not a believer in God and had become very sick; I spent six months in bed and lost my sight. At that time I had a vision of a church surrounded by a banana field, and God restored my sight. It truly was a miracle.”

But he still had more suffering ahead of him. As a member of the Hutu tribe with a Tutsi wife, Damien was targeted by extremist Hutu militias, who kidnapped him and took him to the jungle to be executed. As he was about to be killed, he asked his kidnappers, “Am I the only one here with a wife from another tribe? If there are others, why not kill all of us, rather than just me?” To his surprise the guerilla leader asked for a show of hands of who else had a wife from another tribe. The crisis became a moment of conviction for the group, who realized the mistake that they were making, and he was released. Even more remarkably, the guerilla leader and Damien became friends. Damien became the pastor the church, and the other man became the current President of Burundi.

As we talked Damien showed us the banana field that had been his vision. It had been a garbage dump and hostile local authorities dumped even more garbage on it when they learned of his plans to build a church there. His friendship with the president paid off and he was able to overcome their opposition. Now he has good relationships with all his neighbors, who are participating in the VSLA group and buying banana seedlings from the church. The old hatreds between Hutu and Tutsi are continuing to fall away, as both groups work together to seek a more peaceful and prosperous future.

At Plant With Purpose we are often asked how it is that we are able to combine economic, agricultural and spiritual development. Pastor Damien embodies this three-fold emphasis as he seeks to serve the many needs of his community. It was a privilege to meet him, and a great encouragement to know that he is just one of many men and women who are fulfilling similar roles.

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Burundi Bound

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In the past I’ve written a little bit about Burundi and Plant With Purpose’s work there, and now I’m super excited to be visiting in about a week.  In a short period of time, the program there has made really dramatic progress in improving people’s lives and I’m looking forward to seeing things and to getting to know Burundi. But first, some of the bad news: 

  • Burundi has one of world’s shortest life expectancies: 50.4 years (Source: United Nation’s Development Program-UNDP)
  • Burundi has suffered from ethnic conflict/civil war on and off for 30 years, which killed roughly 300,000 people and displaced many thousands more
  • Burundi ranked 185th out of 187 countries on the 2011 UNDP’s human development index, and 80% of its 8.5 million people live below the poverty line
  • Burundi’s economy is dependent on agriculture, which accounts for about 90% of employment, but the average plot size is only 1 acre (Sources: World Bank, IFAD)
  • 57% of children under five suffer from malnutrition (CIA World Fact Book: Burundi)

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Much of the farming in Burundi is done by women

These grim stats are the reason Plant With Purpose chose to work in Burundi; the needs are great. But in the five years we have been there we have seen some fantastic results and the program is expanding rapidly. The outstanding leadership of our local Burundian team has been the key. Here’s some of the good news. According to our most recent impact evaluation, farmers working in partnership with our local program:

  • Are more than twice as likely to eat dairy and fruit products each week
  • Are able to save 25% more money than non-participants
  • Are currently harvesting an average of 31 different kinds of crops, compared to only 20 among non-participants

The result of these activities has been improved family health, reduced stunting among children, and a greater sense of hope an unity in the local community. These are just a few highlights of the progress farmers in Burundi are making – I am really looking forward to learning more when I visit.

If you’d like to learn more about Burundi’s history and current challenges through the voice of Burundians themselves, I highly recommend Peter Uvin’s Life After Violence; this short book has been an invaluable resource for me as I prepare to visit Burundi. And if you’d like to support Plant With Purpose’s work in Burundi by sponsoring a village where we work, go here.

On this trip I will also be travelling to Tanzania to climb Mt. Kilimanjaro with our amazing friends at Wings of Kilimanjaro, but thought I’d post on Burundi first. More to follow!

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From Bloodshed to Hope in Burundi

Last week’s assassination of American Ambassador Chris Stevens in Libya was a horrific reminder of the dangers faced by American diplomats serving abroad. Stevens was the first Ambassador to be killed while on duty since Francis Meloy was killed in Lebanon in 1976, during another especially tumultuous period in US – Arab relations.

But in the intervening years, other ambassadors have survived assassinations. One in particular, Robert Krueger, served as the US Ambassador to the east African country of Burundi from 1994 to 1996.

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Former U.S. Ambassador to Burundi Robert Krueger

Krueger began his service in one of several devastating periods in Burundi’s history, after Burundi’s first ethnic Hutu president was killed and approximately up to 300,000 Hutus and Tutsis were subsequently massacred. (For a chronology of Burundi’s history, click here: http://tinyurl.com/9r8b3bw)

Unlike Chris Stevens in Libya, Krueger was not a career diplomat with extensive experience in the region he served. He was a political appointee, chosen by President Clinton after a failed run for a Senate seat.

Krueger’s lack of experience in the great lakes region did not keep him from engaging deeply in the Burundi’s many problems. Like Stevens, he used his position as ambassador to try to bring stability to a struggling country trying to overcome a legacy of repression and political violence. I had the recent opportunity to speak with Krueger from his home in New Braunfels, Texas, and he reflected on the role of American diplomats in supporting fragile states: “If we turn our backs on a place like Libya, we are missing an opportunity to stand with those who are truly struggling for freedom.”

As ambassador, Krueger not only gathered information on political killings and passed his reports on to Washington, but on several occasions traveled to the unstable countryside to personally investigate. On one occasion he nearly paid with his life as his convoy come under fire while government soldiers supposedly guarding his group did nothing.

Kruger details his experiences in the book he and his wife Kathleen wrote together, From Bloodshed to Hope in Burundi, a book I highly recommend, and one I’m looking forward to re-reading as I prepare to visit Burundi in January for the first time.

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