Burundi Friends International: A Small Organization with a big Mission

Burundian children

Burundian children – courtesy of Burundi Friends International

Burundi is a small East African country bordered by Tanzania, Rwanda and the Democratic Republic of the Congo. The continent of Africa is one with millions of years of rich history, though with the dawn of imperialism and the transatlantic slave trade, Africa’s wealth was stolen by invading groups, leaving the continent permanently crippled. Burundi is one of the poorest countries in Africa, and Burundi Friends International aims to empower the beautiful people of this country and ultimately stimulate the continent of Africa.

“I’ve truly been gifted in a lot of ways,” reflected BFI President and native Burundian Jeanine Niyonzima-Aroian. “I am very fortunate to be here and I have some great friends including people like Julie who were able to help us go back in Burundi and help us do the things that we do.”

BFI is a 100 percent, volunteer nonprofit organization that works with local partners in Burundi to meet the truly diverse needs of people residing in the country. Aroian describes the numerous needs that individuals face living in Burundi which include healthcare, education and self-sustaining entrepreneurial opportunity, “– all things that we want to take back to people of Burundi. [Through BFI] this is one way for us to eliminate poverty in Burundi, and that’s the whole purpose behind BFI, to really reach out to the people that nobody knows about, nobody’s heard about, and see what difference we can make in their lives.”

It is easy to miss the country of Burundi, as it is about the size of the state of Maryland. BFI originates from humble beginnings with its roots planted in a Catholic church to which its current board members belong. A small organization of women, Aroian channeled her desire to give back to her native country through the birth of BFI, which accomplishes a multitude of missions in Burundi.

“We all give our time and money to make things happen,” said Aroian in discussion one of several current missions to build schools. BFI received a grant from World Bank which provided funds towards additional classrooms, a high school, lab and housing for teachers. “The reason schooling is such a drive for me is because I know how precious it is to have an education. Only two percent of the population has a higher education in Burundi, so it’s huge. Education opens doors and opportunities,” she expressed.

For BFI, education is linked with healthcare, another critical area for Burundians. “When you are in a poor country, if people are sick, they can’t go to school. We just shipped a 40-foot container last year to Burundi, a reason for my trip this past summer. I visited different hospitals and clinics to see if things had been distributed to the right place and hear from the people. I checked for things we take for granted, like gloves, specimen trays and burn cream. One of the hospitals had a patient for eight months and when the burn cream was applied on the wound, two weeks later he was healed,” she added.

Julie Marner, chair of fundraising for BFI and choir director at UCSD, has worked extensively with Burundians and shared her personal experiences traveling and working in Burundi. Teaching English at Light University, a Christian University in Burundi’s capital city, Bujumbura, Marner spent four months building a personal relationship with students while also learning from the students. She taught a 60-hour communication class of 70 juniors and 79 seniors. “It was a great cultural exchange,” she remembers.

In 2013, 22,000 textbooks, along with clothing and computers will be shipped for the students’ use. The supplies are vital as Marner was only supplied with a chalkboard on her last trip.

“[The experience] is fascinating on so many levels. You have to be really creative because the point is to get the students to communicate. I figured out over time the less I talked, the more successful the class was. So we did a lot of small groups, or we did men and women debates about different issues, just to expand their vocabulary. I put things on the board – synonyms, antonyms, sentence structure and we’d go into small groups from there. But [the conversation] turned into different heavier subjects including law, politics, and religion. We also discussed what it’s like in America because they’re very curious; they don’t talk to many Americans. It’s either Canadians, or individuals from Belgium or France. And they all want to know about Americans because we’re supposed to be at the top of everything. So they might see one movie and think, ‘is America like that?’ And I was very careful about being the one American they met; to try and be as wide as I could be.”

Aroian and Marner shared Burundi’s bleak economic status, and BFI’s work to upturn the country’s financial prospects.

“Burundi is 90 percent agricultural with about 10.5 million people. Only 500,000 live in the capital and the country is the size of Maryland. You have this huge population in an agricultural setting with no infrastructure and no electricity. And then they have to walk miles and miles to go to school,” said Marner on the reason why teachers live in the capital, due to poor infrastructure.

Aroian further explained Burundi’s lack, citing that many are lucky to have just one meal a day. Marner then described an interesting discussion with her students on the importance of good healthcare. “We talked about how breakfast is the most important meal of the day. And they said, ‘well what if we couldn’t have that?’ A good way to expand education and open their minds is to communicate about these things. Nobody represents Burundians, so we at BFI are happy to do that.”

Former BFI President Jeanine Niyonzima-Aroian  visits her native country, Burundi to inspect hospitals and shipment of medical supplies.

Former BFI President Jeanine Niyonzima-Aroian visits her native country, Burundi to inspect hospitals and shipment of medical supplies. – courtesy of Burundi Friends International

Burundi was colonized by the Belgians and gained its independence in 1966. Since then, it has remained a French-speaking country. Burundi has recently become a part of the East African Community, which also includes Rwanda, Tanzania, Uganda and Kenya. One of the parameters included for all countries in the East African Community is to become English-speaking. Unfortunately, Burundi lags behind in this area. “Being a land-locked country makes it very difficult to communicate with the rest of the world and export, and it can also be a very dangerous area,” advised Marner. “The fact that Burundi is a French-speaking country and all other countries surrounding it are English-speaking blocks the country from being able to develop economically.”

Additionally, Burundi suffers from a massively high unemployment rate, and job opportunities for college graduates are bleak. Marner stresses individuals can either search for employment or become entrepreneurs, but neither are guaranteed forms of employment.

“We had electricity every day in 2010, and then last year in 2011 it was every other day. So entrepreneurs downtown in Bujumbura have to deal with running a business with no electricity. Some sewing machines are electric so you have to buy generators; well generators use gas and gas prices there are about $6.50 per gallon. But they don’t make enough money to do that and most can’t afford a generator, so business is just cut in half.” With those statistics, Marner said that Burundians must be brought up to speed with other English-speaking countries, the reason for which she strongly emphasizes teaching English. She added that Burundians are extremely motivated, and is encouraged by the progress.

BFI is a growing organization that needs more diversity. Aroian is the only person of color on the board and she stresses the importance of bringing in more diversity. “We want the Africans to go back to their own continent and be a part of this because it’s amazing. For me to see people who are not from there and have no connection with the culture or the continent going back, like Julie, and doing things with orphans and other projects we’ve been involved with, including  caring for the sick – seeing them having the heart to do it, for me it’s beyond my belief. Where are the African Americans? They should be the ones behind this call.”

The needs for Burundians are definitely endless, but the passion of BFI is great. “I feel I have been given this opportunity to do what I can and give back to the community. So it is a duty of mine to actually go back and to touch others who can also get the same feeling. Its’ quite moving for me,” shared Aroian.

“I can’t wait to go back. Burundi has my heart,” shared Marner.

To become involved with Burundi Friends International, please visit http://www.bufri.org/ or call (619) 800-2340.

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