This small heart-shaped country at the centre of the African continent is struggling to rise out of its devastating colonial past which saw ethnic divisions entrenched between the Hutus and the Tutsis. A brutal civil war from 1993 to 2005 saw hundreds of thousands of people killed, with many more fleeing to neighbouring countries. While people have been steadily returning, the long-term consequences of the war continue to be felt.
The economy is weak, meaning that young people struggle to find work and are vulnerable to political manipulation. A constitutional crisis during the elections in 2015, which saw the President run for an additional disputed term, led to large scale unrest and the reopening of political and ethnic divisions. Young men in particular entered into conflict to fight for political parties in the name of their ethnic and political affiliations.
Burundi is the third most densely populated country in Africa and poverty rates are estimated at 87.1%. With an economy heavily dependent on agriculture, land ownership is critical for people trying to maintain an income and provide for their families. As people move back from refugee camps, the communities that they return to come under huge pressure to provide health services, education and land so that they can have a livelihood. Farmers are also highly vulnerable to the growing impacts of climate change.
It is individuals who bear the weight of all these experiences and difficulties. Burundi has never processed its painful past and so communities still carry the impact of past division. Neighbours mistrust one another and minor disputes can quickly turn violent.
How we’re responding
Cord recognises that for there to be sustainable peace in Burundi individuals must have their material needs met. It is only then that people can think about and make time for repairing the social fabric.
Getting an income
Providing opportunities for young people to start businesses and gain employment has been a major focus. Cord has established hundreds of self-help groups where young people can save money to start a business. This has been provided alongside vocational training in skills such as hairdressing, tailoring and welding. Not only do the groups help young people make a sustainable income, they also provide a space to build solidarity and encourage collaboration. All the groups are mixed in terms of social diversities, gender and political affiliation, and members are trained in peacebuilding skills. Cord has witnessed incredible stories of forgiveness and transformation as former enemies begin to work together.
Young people have also been challenging stereotypes. Often seen as troublemakers, some youth groups have used money they have made to benefit their community, for example running sports events for children or repairing the homes of elderly people. These young people are now being invited to help resolve conflicts and to share their experiences with neighbouring communities.
Building community cohesion
Cord has also used the self-help group approach to build cohesion between those returning to the country (returnees) and established communities, often known as host communities. Creating opportunities to work together has broken down barriers between different groups. Cord’s programme includes trauma counselling at a group level to help people come to terms with past wrongs and move forward to a peaceful future.
Knowing your rights
Understanding your rights is an essential first step in being able to advocate for them. Cord has focused on building the capacity of women, children and young people to understand and advocate for their rights, training them to be agents of change in their communities. Women in particular have demonstrated a greater confidence to speak out.
Supporting Batwa Communities
The Batwa minority group have faced systemic discrimination throughout Burundi’s history. 82% have never attended school. This rate is even higher for girls due to early marriage and a lack of food. A ban on hunting and the increasing use of plastic rather than clay pots has devastated two of their traditional practices, meaning their income and access to food has become even more limited. Cord has run targeted programmes with Batwa communities focusing on addressing the root causes of poverty and has successfully increased land productivity and food diversity. We have also improved the confidence of Batwa leaders to present their concerns to authorities.
Cord works with powerholders at all levels, from the most local council level (called colline meaning hill), to national level ministers and parliamentarians, as well as other key actors who influence laws and policies including faith leaders and network representatives. Cord has successfully created spaces for dialogue between power holders and communities which have led to greater community involvement in planning for local development. All Cord’s projects include activities that expose both parties to the mutual benefits of working together.
Hope on the horizon
Thousands of families around the world face the threat of losing their land, and with it, their homes and means to survive. But hope is uniting these poor communities; they are rising up against injustice. And you can stand shoulder to shoulder with them.