A mother's story of changing weather
As the climate crisis wreaks havoc, Esther is determined to keep her children alive
Fourteen-year-old Veneranda hates it when her mother leaves for days to search for work.
“Then I have to be like a mother for my siblings,” she points out. “I get very tired because I have to take care of them and also look for food. When I don’t find any, we go to sleep hungry. My smallest sister, she cries all the time when our mum is not around, and I don’t know what to say to comfort her.”
Veneranda is the oldest girl in a family of four children. Their father left them eight years ago to marry another woman in the village, and he has not supported the family since. The children, aged 16, 14, 8 and 7, are left in the care of their mother, Esther, who owns nothing but a tiny plot of land near her one-room mud house with holes in the roof and not a single piece of furniture in it.
Until two years ago, Esther always managed to find work in her neighbour’s fields, earning 1,500 BIF (less than one dollar) a day.
Then the rains stopped.
Since then, Kibande hill, in north-eastern Burundi in Kirundo province, has experienced unpredictable rain patterns. “The rains come, and then before the crops start blooming, it stops and we can’t do anything but watch everything dry up and die,” she says.
This past month, Pascal Nketaguhiga, Esther’s neighbour, has had to buy corn from a shop, while his own crop dried up without producing a single cob. “More and more of us in the village go a whole day without food,” he says. “I don’t think anyone here eats more than once a day, and it’s often just boiled cassava leaves without oil.” Pascal, 57, remembers that it also happened in the 1980s, but it was never this bad, he says.
Esther belongs to a solidarity group, in which people from the same community gather and contribute regularly to grant each other small loans, make community investments and provide for the most vulnerable children in the community. UNICEF supports over 5,000 such solidarity groups across Burundi. “I am in debt by 30,000 BIF (15 dollars),” she says. “I have no idea how I am going to be able to repay the group.”
With no crops growing on the hill, Esther can no longer find regular work in her community. When she runs out of options, Esther walks to the next province – 30 km in one day – and works as a day labourer on farms. “I do a double shift,” she explains. “In the morning, I work to get something for my children, and in the afternoon, I work again, this time for a meal and a place to sleep.” After six days of work, Esther walks home with six kilos of beans, enough to feed her children for six days.
“When I can’t give my children enough to eat, they fall sick, and this is what worries me most when I have to go away,” says Esther. “I worry that they will be ill, and I won’t be around to take care of them.”
Kibande hill traditionally relies on two harvests: the seeds that are planted in September are harvested in January, and the second season is from March to June. Kirundo province is considered Burundi’s granary, but the past years have been difficult for the farmers and their families. Last year, says a local teacher, almost one in four children in the village dropped out of school because their families could no longer pay for school supplies or because the children were too busy trying to help the family make ends meet.
Esther has managed to keep only one of her children in school. Every morning, eight-year-old Divine puts on her uniform and walks to class, barefoot. When she returns home, she carefully folds the uniform and changes into old clothes – she can’t afford to ruin it.
Veneranda, her big sister, wishes she had been in school longer. “Of course, I wish I could go back,” she says, “but I doubt I will.”
Burundi is extremely vulnerable to climate change – triggering natural disasters – and as one of the poorest countries in the world, it has few means to protect its population. As always, children pay a heavy price during, and as a consequence of, these disasters: many must drop out of school because their parents cannot afford to pay for schooling, because they have to work to support the family, or because the school is simply no longer there. Children are vulnerable to poor hygiene conditions caused by dirty water and to malnutrition when the family has no income and therefore no food. Added to that is the potential exposure to exploitation, violence and abuse that so easily comes with extreme poverty.
Because these crises are recurrent in the country, UNICEF and humanitarian actors always aim to find sustainable solutions to the problems encountered and the needs expressed by the affected populations. The response to immediate needs, however, remains extremely limited, hampering the recovery capacity of the people affected and posing a high risk of protection for the most vulnerable, particularly children and women. It is estimated that UNICEF Burundi needs $6 million in 2021 to support families affected by natural disasters in the country.
By Donaig Le Du – Chief of Communication, UNICEF Burundi