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In Burundi, the promise of universal primary education struggles with limited resources

© UNICEF video
Children pose for a photo during a ‘Back to School’ campaign in the capital, Bujumbura, organized by the Government of Burundi and UNICEF. The campaign was organized to boost primary school enrolment.

By Patricia Lone

GATUMBA, Burundi, 6 February 2006 – Bujumbura, Burundi’s capital, is a hopeful place these days. As a new government struggles to normalize the country after 13 years of bloody civil war, the city’s quiet bustle and subtle energy signal some wonderful changes taking place just below the surface.

One of the most important shifts is Burundi’s introduction of free primary education, which the new President, Pierre Nkurunziza, announced in his inaugural speech in September. Now the new government – brimming with the energy of young ministers and its first assembly of elected parliamentarians – is bearing down on the Millennium Development Goal of universal primary education for all children by 2015 with all the energy and resources it can muster.

The President’s promise is taking shape in school rooms bursting with new pupils, their desks crammed together in temporary buildings. Additional tent classrooms are provided to accommodate the overflow of students.

In Gatumba, a community just south of the capital, Madame Pelajie is the headmistress of L’École Primaire de Gatumba III, a bustling primary school with 1,320 students. The bareness of the facility and grounds of this learning environment is, in a way, a stark contrast to the enormous dignity and discipline of its teachers and pupils.

© UNICEF video
Children in a crowd watch dancers perform at a ‘Back to School’ campaign outside a school in Bujumbura.

There is no electricity in the school, and more acutely, no water. A crate with teaching materials from UNICEF sits in the headmistress’s office, and new desks from UNICEF are on order, expected to arrive soon. But more materials and texts are needed, especially now that each class has about 80 children. In one classroom, Jeannette, 11, is learning French. She is squeezed in with four other students at a desk built for two, with the five student sharing one French textbook.

The community served by this primary school is poor, comprised mostly of children from internally displaced families, torn from their homes by civil war. More than 300 children in the school have been orphaned.

“We are building extra rooms,” she says, gesturing to temporary structures, covered by plastic roofs.

According to M. Albert, president of the Parents’ School Committee, water – or the lack of it – is on top of the committee’s agenda for this school. Another issue is the number of latrines – there are only eight unisex toilets for 1,320 pupils.

While UNICEF has been able to provide sanitation infrastructure to schools in Burundi, improve water quality monitoring and rehabilitate 300 springs, the situation in Gatumba is evidence that there is still much more to be done.

A reliable water source, new latrines and more books are all modest but vital improvements, unaffordable for the community in Gatumba, but not for the world. The abolition of fees is a wonderful step forward, but education still costs money, still calls for resources, and still needs investment.

Jonathan Schienberg contributed to this story.



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