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Language a challenge for children returning to Burundi

UNICEF Image: Burundi, education
© UNICEF video
At a UNICEF-supported language school for returning refugees in Burundi, a girl sings with her classmates in Kirundi, the local language, as a demonstration of their progresses.

By Natacha Ikoli

BUJUMBURA, Burundi, 18 September 2008 – Burundi is small nation wedged between Tanzania, the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Rwanda. For years, ethnic clashes have riven the country. Today, families who fled the violence are coming back, only to face new challenges.

Children in post-conflict countries such as Burundi need special support to get back on track through education. The massive flow of returnees can be a difficult burden to handle, but education can act as a stabilizing force for communities affected by conflict. It also helps to jumpstart their recovery.

In the aftermath of genocides in 1972 and 1993, some 400,000 Burundians became refugees in neighbouring countries. Since a peace treaty was signed in 2006, Burundi has existed in a limbo between stability and low-intensity clashes.

Although the situation here is not yet entirely secure, at least one of Burundi’s neighbours, Tanzania, has announced the closure of all refugee camps by the end of 2008. While 75,000 Burundians have already returned, hundreds more must now choose whether to stay in a foreign country, without any support, or go back to a ‘homeland’ they hardly know.

Reintegrating into the community

Lois Manylabona left Burundi with his family in 1972, when he was just three years old. Now, he is finally returning to the only place he can call home.

UNICEF Image: Burundi, education
© UNICEF video
Claudine Yabenda is one of 20 teachers selected by the Burundian Ministry of Education to staff the school for returnees in Rumonge.

“No, I will never leave again because there is nothing as bad in the world as being a refugee,” says Mr. Manylabona, who now lives with his family in a camp near Rumonge, a village just an hour’s drive from the capital, Bujumbura. He knows that reintegrating into his new community won’t be easy. His biggest concern now is the fate of his three school-aged children, Mele, Amani and Asnet.

Returnee children like these are confronted with a language barrier. Most of them have little or no knowledge of French or Kirundi, the two main teaching languages in the Burundian school system.

Children make progress

To help children start the school year with some basic French and Kirundi, UNICEF and its partners are sponsoring a seven-week language course. Over 400 children are taking part in the course at a school in Rumonge. Children board at the school because is located far from many of the camps where they have been resettled.

Principal Raphael Nyando says the school’s goal is “to get these children to a good level so that next school year they can be competitive … and adapt to the Burundian school system.”

Mr. Manylabona’s children are enrolled in the programme and have already made considerable progress. He says he is confident that they will soon be able to integrate into a mainstream school.




3 September 2008:
UNICEF correspondent Natacha Ikoli reports from Burundi on efforts to help refugee children embrace a new language and community.
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