Youth lead by example in Burundi

“If we are together, we can develop our country. If we are divided, we will achieve nothing.”

By Sarah Pilchick with Eliane Luthi
An educator in Burundi
UNICEF Burundi/2016/Nijimbere
13 May 2016

RUMONGE, Burundi, 13 May 2016 – On the surface, the town of Rumonge looks like any other picturesque port city. Located on the shores of Lake Tanganyika, it is known mostly for fishing and trade. But like many towns in Burundi, there is another narrative emerging.

The country has seen cycles of ethnic and political violence since its independence, with a fresh political crisis breaking out in 2015, only ten years after the previous one officially ended. Constant migrations linked to cyclic conflict have also led to tensions between former refugees and host communities, threatening community cohesion. As a modest economic hub, Rumonge in particular has seen considerable numbers of returnees arrive and settle.

Alfred, 24, looks like any other young adult living in Rumonge. But like the town itself, there is more to him than meets the eye. Alfred is a peer educator, meaning he speaks to other young adults in his community about issues that affect them.

“I saw that in the community, people did not live in a good way with their neighbours. There are tensions between different groups, and they see each other as enemies. There was no solidarity before.”

As part of a peacebuilding programme run by UNICEF and partners, Alfred is working to ease some of those tensions. A core pillar of the strategy focuses on youth and adolescents, particularly developing their leadership and peacebuilding skills in order to strengthen their resilience against violence. With partner Province of the Anglican Church of Burundi (PEAB), UNICEF is supporting 60 peer educators like Alfred to build positive change in various parts of Burundi.

“I can see there has been a big change,” says Alfred. “After becoming a peer educator, I know I can live with my neighbours, and they can live with me.”

Eugénie, 24, a fellow peer educator from neighbouring Mutambara village, completely agrees. Besides being a peer educator, she serves as the head of her church choir, almost all of whose members are young.

“The peer education programme contributes to behavior change, surely. I am happy to be one of those who wants to make my village a better place for everyone.”

Not just talking

Beyond fostering dialogue through positive role models, the approach also has young people working on projects together as a way to bridge differences.

A man stands outside a house, Burundi
UNICEF Burundi/2016/Nijimbere
Neighbors come together outside a young entrepreneur’s shop in Rushubi, Bujumbura Rural. UNICEF's peacebuilding programme brings together young people of all political beliefs and ethnic groups in spite of their differences.

In partnership with Norwegian Church Aid, UNICEF’s peacebuilding programme offers training in entrepreneurship in vulnerable communities faced with politicization and migration. The initiative gives Burundi’s young people chance for self-sufficiency and stability by providing them with training in savings and loans, small and micro-enterprise management, and business plan development.

Owning a business is a big deal in Burundi. The country is consistently ranked as one of the poorest in the world, with 4 in 5 Burundians earning less than US$1.25 a day before the current conflict even began. More than half of the nearly 11.2 million people in Burundi are under the age of 18, with various circumstances contributing to a dearth of jobs. Unemployment is a major problem and puts youth at risk of exploitation – or even political manipulation, in the current context.

“This programme is a valuable tool for young people to generate income considering the lack of jobs in the public and private sectors,” said Etienne Niyongabo, Education Officer with UNICEF Burundi, who facilitated training in monitoring and evaluation as well as peacebuilding techniques. “Without jobs, idle youth are more vulnerable to abuse and manipulation, which can have serious consequences on their lives and community cohesion.”

“The idea was to integrate peacebuilding competencies within one programme, entrepreneurship being one approach to transform relationships as participants interact and work towards a common goal,” added Solomon Gasana, Peacebuilding Specialist with UNICEF Burundi. “We start with personal development in terms of people knowing each other and themselves – their weaknesses and strengths – and then expand a little beyond into civic education. We talk about peace and community solidarity, community building, and community participation.”

Building peace

It is this chance to build bridges with current and former adversaries that is one of the major draws to programme.

One province over, in Bujumbura Rural, Ernest calls a meeting of his association to order. Speaking with the authority of a businessman with decades of experience, one would never guess that Ernest is just 23, and that his own business is just three months old.

Young men stand at a table, Burundi
UNICEF Burundi/2016/Nijimbere
Ernest and Cyriaque, business partners, lead the meeting of their association. The peacebuilding programme offers training in entrepreneurship in vulnerable communities like Rushubi that are faced with politicization and migration.

Rushubi and the other collines in Bujumbura Rural, just outside of the Burundi’s violence-affected capital, are highly politicized, with the current crisis highlighting tensions between different political affiliations.

After learning about values like solidarity and community building, participants have a chance to put their knowledge into practice by working with other community members in launching their own businesses, based on where they live and how similar their business ideas are.

The groups hold regular meetings and also purchase shares in each other’s businesses, so that the group can provide loans if needed.

Ernest was once a hair stylist and is now the co-owner of a recording studio with his neighbour. “The thing that attracts most of us is the prospect of coming together with others…because before April 2015, the cohesion in the neighbourhood wasn’t good because of different political opinions,” he said.

Participants spoke of learning to maintain peace in their neighbourhoods, learning to love their neighbours, and how to peacefully settle conflict, citing mutual respect as one of the most valuable topics they studied.

A few participants mentioned that in Burundi, politicians sometimes use the country’s youth to pursue their goals, and that it’s very easy for political divisions to ruin any sense of community. The programme brought together young people of all political beliefs and ethnic groups in spite of their differences.

“Now that we are together, we are part of building peace in our community,” Ernest said. “This helps us achieve our goals together, and now we are friends. In this community, when the elders see that we are together, they see that coming together in spite of differences is possible.”

In the current highly divided political context, coming together is instrumental in preventing a further deterioration of the situation.

“If there are more trainings like this, Burundian youth can become one family,” Ernest concluded. “If we are together, we can develop our country. If we are divided, we will achieve nothing.”