Associate General Secretary for International Programs Kerri Kennedy reports on her recent trip to Burundi.

Burundi is celebrating its independence day this week, marking the day the country achieved independence from Belgium in 1962. In honor of this holiday, I thought I would take some time to reflect on my recent visit to the country. I had the opportunity to visit the Burundi programs during a quick trip that I took in June.  

Nearly a year into my tenure at AFSC, I had traveled to visit all of our international offices except Africa, and I was eager to get there. Six months pregnant, I was trying to fit in as much travel as possible before I had to stop flying. I ordered my maternity compression stockings and planned an eight-day visit to Kenya, Burundi, and Germany. It was a delightful whirlwind of a trip!

We spent the first days in Kenya, where I was inspired by the leadership and strength of the Africa team members that work in our regional office, Somalia, and Zimbabwe. Next, Africa Regional Director Dereje Wordofa and I flew to Burundi so that I could meet our new country director, Chasieh Moses Nteh, and visit programs.   

Landing in Bujumbura, we arrived in a beautiful, green, lush country surrounded by rolling hills. On the surface, you might not know that Burundi is recovering from 12 years of civil war, that Burundians still struggle with extreme poverty, and that pockets of violence and volatility permeate throughout the country. 

There is now a fragile peace. The government has made important strides including creating a National Reintegration Strategy with support from the United Nations and inputs from civil society groups. Plans are being made to create a conforming truth and reconciliation commission and preparations for the 2015 elections are underway already to make it violent-free and inclusive.    

AFSC, recognizing that in addition to the reconciliation and healing work, the economy needs to be stable and revitalized for lasting peace to endure, has focused its work on improving the socio-economic situation of beneficiaries, former refugees, ex-combatants, and host communities, while at the same time supporting trauma healing and promoting community reconciliation and social cohesion. Since 2008, AFSC’s programs have supported thousands of participants in these categories, ever mindful of the plight of the most vulnerable members of the host communities. 

During the trip, we visited three programs in “Peace Villages” in Bujumbura Mairie and Bujumbura Rural. Over half a million Burundians who were refugees in other neighboring countries have returned home over the past years, with the last set of about 35,000 returnees arriving in December 2012.

Peace Villages, with support from institutional donors such as UN agencies, are rural integrated villages made of traditional houses built to resettle internally displaced peoples, returning refugees, and ex-combatants in the hopes that this will help with conflict prevention.

All three groups were wrapping up their participation in a year-long program. AFSC, with local partners, has established a savings and loan groups in the communities. Participants meet each week and create a transparent local community banking system. Each member adds money to both the saving and investment pool each week. One funding pool allows members to access loans for income generating activities while the other is designed to be a gift fund that helps members in times of crisis such as a family illness or death. Each member participates for a year, taking and repaying loans or gifts as needed. At the end of the year, each member receives their start-up capital with interest and a percentage of the surplus. They then decide to rejoin or leave the group. It is a simple and effective system.

As I listened to the feedback and testimony of the participants, I was amazed and inspired. One woman told us how she went from subsistence farming where she never had enough to eat to purchasing plots of land for a rice farm. She not only has enough for her family, but she also employs three people to help run the farm, providing employment for others in the village.

One group together generated over 2 million Burundi Francs (roughly $1,300) in one year to be distributed to the group! Each member received a substantial increase to their initial contribution. To celebrate the success of the program, they decided to have a feast, building stronger communities ties in their Peace Village, and planned eagerly for the next year.    

We joined a women’s group and sat outside on woven rugs as mothers nursed infants and toddlers played behind us. Being the mother of a toddler with another on the way, I was particularly moved by this group, as one by one, women described how the program improved their lives. A few women talked about how participation reduced domestic violence, how it built a community safety net and helped them to better support their families. One single mother paid tribute to her ability to be supported by the other women while earning an income that can adequately feed her children after being abandoned by her husband. Another talked about battling daily with her husband over joining the group. When her husband became ill, she was able to support their family. Her husband now fully endorses the program and even joined his own group. She said their family has seen significant improvements in their quality of life.   

The Burundi programs exemplified the importance not only of the work we do to build relationships and improve household income but also how we work.

Our program works with strong local partners to support communities to help themselves as well as solve their own problems. Participants self-funded the program, adding as much as they could spare each week with facilitation from AFSC and its partners. We accompany them through the arduous process of rebuilding communities following protracted violent conflict, building social cohesion, and increasing their income. But our participants ensure its success by attending meetings each week and supporting each other to build peace. After one year, we reduce our support a bit. At the end of two years, we hope the community organizing is strong enough that we can provided some limited technical assistance and move on to another location where the program is needed. 

In my short visit, I saw that lives had been changed and that the benefits to participants would have a ripple effect to their families and communities. It made me proud to work for AFSC and hopeful that the people of Burundi will find a lasting peace and build communities that thrive.