My introduction to Burundi, Africa, was getting soaked in a tropical downpour trying to get to the airport terminal in Bujumbura. That was OK though: It meant the rainy season had started and there would be water for our WSU 4-H Sister School Garden Program plantings.
Burundi is a small country located in East Central Africa sandwiched between the Democratic Republic of Congo and Lake Tanganyika, Rwanda and Tanzania. About the size of Maryland and with a population of 11 million people, the country is mountainous with land resources that can grow a wide range of crops. However, a devastating 13-year civil war that ended in 2006 damaged much of the agricultural, economic and social infrastructure that was undergoing a slow restoration. These issues, coupled with unpredictable seasonal rains over the past few years, have led to food shortages throughout the country.
Since 2013, a group of WSU 4-H and Extension staff, faculty and volunteers, including this writer, has been working with our partners, the Trauma, Healing and Reconciliation Services, or THARS, to develop a 4-H Positive Youth Development Program using school garden education at six elementary schools near Gitega in central Burundi. Our goal is to empower the students to develop the leadership skills they will need in the future through growing vegetables at their schools.
Only two of the schools have lunch programs and many students come to school hungry. Through its community programs, THARS promotes communication and collaboration to rebuild peace and reconciliation after the war. With THARS’ help, we created a local 4-H teaching team that used a school garden curriculum written for central Africa by Global 4-H. Most of our communication was done through internet conferencing; this was our third trip to Burundi.
We traveled from the former capital city of Bujumbura to Gitega, the new capital, on a narrow, winding mountain road crowded with bicycles, motorcycles and heavy trucks carrying all the country’s fuel, food and consumer goods from neighboring Tanzania. There were lots of new tin roofs on the mu brick houses along the way. We stayed at the THARS education center where living conditions were comfortable but a bit rustic. The center just received electricity from the grid in May 2018.
At each of the six schools we were greeted by excited students who danced for us, the customary greeting for important visitors. The girls at one of the schools even created a dance from the 4-H pledge that brought tears to the eyes of our 4-H team members. After welcoming us, we taught them Play for Peace noncompetitive games and distributed soccer balls and toured the gardens. Play for Peace is an international program that uses cooperative play to bring together children and youth together.
The garden program at each school emphasizes sustainable gardening practices such as using raised beds, managing soil fertility, mulching, natural pest control and sustainable water management. These practices are common in the U.S. but are unknown to Burundian farmers who use traditional African agricultural methods that rely on seasonal rains, hand tools and traditional seed stocks. There are no high-yielding seed stocks, mechanization or irrigation. Fertilizer is expensive.
“Our goal was to empower the students and community to explore new agricultural techniques,” said our project leader, Mary Katherine Deen, retired professor of human development at WSU. “We were fortunate to find a Global 4-H curriculum already written in French from Central Africa that explained these techniques in a culturally relevant manner.”
The gardens varied in size from a half-acre to an acre around the schools. Some were on flat ground while others were terraced into hillsides. At each school, the students proudly explained what they were growing, the techniques they were using and why. Common crops were carrots, onions, beans, peas, corn, watermelon, cabbage, beets, sweet potatoes, peanuts and plantains. Carrots were by far the students’ favorite vegetable. They showed us the water catchment systems that capture rain from the roofs to supply water to the gardens during the dry seasons. The students’ produce was either taken home to their families or used to augment lunch programs run by the United Nations at two schools. Still, the students couldn’t grow enough to alleviate the hunger that was present, especially between harvests.
The students were also taking their new techniques home to their mothers, the farmers in Burundi.
“Through their children, we gave them the know-how and the capacity to incorporate these new techniques into their traditional system and hopefully raise production.” Deen said.
At the Busagana School, the students used their new agriculture skills to purchase a pig so they would have manure for the garden and then market the piglets to the community to raise funds for their garden. One magic moment at Busagana was when the students started singing “We Shall Overcome” in English.
The highlight of the trip for me was teaching a workshop on the solar drying of vegetables and fruit for a group of teachers, administrators and community members. There is no food processing or refrigeration available to consumers or farmers when the harvest comes to market. Once the fresh crops are gone, food shortages develop until the next crop is ready for harvest.
We taught participants how to slice and cook the vegetables before placing them on screens under simple, clear plastic shelters set in the sun. Once the food dries, it can be stored at home for use between harvests or taken to market to extend sales potentially getting a better price for the farmer.
Over the past five years, the WSU has contributed $100,000 to the project mostly from donations and a few small grants. During the next phase of the project we will be seeking partners to help expand the project into more schools.
“We have started conversations with several Rotary International clubs in Washington and Burundi and are looking for other partners to expand the work,” Deen said.
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