Literacy - lighting the path for women in Burundi
“By your words I can see where I’m going; they throw a beam of light on my dark path.” (Psalm 119:105, The Message)
One of many stand-out experiences for me during the Kingdom Voices programme in August this year was a 30 minute small-group meeting at the start of the Global Partners’ Conference day at Tobar Mhuire Retreat Centre, Crossgar. Our 36 visiting guests were divided into mixed groups of 5 or 6 for fellowship, bible reflection and prayer. In my group there was a delegate from Nepal, a South American Bishop and his wife, and a couple from Burundi – Bishop Aimé Joseph and Madame Bénigne Kimararungu from the Diocese of Gitega.
It was a beautiful time of sharing where the need to listen closely to each other was brought into stark relief due to the range of different cultures, different mother-tongues, and – in Madame Bénigne’s case – the need for translation into her first language of Kirundi.
Reflecting on the bible passage we were studying, group members were asked to share a simple story from their home church that would encourage the others in the group. A number of exciting stories were shared in English and each one was translated phrase by phrase into Kirundi for Mme Bénigne by her husband, but she herself had not yet spoken. I then asked if she would like to share something. There was a long pause, followed by the most gentle contribution so far, which Bishop Aimé Joseph translated – phrase by quietly spoken phrase – back into English. As we listened, it was like a curtain being drawn back and light came flooding in!
“I am the President of the Mothers’ Union in Gitega Diocese,” she began, “and we have around 1,200 members. Many of the women in our rural areas cannot read or write, and they are struggling to make ends meet as they bring up their children. Back in 2004 the Mothers’ Union started a Women’s Literacy Programme, and although we worked hard, the needs were huge and there were many areas we could not reach. In 2020 CMSI supported us with funds from the Church of Ireland Bishops’ Appeal, which enabled us to buy educational materials and pay for training and transport so that 16 more facilitators from the archdeaconries of Nyabitsinda and Kabanga could be upskilled. We planned that these 16 would then train up a further 320 women over the next year, but in fact they have so far reached 461 participants – including 82 men!
We now have a total of 100 trained facilitators throughout the Diocese, and each one is running a 12-month literacy and business skills class with around 20 participants in their local area. The Programme is not only focussed on reading and writing, however: we call it The Literacy Programme based on Development. We aim to empower prticipants in order to achieve positive change in both physical and spiritual aspects of life, so the lessons include training in savings and credit skills and small business skills. Cross-cutting issues such as gender-based violence, the environment and matters of faith are also discussed.
The groups are working amazingly well, with around 2,000 women currently being trained. Many of these women are now able to earn their own income, which helps provide school uniforms, books and other essentials for their children, as well as increasing their offerings to the church. As they grow in self-confidence, the levels of gender-based violence are going down and the Kingdom of God is being extended too. This is because the programme is open to all in the community and there are some members who have benefitted so much that they are coming to faith and joining the church.”
Having only recently taken on the role of Partnership Coordinator for Burundi, I found this testimony wonderfully encouraging. According to the United Nations Human Development Index, Burundi is the 3rd poorest country in the world - ranked 185 out of 188 countries - with lack of education being one of the key issues contributing to this figure. Rates of illiteracy for those over 15 years of age are men at 23.7% and women at 38.8%. This is reflected in the literacy rates surveyed by the Mothers’ Union leaders in Gitega, with a third of their members unable to read or write at all. Functional literacy is recognised as a key to economic development alongside basic finance management skills. As women are usually responsible for managing the daily household requirements for the family, there essential skills are of paramount importance. But with only 13% of the population living in urban areas, it is harder to reach those who need this support. If women are to access literacy and business skills these classes must be delivered in rural areas.
This means that the grass roots network of the Diocesan Mothers’ Union in Gitega is ideally placed to reach out to some of the most vulnerable and marginalised people on the planet. Because of the longstanding partnership CMSI has developed with the Diocese, link parishes and Bishops Appeal are able to offer support and prayers through a locally led initiative that is highly effective and at a minimal cost. This is truly the transforming love of Christ in action, an example of the Light of God’s Word - as well as the Light of Literacy - illuminating every aspect of people’s lives. As it says in Psalm 119, “By your words I can see where I’m going; they throw a beam of light on my dark path”