Unversed in Burundi's official languages of French and Kirundi, children of refugees returning after decades spent in Anglophone countries, such as neighbouring Tanzania, often find it difficult to continue their studies and some drop out.
To ensure such students continue learning, a group of returnee teachers has set up an education centre in the commune of Mabanda in Makamba Province, near Tanzania. The teachers work without pay.
"We couldn't just sit back while our children faced a lack of education due to a language barrier," Norbert Bitaboneka, the principal, told IRIN.
Swahili and English are the languages of instruction at the facility, the Centre Prévisionnel de l'Afrique de l'Est (East African Planning Centre), in line with the Tanzanian curriculum. The language of instruction in Burundian schools is French.
Bitaboneka said: "These children have the potential to become important people; what counts is the degree certificate obtained, not where one gets it. It would have been irresponsible not to do something for these young people with no knowledge of French and Kirundi. This could even discourage [further] repatriation."
Burundi's southern provinces of Makamba, Bururi and Rutana host many returnees from Tanzania and some from the Democratic Republic of Congo.
Most of the returnee students affected by the language barrier are those whose parents fled Burundi during civil war in 1972.
"When I returned from Tanzania, I hoped to continue with my studies but I had no chance of doing so because I didn't understand French or Kirundi," Imed Hakiza, now a small-scale trader at Mabanda market, said.
Quest for knowledge
When the centre in Mabanda was established a year ago, Bitaboneka said, at least 600 students enrolled: "They wanted to continue learning in the languages they were familiar with, English and Swahili."
However, Bitaboneka said, student numbers have since dropped because the centre is not recognized by the Burundian government.
"The parents and pupils are right to think that the school is not recognized by Burundi law but they ought to know that those who regularly send their children to the centre will eventually see good results," Bitaboneka said.
Yared Nyandwi, the provincial director of education in Makamba, said the government was aware of the situation and that a solution was in prospect. "I can't say when the question will be solved but be sure it is under consideration," he said.
“The situation is complex. The school is not recognized by Burundian law but teachers and the principal are doing something good, which made us decide not to close the school even though we were asked to do so," he added.
He said he hoped the students would continue with the Tanzanian curriculum and obtain certificates after sitting Tanzanian examinations, despite studying in a different country.
Photo: Judith Basutama/IRIN
|The language of instruction in Burundian schools is French|
Bitaboneka urged to government to collaborate with the Tanzanian government to see whether pupils could sit examinations set by Tanzania's education ministry.
"We wrote to the Tanzanian Minister of Education about the situation and the answer was positive but the Tanzanian government required the Burundian government to bear the responsibility for transporting examination papers and pay all the required fees as well as salaries for teachers at the centre because they are currently not paid," Bitaboneka said.
However, Burundi has yet to respond to the request to cooperate with Tanzania. "We will continue to ask until the centre gets a good answer from the government," Bitaboneka said.
Besides the Mabanda centre, an international NGO, the Refugee Education Trust (RET), has set up a learning centre in Buheka, also in Makamba.
Barbara Zeus, RET's education manager, told IRIN: "We previously had 187 students learning at Level Zero at the Refugee Education Trust Buheka Learning Centre in 2010; out of these, at least 80 percent have reintegrated in secondary schools at levels higher than before the intervention.
"We have also enabled out-of-school youth who had abandoned their studies out of frustration due to language difficulties to join secondary schools."
Zeus said 300 students, 112 of whom are girls, have enrolled at Level Zero at the Buheka learning centre since January.
"We are preparing them to reintegrate into secondary schools in September," she said.
"Besides language training, we are adopting a holistic approach in providing returnees with life skills like sports for integration, culture and arts, awareness-raising and discussions of youth-relevant issues such as HIV/AIDS, sexual and reproductive health, environmental awareness and conflict resolution," Zeus said.
According to RET, some 690 students are enrolled in intermediate level courses to learn French and Kirundi and culture clubs have been set up in 37 secondary schools across the provinces of Bururi, Makamba and Rutana.
"We are hoping to scale up these interventions in the future to allow more students to benefit from this language training," Zeus said.
Jeanne, 18, an RET beneficiary, said: "I am glad that there are people thinking about me while my family lives in poverty, which has caused many pupils to drop out of school."
She hoped the training she had received would help her integrate into Burundi educational system. "I am now able to speak Kirundi and French well and can compete with those children who were born in Burundi."