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How Burundi Communities Graduated from Extreme Poverty

Just when I thought our ride on an almost-road in the lush Burundi countryside couldn’t get any more harrowing, the Food for the Hungry driver stopped at a rickety bridge and told the passengers to get out.

Together, we approached the ramshackle structure. Made from six-inch-in-diameter tree trunks, it looked more like a catwalk than something intended for vehicles. I stared at it wondering how our Land Cruiser could make it across.

The bridge’s builders had stacked a truck-wide row of timber lengthwise on a frame and laid others perpendicular to those. Many of the boards on the left side had long ago plunged into the gorge below. This resulted in a wide, left-side opening that could easily cause our ride to follow the missing boards’ path to the bottom.

We passengers avoided looking down as we walked across the right side. Our driver inched the vehicle forward, and I prayed he could keep the left tires on the bridge’s one left-side tree trunk.

Burundi is an Example of a Hard Place!

Located in the Great Lakes region of East Africa, Burundi is a beautiful country with fertile land and plenty of rainfall. Its shambled infrastructure resulted from a 12-year, ethnic-based civil war that some have called one of Africa’s most difficult conflicts.

Average life expectancy is only 50 years in Burundi. That’s because, with a per-capita income of $900 per year ($75 a month, or less than $2.50 a day), people lack the basic necessities to sustain life. Things like access to clean water, education, adequate healthcare, and nutrition.

Food for the Hungry began working in Burundi in 2006 to help repatriate returning war refugees. We sought out the most vulnerable communities—people living on less than $1.90 a day, which is the World Bank definition of extreme poverty. We began with agriculture, food, and medical supply distributions and now focus community development.

The purpose of my trip was to celebrate with 13 of these remote communities as they graduated from extreme poverty. They can now sustain their own development without outside help.

Sophie’s Story

Hours after making it across the dilapidated bridge, our group approached the village where graduation celebrants gathered. One tiny house caught my immediate attention.

It blew me away!

Twenty different kinds of vegetable plants and fruit trees surrounded the house. A hedge of bushes and marigolds outlined those. I’ve been told that people who have hope plant flowers. The owner of this house obviously fit that description.

As we approached the house, healthy children emerged and ran toward us. Within minutes, about 100 neighbor kids trailed us everywhere we went.

The Food for the Hungry Burundi staff introduced me to the house’s owner. Sophie flashed a happy smile and showed our group around with the pride of someone who had overcome steep challenges.

She choked up when she described running into the bush to escape marauding soldiers during the war. When she returned years later, she had nothing except hungry children and the tattered clothes they all wore.

“I’m thankful FH showed up when they did,” she told me.

Sophie described the way our staff taught her how to raise crops, about balanced nutrition, and how proper sanitation could keep her kids from getting sick. Together with Sophie and her neighbors, we built schools, water wells, and latrines. We taught the kids how to wash their hands and the mothers how to start businesses.

Sophie became a leader in the community. She taught what she learned from FH to other mothers. Soon, her entire community was thriving.

One of her daughters still at home is a sponsored child. I asked Sophie what she wanted to say to the generous people who sponsored her daughter.

“What can I say to people who live on the other side of the world?” she asked. “They don’t know me or my community, but they gave money to help my daughter. To that family, all I can say is thank you. You saved us.”

How Child Sponsorship Helps

When people give their child sponsorship gifts to Food for the Hungry, their funds are pooled with the funds of other sponsors. While the sponsor exchanges letters and small gifts with their sponsored child, FH is hard at work using sponsors’ gifts to make the community a healthier and safer place for children to grow up.

Through child sponsorship, sponsors build a relationship with their sponsored child. (Read a story about the impact of child sponsorship on my own children.)

Because of the donations of generous sponsors, Food for the Hungry can work with the child’s entire community. Together, we provide access to education, nutrition, clean water, and healthcare. We teach parents about nutrition and sanitation.

We save lives … together!

The Celebration

The 13-community celebration of these accomplishments included singing, dancing, and speeches. A sponsored child read a poem of appreciation. “What you have done for us we will tell our children and our grandchildren,” she concluded.

One family performed a skit that showed the difference in their lives.

The father portrayed himself as he used to be: a drunk. “I was an idiot,” he said. “I didn’t value education and didn’t want my daughter to go to school.”

The daughter acted out her school experience. Before FH, she didn’t own a uniform and didn’t bathe often. She was often hungry. The other kids didn’t want to sit by her in class.

Once FH taught her father the difference an education, nutrition, and sanitation would make in his daughter’s life, she became a sponsored child. She got school books and a uniform. Her father learned about family relationships and farming practices. Her mother learned about gardening, sanitation, healthcare, and nutrition. The girl now attends school regularly and has friends.

“My uniform makes me feel like a boss,” she said.

In a speech, the governor of the district told how FH’s approach was different than other organizations who had tried to help his people.

“I can see and feel the difference,” he said. “FH has accomplished a lot, or I wouldn’t have come here to celebrate.”

I agree with that governor. From my work, I knew what FH does and how it changes lives. Now, I feel what it really means to communities as they graduate from extreme poverty.

If you want to help Food for the Hungry with the kind of work that recently graduated 13 communities in Burundi from extreme poverty, please give a donation here or sponsor a child here.