November Small Grants Visit

After over a year of delays due to travel restrictions and violence in Bujumbura, I finally had the chance to go visit some of the projects that I oversee funding for. Our small grants projects are not meant to rival the large systemic projects funded by USAID or the World Bank - they're opportunities for the American people to assist small communities improve their own lives.

This trip was also an opportunity for me to see extremely remote rural areas of Burundi where poverty is common and electricity is scarce.

My colleague Elodie and I got up early and drove in an armored Embassy vehicle out to Rutana, in the east of Burundi. There, we visited our first project - Association Turere Ibibondo, where U.S. funding had allowed the group to grow manioc for women living with HIV.

Manioc plants don't look like much, and neither do manioc roots. In fact, manioc doesn't even provide that much nutritional value, but it is one of the staple foods upcountry. Resources are so scarce here that hungrier families will raid these manioc crops - digging at the roots with their hands at night. A guard showed us his hut that he sat in during the day to deter theft and he showed us a nearby plant whose roots had been partially dug up by hungry neighbors.

After lunch, we drove north to Gitega, Burundi's second city. In the outskirts of Gitega, we visited the Saint Bernadette Congregation, an orphanage run by nuns dressed in blue. Our small grant had bought the orphanage cows and chickens that the nuns kept for meat, milk and eggs.

We toured the orphanage - rooms filled with cribs and bunk beds, and another with a lone child sick with malaria.

The nuns then brought us to a room to thank us and sang songs and danced. Dancing nuns are a sight to see.

We finished the trip by meeting some of the kids. Some kids in Burundi are really excited to meet bazungu (white people) but these kids didn't seem very phased by us.

We had already started to run behind when we arrived at our next stop, the Saint Rita Foundation, also located in Gitega. Saint Rita is a center for disabled people and our grant had provided sewing materials for the members of the center to sew to make money. The Saint Rita experience was wild - they brought us to a room and sat us down next to a table filled with liquor bottles and presented a bunch of different performers, just for us!

Before we left, they gifted us with two chickens. I'm pretty sure that they somehow violated our gift policy, and what am I supposed to do with a live chicken, so we found a way to politely return them the next day.

We stayed the night in Gitega in an empty hotel. I've actually never been to a hotel in Burundi that isn't empty.

The next morning, we drove to Nyabinhanga, which is quite literally nowhere. We met some contacts on the "main" road and followed them on motorbikes deeper off the map. In Nyabihanga, we are funding a rabbit raising project for unemployed youth. The idea is that some youth in the group raise rabbits until they have babies, and then they give some of the babies to others in their group in a benevolent chain that benefits the whole group. The rabbits, as you'd imagine, are not pets.

Our final stop on the trip was the Shekinah Nursery School in Rusakah. The school had been set up partially with funding from the Japanese government. Cool! Our funding was for a piggery, the proceeds of the pigs went to the school. We checked out the school, then the piggery.

When we finished the tour, the children of the school had gathered together and sang us songs and performed dances. This is still the cutest video I have ever seen.

We made it back to Bujumbura before dark, richer in experience than we had been two days before.

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