Kibondo, Tanzania, February 15, 2000 - Joseph Manirakiza graduated from secondary school this last Saturday. Not so special in and of itself, even when one considers that Joseph is highly respected among his 23 classmates. Add the fact that this millennial commencement will graduate the very first class at Tanzania's Kanembwa Secondary School, and Joseph still hardly seems like material for international news - until one considers that the twenty-one year old Burundian lives in a refugee camp.
"I was at school, in Form 3, but was unable to continue my studies. There were some people who were killed by the soldiers. I left by myself. I met my mother here in the camp, along with my five brothers and sister."
That was in 1993 when the president of Burundi had been arrested by the Army and killed. Widespread rioting ensued. President Melchior Ndadaye had been the first democratically elected ethnic Hutu in this small African nation, where an estimated 85% of the six to seven million people are Hutu. Joseph Manirakiza is of Hutu descent, as are the majority of the 150,000 refugees that have entered Tanzania since civil unrest began. More than 17,000 of these people live in Kanembwa camp.
Prisca Niyonzima, also Hutu, is one of only two women to be graduating this year. "Many people in my family were somehow killed by soldiers." Prisca's mother had been working with the Ministry of the Environment and her father worked for civil aviation authority.
They managed to remain in Burundi until 1997 when flight seemed the only way for the family to stay alive. At that time, a coup by the Burundian army overthrew another democratically elected Hutu president (Sylvestre Ntibantuganya). Pierre Buyoya, an ethnic Tutsi, and leader of the predominantly Tutsi, Burundian army, took power.
"They were targeting the educated people," explained Barnabas Bugera, "the intellectuals." Barnabas has been headmaster of Kanembwa Secondary School since it opened in 1996.
Students are taught the traditional Burundian curriculum, in French and Kirundi (their local language) and all their teachers are fellow refugees. Though they concentrate on United Nations recommended, "education for repatriation," including environmental conservation and better farming techniques, students are also encouraged to learn Swahili and English to better understand their Tanzanian neighbors.
Kanembwa is the only secondary school facility for refugees in any of the several camps that line the Burundian/Tanzanian border. The United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) mandate provides for schooling only through primary grades. Kanenbwa Secondary School is funded by Tanganyika Christian Refugee Service (TCRS), through Action by Churches Together (ACT).
Mr. Bugera guides guests around the school's demonstration garden as if he were a proud father. Though he's undoubtedly pleased with the school's current enrollment of 204 students, his face absolutely beams when he mentions the 24 young Burundians who have managed, against so many odds, to achieve at least one of their dreams.
"I have always liked to study economy," twenty-three year old Prisca said. "I wanted a job at the Bank of Burundi."
While he lived in Burundi, Joseph debated whether he preferred journalism or medicine. Now he's certain he wants to be a doctor but he has no idea what his next step will be. No one is really in position to offer Joseph any assurance.
Burundi has a long history of civil unrest dating back to before its independence. Ethnic Tutsi ruled the area now called Burundi in kingdoms long before the Europeans arrived. Colonial leaders reinforced the ancient ruling establishment by educating primarily Tutsi and employing them in government posts and in the military. During colonial times, educated Hutu began to challenge dominance by the minority ethnic group and that situation only worsened after independence in July 1962.
The dreams of Joseph and Prisca, as well as those of several million Burundians, both resident and refugee, hinge on 21 February. This is when South African Ex-President Mandela, hosts the latest round of Burundian peace talks in Arusha, Tanzania. Many African leaders are expected to attend as are key international leaders or their representatives. Rebel militant groups operating in Burundi, that had been left out of previous mediations, are also expected to attend.
Regional trade embargoes and previous mediations led by the late Tanzanian Ex-President Mwalimu Julius Nyerere, has made little progress toward reconciliation. They've also had little effect on violence in Burundi as refugees continue streaming into the camps. In the past month their influx has averaged 1000 people each day.
Headmaster Barnabas Bugera will be at the new round of peace talks too. He'll represent the many Burundians who like himself long to return to a peaceful homeland. It's a faraway dream sometimes, like medical school seems to Joseph, or the Bank of Burundi seems to Prisca. But it doesn't stop him from doing his part, not in the peace talks, nor in his work preparing the next generation of Burundians to take their place in business and government.
"I can't forget how this school was given to us," said Joseph, a smile on his face and a gleam of sentiment, almost sadness in his eyes. "We had been here since 1994. Then we saw ourselves in schools again in 1996. Given a new start."
Twelve February will mark that new start for Kanembwa's twenty-four young graduates. Twenty-one February 2000 could - if the peace talks progress well - also mean a new start for millions of Burundians, both at home and abroad.
Elaine Eliah is freelance journalist currently writing for ACT International from Tanzania. A photo of Joseph Manirakiza and Prisca Niyonzima will be circulated to ACT Communicators separately.
For further information please contact: Nils Carstensen (mobile ++ 41 79 358 3171).
ACT Web Site address: http://www.act-intl.org
ACT is a worldwide network of churches and related agencies meeting human need through coordinated emergency response. The ACT Coordinating Office is based with the World Council of Churches (WCC) and the Lutheran World Federation (LWF) in Switzerland.