Jodi Mikalachki, former MCC worker in Burundi, helps Gakobwa Bélize, a student in Hope School’s preschool, to find the number one on the ground. This activity is indicative of the transition to child-centered activities and away from rote memorization.
Photo courtesy of Jodi Mikalachki

Jodi Mikalachki, former MCC worker in Burundi, helps Gakobwa Bélize, a student in Hope School’s preschool, to find the number one on the ground. This activity is indicative of the transition to child-centered activities and away from rote memorization.

AKRON, Pa. – New child-centered teaching for preschoolers and the continued growth of Hope School are improving opportunities for the Batwa, an ethnic group in Burundi that has historically been pushed to the bottom rung of society.

The Batwa, who represent 1 percent of the population in Burundi, have been deprived of education as they struggle to survive the effects of a lengthy civil war, confiscation of their forest homeland and outright hostility toward their culture. The Tutsis and the Hutus make up the remaining 99 percent of the population.

Director Béatrice Munezero founded the only school for Batwa in Burundi in 2001 because she wanted to empower her own people through education. A school primarily for Batwa seemed necessary because those who attended government schools were beaten by classmates and teachers, both physically and psychologically.

Mennonite Central Committee’s (MCC) Global Family education sponsorship program has supported the school, which now has nine grades, during the past decade with funds for teacher support and training, as well as some material resources. Hope School is located in Nyangungu Hill in the Commune of Mutaho.

During the past three years, Jodi Mikalachki, MCC worker from Cambridge, Mass., helped Munezero make its preschool program more child-centered, a longstanding dream of the director.

The transition began by replacing rows of desks with low tables, chairs and floor mats, freeing preschoolers from the expectation that they sit quietly and gaze at a blackboard, chanting rote facts and taking exams. Instead, they engage in crafts, games and other activities to reinforce lessons.

Kindergarteners who have learned to read vowels now cut and paste the missing letters into simple words illustrated with pictures. Afterward, they go outdoors to play vowel hopscotch, Mikalachki wrote in a report on the school.

Without books to use, Mikalachki helped teachers use MCC annual calendars to prepare displays that elicited curiosity, fostered questions and sparked storytelling. For example, she wrote, students scanned a photo of Sudanese pupils jogging for details. “‘Are they running?’ their teacher asked. ‘No, they’re playing football,’ said a preschooler, pointing to a ball.”

People in Canada and the U.S. who are used to a plethora of educational playthings in preschools may think such innovation is trivial. But any initiative that fosters creativity and nurtures literate, independent thinkers familiar with today’s world undergirds efforts to raise the Batwa from the lowest rung of Burundian society.

The greatest obstacle to Batwa welfare today is a lack of land, according to Innocent Mahwikizi, who is Munezero’s husband and co-founder with her of an association to promote Batwa cultural and legal rights.

Historically hunter-gatherers, the Batwa gradually lost their forest home to farmers, to governments and even wealthy individuals in search of gold. Landlessness has left the Batwa in Burundi, one of the world’s poorest nations, at the bottom of the social heap, impoverished, illiterate, their traditions looked down upon.

The school is helping to bridge the respectability gap with many non-Batwa families in the community, including those who send their children to Hope School, where Batwa schoolmates become class leaders and Batwa parents are not afraid to speak at school committee meetings. Two-thirds of the school’s enrollment is Batwa; the remainder, Hutu and Tutsi.

The Batwa feel proud that they, despite their poverty and few numbers, are providing a quality school to their community, Mikalachki added.

Ninth-grader Claude Mbonimpa said he hopes his education at Hope School will allow him to help other Batwa.

“I am aware of the marginalization to which my people have been subjected, and I would like to study so that I can become a teacher. Then I can contribute to the education of my people, since up until now, we lack leaders who have been educated.”

The school has physically grown along with the children since its beginning 10 years ago, adding one classroom and grade level a year. The first class entered sixth grade in the 2007-2008 school year. Seven of the 29 students passed national exams qualifying them for secondary school, and so Hope School began building a secondary school.

“Year by year, they’ve overcome grave challenges to add a classroom and teachers to serve their new school,” said Rebecca Mosley, who, along with her husband, Paul Mosley, serves as an MCC representative for Burundi and Rwanda. The Mosleys, from Fallston, Md., spread the word about the additional needs at the school.

In June 2011, a shipment of books – French literature (the language used in the classroom), English children’s books, reference works and visual resources – arrived at Hope School. The collection of 20,000 books was coordinated by Rebecca Mosley’s mother, Jean Sack, of Fallston, for Hope School and other MCC projects.

The success of the school gives hope that the Batwa eventually will be accepted and able to contribute to their country.

“From students we will get doctors, engineers, writers, musicians, etc.,” wrote teacher Jean Bigirimana during an English class for teachers. “When you teach students, they become more intelligent and that makes you happy. You can see that tomorrow we will have a better country.”

Emily Will is a freelance writer from Fredrick, Maryland.