When Twa people in the village of Nyangungu, Burundi, talk about being discriminated against and ostracized, they talk mostly about the way life used to be in their village.
“Our children, even though we sent them to other schools, our children were teased and chased away. Other people said they stink because they are Twa,” says Christiane Gakobwa, a mother of eight children, standing outside her red clay brick house.
She says she couldn’t give food to her neighbors who were from the majority Hutu and Tutsi ethnic groups because they would refuse it. They believed she would poison their porridge because she was Twa.
The Twa faced pervasive discrimination — no eating or drinking alongside people of other groups, no socializing. Twa avoided passing a Hutu garden because Hutus believed the garden would be cursed.
Hutu, Tutsi, Twa. All lived by a common understanding — the Twa would be treated as inferior people.
That was before the people of Nyangungu saw the impact of Hope School.
At the MCC-supported Hope School — the first school in Burundi established to give Twa children a place to study where they wouldn’t be ridiculed — Twa children are excelling. Alongside Hutu and Tutsi students, who have become their friends, Twa children are learning French, mathematics and more, showing themselves and their community that they are truly capable.
That is what Béatrice Munezero and her husband Innocent Mahwikizi, educators who are both from the Twa ethnic group, were striving for when they started the school in 2001 with two levels of preschool.
“I always wondered how my community could evolve like other communities,” says Mahwikizi, who kept his Twa ethnicity a secret as he pursued his education.
Today the school, which MCC has supported since its founding, has three levels of preschool and 10 grades. Seventy percent of the 315 students are Twa and the rest are Hutu and Tutsi, whose parents send their children to Hope School because they have come to appreciate the education and vision of the school.
Over the years, funds from MCC’s Global Family education program have helped make education affordable for the mix of students, and MCC workers have served at the school. Global Family has paid for school supplies, salaries and teacher trainings, including workshops on peacebuilding and human rights.
Teachers use what they learn in the trainings to encourage equality among the students, and administrators reinforce mutual respect when they meet with parents.
“We learned that Twa, Hutu and Tutsi have been created by the same God,” says Twa 10th grader Jean Sinzinkayo, who made his first Hutu friend, Libert, in second grade. They are still close friends today, studying and playing soccer and volleyball together.
“Now we live together. We share everything. There is no longer discrimination. Sometimes we have sleepovers to study for examinations,” Jean says.
The reason perspectives changed among students, says Claudine Twagirayeru, a 10th grade Hutu student, is because students who would not have been allowed to associate outside of school are becoming friends in school.
“First we sit together; we chat. If someone gets something to eat, we share. This contributes to the changing of our minds,” Claudine says. “Also, here we have teachers who help us to live together, helping us to change our minds and to help our societies evolve.”
Twa, Hutu and Tutsi parents too are meeting socially, sharing food, visiting each other and attending parties together, says Gakobwa.
So far, Munezero says, the teachers are Hutu or Tutsi because few Twa people have enough education yet to be teachers, but she expects that to change as more students graduate from Hope School.
Changing students’ prospects for education is a critical step in addressing the deep poverty stalking many Twa families.
Traditionally, Twa people lived by hunting and gathering in the forest. Then deforestation, loss of wildlife and consequential environmental protection laws pushed them into villages where the Hutu and Tutsi set the societal norms.
They took their place in the economic fabric of the community as day laborers and traditional makers of clay pots. They traded the clay cooking pots, made with mud from the river and fired over campfires, to their Hutu and Tutsi neighbors in exchange for food or a little money. But today demand for the pots is declining as people buy more durable metal cooking pots.
Salathiel Nzibariza, husband of Christiane Gakobwa, struggles to feed his family of eight children one meal a day by selling the pots his family makes and farming.
“Our parents lived by hunting, searching for what’s in the forest. But now times have changed. When we were growing up, we made pots. Now we realize that it will be better if we send our children to school to prepare for their future,” Nzibariza says.
Nzibariza and Gakobwa celebrate their children’s joy in school and the relationships they are forming.
“Thanks to this school, now our children can share everything with Hutu and Tutsi children,” says Gakobwa. “Our children go to school happy and come home happy. This is a big change.”
Where the majority of Twa children once dropped out by third grade, weary of taunts from both students and teachers, today some Hope School graduates are beginning to proceed into grades 11 and 12, prerequisites for university or teacher’s education.
That can bring its own challenges. Mahwikizi remembers an administrator for an upper-level school who was so surprised to learn that his top pupil was a Twa graduate of Hope School that he questioned both the student’s ethnicity and prior schooling.
Acceptance of Twa in Burundi may be slow, but it is happening, Mahwikizi says. Laws are now in place in the country to include Twa representatives in government and in all organizations.
Hope School is helping to provide educated, qualified Twa candidates to fill those roles, Mahwikizi says.
“The discrimination the Twa underwent from (the time of) their grandfathers is now being transformed generation to generation.”
Linda Espenshade is news coordinator for MCC U.S. Matthew Lester is a photographer in Lancaster, Pa.