Growing up in rural Burundi, Oscar Nijimbere knew war and poverty intimately. As a young man, he knew how to sneak across the border into Tanzania and work in farmers’ fields for a bit of money.
At 22, what he didn’t know was how to earn a reliable income. His father farmed, but Nijimbere had to drop out of school at least two times before eighth grade to get odd jobs that helped his parents and five siblings survive. Farming wasn’t enough.
Nijimbere decided he needed to learn a trade.
Masonry, welding and mechanics required too much startup money or too much electricity. He had neither, so he decided to find someone who could teach him carpentry.
About that time, Nijimbere and a friend met Salvator Bucumi, a carpenter in Bukirasazi, a town in Gitega Province. Bucumi told the young men that he had openings for three people to learn carpentry through a free apprenticeship program run by Christian Union for Peace and Development (UCPD), a partner of MCC’s Global Family education program.
UCPD began this program in 2012 as a way to help vulnerable rural youth earn a living without going to urban areas, where they tend to be exploited as a cheap labor force, says Jean-Pierre Niyonzima, UCPD project coordinator.
Since then, 107 students have graduated in carpentry, sewing or masonry from the program in Bukirasazi.
After UCPD determined that Nijimbere, his friend Eric Havjarimana and another friend, Bonventure Bigirimana, qualified for the program, the three friends began training.
Three days a week, they walked an hour from their home area of Itaba to Bukirasazi to learn carpentry skills and also to take UCPD classes on conflict prevention, HIV and AIDS prevention, children’s rights and entrepreneurship.
“We went to training with a thirst to know the trade,” says Nijimbere. “I gave all my strength in learning.”
Nijimbere and his friends not only learned the trade. They set up a business together in rural Itaba after graduation in 2014. They rented property where they live together and built an open-air workshop with tree trunks for the frame and saplings for the rafters, which are covered with plastic.
Using the hand tools they were given during the program, they began making doors, windows, chairs, tables and beds for people in Itaba and surrounding areas.
They get orders, Nijimbere says, because they work fast and price their work less than their customers would pay in the closest city, Gitega. They earn enough to pay the rent, restock planks of wood and supply their daily needs.
And from April 2014 to March 2015, they agreed to serve with the apprentice program, receiving a stipend from UCPD to train nine apprentices and honing their own skills as they taught. “If there was something I didn’t master, while I’m teaching the apprentices it enables me to learn again that thing,” Nijimbere says.
To bolster their income, they also bought a bit of land where they can raise pigs and the food to feed them.
But the business needs more capital. Sometimes, Bigirimana says, they have to refuse customers who want more expensive products because the men don’t have the electricity or tools, which cost thousands of U.S. dollars, needed to make them.
Seeing the dilemma of graduates struggling to establish their businesses, UCPD, with MCC’s support, is offering a year’s extension of the program in 2015–2016 — teaching graduates how to legally organize themselves as a business and develop bylaws and strategic plans.
Once the businesses have a viable business plan, UCPD is offering to be a guarantor so business owners can apply for microloans. In addition, MCC is providing new tools for graduates who can show how the tools will benefit their business.
The carpenters — who named their business Umuco, meaning light in the local Kirundi language — were finishing their incorporation process last October.
“Within five years, if we have the capital, we will be well known and established carpenters within Gitega Province,” Nijimbere says.
And even as UCPD extends its work with additional training for these graduates, new youth are training in apprenticeships in Mutaho, another location in Gitega Province. There, in an area far enough way that the region isn’t too saturated with carpenters or other tradespeople, they too are gaining skills to build a new future without leaving home.
Linda Espenshade is news coordinator for MCC U.S. Matthew Lester is a photographer in Lancaster, Pa.