Robin Livingstone has been to the east African country of Burundi to visit projects that benefit from Concern Worldwide’s Food in a Fragile World appeal

YOU can’t blame a bloke for expecting that his first visit to Africa will reveal heat-hazed vistas of sun-scorched plain and racing herds of zebra and wildebeest throwing up thick clouds of red dust.

Burundi’s not like that. Burundi’s like Kerry with killer humidity and warmer rain. Rolling hills and majestic mountains abound, painted in the lushest green hues – stunningly gorgeous panoramas that any tourist board exec can only dream of and from which I could only look away long enough to wipe my sweat-soaked brow and face with the small towel that was to become my constant companion.

I was in Burundi with Concern Worldwide, Ireland’s largest humanitarian agency. For despite the richness of the landscape, the landlocked east African country is one of the poorest in the world. It’s tiny in terms of the continent – perhaps twice the size of Ireland – with around ten million citizens and a fast-growing youth population. Political uncertainty in recent years has stymied economic growth and food security is described as “precarious”.

Against that background, Concern has launched a new appeal to reach those most in need.

‘Food in a Fragile World’ will establish a new programme in Burundi which will aim to improve the health of over 40,000 children. The project will improve health systems to identify and treat sick and malnourished children and help families to grow and prepare nutritious food. The UK government will double all donations, meaning that the charity will be able to ensure more people get the food, water and healthcare they need to survive and reach their full potential.

Concern’s Graduation Programme is an effective way of moving vulnerable families out of extreme poverty. Over a period of up to three years, the programme closely supports people through a series of cash grants and skills training and coaching to help them build a sustainable livelihood. 2,000 people are currently benefiting from the Graduation Programme in Burundi in the provinces of Kirundo and Cibitoke. The model is simple but ambitious: 1) Find extremely poor households. 2) Make regular cash transfers to them so they can meet their basic needs while at the same time identifying and developing possible income streams. 3) Coach and mentor regularly. 4) Provide pathways to saving and credit facilities. 5) Transfer assets or capital, where necessary, to start or expand new ventures.

The journey to meet some graduates was a long one. Seven and a half hours from Dublin to the Ethiopian capital of Addis Ababa for a four-hour stopover before a three-hour hop (yes, in Africa, three hours is a hop) to the Burundian capital Bujumbura where my week of non-stop sweating began as we filled out landing cards and got our visas and passport stamps in the modest terminal building.

My face was stuck to the window of the Toyota Land Cruiser as we made our way through the shabby, bustling and endlessly fascinating city: businessmen in smart suits and barefoot children in rags side by side on the pavement; brightly dressed women carrying pots on their heads passing groups of schoolchildren in crisp, smart uniforms; reggae and hip-hop blaring from countless sound systems to an insistent backbeat of irritated car horns.

The Concern Bujumbura office is nestled near the bottom of the mountain that dominates the city – a pleasing avenue of cobbled straight streets with detached houses behind metal gates manned by private security guards. We ventured up the mountain for dinner in a restaurant overlooking Bujumbura, the city’s lights reflecting on the still waters of Lake Tanganyika. And then they weren’t. We’d had the first power cut of many over the days to come, for the brittle electricity supply across Burundi is frequently not up to the demands imposed upon it as the clock ticks past 6pm and darkness falls.

The drive next morning to the north-eastern province of Kirundo was a four-hour 3D film of the aforementioned visual wonders. For the first time we left the tarmac – the main roads are decent if rather potholed (again, a bit like Kerry) and we entered into the cloud of red dust which would envelope us for much of the next five days. We rocked around for maybe an hour and pulled up at the home of Aloys Murengrantwari, a father-of-six who’s on the Graduate Programme. He’s a member of the marginalised minority Batwa community, widely and inelegantly referred to as pygmies. The bicycle he obtained has changed his life and that of his wife and children – he uses it to fetch and sell water and he trades in ground cassava and maize. The bike also means that his children can be brought quickly to the nearest hospital should an emergency arise. The goats tethered to a nearby tree and the chickens scratching around the yards are visible proof of his changed circumstances.

“Before [the programme] we were sleeping on the floor and eating once per day,” says Aloys through an interpreter (the native language is Kirundi). “We were having problems sending the children to school – they were going sometimes twice a week. When I graduated I put a roof on the house, I improved our food situation. I learned how to use the money I received once a month and I also learned how use savings groups. Now we are better off even if things are still difficult sometimes.”

We’re off rocking through the red dust again on our way to the mud home of widowed mother-of-five Jacqueline Mukahigiro. No need to raise your eyes when you read the words mud home – mud is what nearly every home is made of, whether it’s mud packed into a wood frame or mud shaped into bricks. Jacqueline’s is wood-framed – or it was until it burned down some four months ago. She doesn’t know how the fire started, she only knows that the blaze destroyed the place. And suddenly the family was homeless.

“We stayed with in-laws for a while,”she recalls, “but that relationship deteriorated and we went to stay with some friends.”

Is there a husband to help?

‘My husband had three wives…” her voice trails off. Jacqueline and the children are on their own.

On their own except for Concern,that is, who selected Jacqueline for the Graduation Programme. With cash transfers she not only rebuilt her house, she put a corrugated iron roof on instead of one made of banana leaves. In Burundi, corrugated iron – sheet iron, they call it – is primarily grade A protection against the ravages of the two annual rainy seasons, but it’s also a visible sign of moderate prosperity and a cause for real pride, especially when the shiny silver blindingly reflects the afternoon sun.

Outside her new house with the sheet iron roof, Jacqueline makes banana juice, a cheap and very popular beverage made with bananas too small and green for market. It’s a laborious and time-consuming business, using two handfuls of straw to mash the bananas together in a trough then leaving it to ferment. But as the fermented liquid comes through the sieve into the jerry can, it does so in an income stream.

Not far away on the same hill (hills in the provinces are like our postal codes) Beatrice Ntarataze and her five kids haven’t yet felt the benefits of their Concern cash transfer, but they soon will. Close to the dilapidated house in which they’ve lived for 15 years – 30 mud-cracking hot seasons and 30 roof-punishing rainy seasons – she’s about to build a new home. The timber lies ready to be shaped to accept the clay in a pile nearby. She’s not going to build it alone – she’ll be helped by around 50 neighbours (think Amish community barn-building) and it will take three days to complete. Which means it’s finished, come to think of it. And with the new rainy season just under way, that’s something to smile about.

The sun was setting back at the Rama Hotel in Kirundo town and with my small towel heavy with sweat and my wet t-shirt cruelly defining my middle-aged spread, a cold shower was urgently required. Except in some hotels in Burundi there’s no running water. What there is is a plastic barrel of lukewarm water on the bathroom floor and floating in it is a large plastic mug. This facilitates what’s known as a ‘bucket shower’, which involves squatting on the floor of the non-functioning shower stall and pouring water over your head and body with the mug. It felt like a bit of an adventure – it also felt great. As did a large beer in a nearby restaurant. Dinner – which it nearly always did – consisted of goat brochettes, rice and fried banana; sleep consisted of finding my mosquito-netted bed without the aid of electricity.

We’re up early next day to raise more red Kirundo dust on our way to see a couple of teenage orphans; I’m fully expecting to be moved. And I am – but not in the tear-soaked-hankie way I was expecting. Instead, I’m moved to reflect on how a well thought-out relief programme can harness the courage and tenacity of two adolescents to such wonderful effect.

Jean Nshimirimana (17) and Clovis Kwizerimana (14) struggled to get by after the death of their parents within a few years of each other, and with the help of their older brother they just about managed. But when big brother got married, he was frank with them: he couldn’t support them and a wife. A spell with other family members didn’t work out and so the boys took to the bush to cut and chop and scavenge what materials they could to build a basic home on the small plot they had on the now divided family land. Now they had a basic roof over their heads, but too often nothing to put in their mouths. The chief of the hill on which they lived got wind of the Concern Graduation Programme and put Jean’s name forward. After some administrative glitches in relation to age and I.D., he was in.

The first cash transfer was used to buy a bike – and in the turn of a wheel life changed for the pair. Using the bike to carry large jerry cans of water from the distant lake, the boys sell most of it and part of their earnings allows them to pay a man to cultivate the beans, sunflower, cassava and maize they’re now growing on their plot while they go about their other business. Further cash transfers allowed them to build their house bigger and better. How can two schoolboys even think of doing something like that?

“When we were young,” recalls Jean with a smile, “we used to play at building houses and we decided to do it that way, only bigger. It’s the same with the crops, we used to watch them being planted while we played. I’m proud that we we were able to join the scheme. Proud and happy.”

In the administrative area of Mukerwa, 40-year-old Venerande Miburo is one of six Community Health Workers (CHWs) supported by Concern. The six are part of the larger Concern team of 550 CHWs across Burundi. We’ve come to see Venerande at her ‘clinic’ – a small, tidy clay building with a simple wooden desk and chair and a battered but secure metal cabinet containing a modest and vital supply of drugs and medical materials.

Venerande not only deals with cases of malaria and diarrhoea, she manages and treats malnutrition in its various stages and conditions. On top of reactive interventions, she supplies vital advice on breastfeeding, nutrition and hygiene.

Next week: On the rounds with Venerande and a storm in the mountains.

If you’d like to find out more about Concern’s Food in a Fragile World campaign, or if you’d like to make a donation which will be doubled by the UK government, you can go online at