Let’s Be United

Let’s Be United

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Donathe, her husband and children live in a dry and dusty village outside of Burundi’s capital city, Bujumbura. The area is well-known as the last rebel stronghold in Burundi’s long civil war – a brutal conflict that broke out in 1993 between the country’s main ethnic groups, the Hutus and Tutsis. The war claimed the lives of up to 300,000 people and mired the tiny country in extreme poverty. While 2005 is recognized as the year that the war officially ended, the rebel army encamped in Donathe’s village did not lay down arms until a little more than a year ago.

Today, Burundi Suffers the Scars of War

According to 2008 World Bank figures, the tiny east African nation has a per capita gross national income of a mere $140, the lowest of any country in the world. In 2009, the United Nations ranked Burundi in the bottom 10 for human development, using an index of well-being that relies not on gross national income but three areas of human development: “living a long and healthy life;” education and school enrollment; and standard of living.

And that’s not all. During the years of fighting, Burundians – especially women and children – were subjected to an onslaught of abuse, including murder, maiming, kidnapping, sexual assault and rape. This brutality has had a profound and lingering affect on the population’s physical, psychological and social well-being.

Donathe didn’t escape this fate. During the waning years of the war, four men intent on robbing her home, held Donathe’s husband back as they stabbed and raped her. Months later, when the military came to her village to investigate another rape and murder, neighbors revealed that Donathe was a survivor of a similar attack.

Along with a CARE-trained community leader, the military went to Donathe’s home to find out what happened. During the investigation, the community leader spoke to Donathe about the rights of women and the rights of survivors of rape. For the first time since she was attacked, Donathe opened up about her own experience and allowed the community leader to help her access health services and treatment. She was tested for sexually transmitted diseases and provided medication for preventing HIV infection – simple, low-cost protocols that save lives when accessed in time.

Soon after Donathe’s visit with the community leader, another group associated with CARE called a meeting in town. They invited Donathe and her neighbors to come together to denounce violence in the village, and for survivors of rape and gender-based violence to meet and support one another. Donathe attended her first meeting of “Gezaho!,” which in the local language means "Stop!” CARE designed this community-based program to establish medical, psychological and legal support for survivors of violence as well as to set in motion community mechanisms for the prevention of violence.

CARE carries out the “Gezaho!” program through solidarity groups that focus on savings and loan activities. Donathe had heard about the benefits of CARE's Village Savings and Loan Associations (VSLA) and was eager to participate. Over the objections of her husband, Adrían, who initially feared that the programs were a façade for recruiting Donathe to take up arms against the government, she became a member of a VSLA that named itself “Dushirehamwe Muri,” meaning "Let's Be United.”

Most VSLAs in Burundi set their weekly contribution amounts at a little less than 20 cents for the main fund and 5 cents for the social fund. The main fund is usually reserved for income-generating activities, such as buying seeds for planting or purchasing equipment needed to start a business. The VSLA members decide a low interest rate for loans, consider each application together and establish each loan’s length of repayment. The social fund is used for emergencies, such as when a parent needs to take their child to the hospital, and there is no interest charged to borrow from this fund.

After contributing to her VSLA for a while, Donathe took out a loan of approximately $5.00 to help Adrían; a loan he says that he desperately needed. As time passed and Adrían saw how the solidarity groups were helping his family and community, he became so convinced of the value of the Dushirehamew Muri VSLA that he decided to join himself!

Donathe took out another loan and bought livestock – a goat – and sold the goat’s offspring at a profit. With the proceeds she purchased more livestock – a sow, who is now pregnant. In comparison to some of her neighbor’s, Donathe’s participation in Dushirehamew Muri has set her family apart financially. She is still extremely poor. She lives in a small two-room mud house. But she has an elevated bed, food stored in gourds and a warm coat for her toddler. Donathe is saving outside of Dushirehamew Muri, too. She and Adrían are determined to send their youngest child to school, a “luxury” they once could not afford.

Donathe and Adrían are role models in their community and neighbors turn to both of them for advice and leadership. To honor Donathe’s commitment to helping her community develop, the members of Dushirehamwe Muri elected her the VSLA’s president.

Smiling shying, revealing a dimple in her right cheek, Donathe remarks that she thinks she was chosen to be a leader because she's kind.

She's proud that people trust her, and has decided to put her newfound expertise and confidence at the service of the whole village. Donathe even ran for election as a representative of her “colline” in Burundi. While she didn’t win the election, she plans on running again. We wish her the best!

Donathe with her child Nelly and husband Adrían in front home in the outskirts of Bujambura, Burundi.