‘We Are No Longer Orphans’

‘We Are No Longer Orphans’

Publication info

Nicedore Nkurunziza, CARE Burundi

Dorothea Mpawenimana, a 22-year-old single mother of a 5-year-old daughter, has been the sole caretaker of seven younger brothers and sisters since her mother died. When I arrived at her home, I saw a medium-size wooden house, covered with metallic sheets. Outside, the ground was clean, and a goat and a pig were tied. Some of her younger siblings were playing, and somewere focused on their chores, stacking sugar cane and feeding the goat. Inside, a table and two chairs placed on a traditional mat constitute the sitting room. Although some subjects were difficult for her to talk about, she agreed to tell me her life story...

I was born in a poor family and grew up in misery. Since I was young, my parents were always bickering. When I was in primary school, my father couldn’t assist me with my school materials or fees. Every day, my mother had to work hard to feed the whole family. I was raped and became pregnant at the age of 18, and after giving birth, I was forced to leave school. At home, living conditions were becoming increasingly hard, because my father abandoned my mother to marry another wife. Later I learned that my mother was suffering from a sexually transmitted disease, and for this reason my father had left her. 

My mother became very ill. I decided to go to take care of her in Kiremba hospital, where she was being treated. The hospital was too far from our home to return on foot, so I had to stay there and beg in order to eat and to feed my mother. After a long time at the hospital, I asked my mother to request a transfer to a hospital closer to home. Despite the shorter distance, neither my family members nor my neighbors came to assist us. I continued to rely on begging in order to eat. Moreover, as I was always caring for my mother without the resources to care for myself, my hygiene suffered. Other caregivers at the hospital forced me to stay away from them. Even when I needed to eat what benefactors had given me, I had to go outside. Although I suffered, I could not give up caring for my mother. Finally, a doctor told me that my mother would never be cured. I cried the whole night. We returned home, and after a few days, my mother died while I was holding her in my arms. 

Then life became even more complicated. All the cultivable land belonged to our father and stepmother, who would not give my brothers or sisters even a small plot to farm. We lived as renters in our own house, which was very old and in the process of falling in. A few days after my mother’s death, our father came back home to speak with us. He wanted to know what we needed, as if he intended to support us. I took this opportunity to request that he build a new house for us, but he replied, “I will build this house when you have died or left this home.” Each time he came home, he insulted me and tried to get me to leave and go live with the father of my child. But my child’s father had raped me and disappeared after learning that I was pregnant. 

In spite of all this hardship, I was the firstborn in my family, and I had to demonstrate leadership and inspire hope in my younger brothers and sisters. 

I decided to ask my neighbors for support, and they helped me build the walls for a house. I didn’t have materials for the roof, so I decided to go to the community to seek assistance. When the leader of the community heard how serious my situation was, he gave me a few trees and 24 
metallic sheets. God bless him for this action. My neighbors helped me cover the house, which protected us from the heavy rain. One problem remained: how to get doors to close the house. 

In April 2014, I heard about a CARE Burundi project called POWER Africa – Promoting Opportunities for Women’s Economic Empowerment in Rural Africa. I learned that the project was targeting young girls, including single mothers, which impressed me because I was not used to see projects targeting women. The project was focused on saving and credit, and this made me hesitate. How could a poor person like me find the money for a weekly savings group? The field officer, though, insisted that other poor people had been able to save money. A few weeks later, I joined the Twitezimbere village savings and loan association (VSLA), and soon after was elected the president of the group. In the following days, I participated in CARE trainings on various topics that strengthened my leadership. I found in the group a place for inspiration and personal growth. I was committed to try my best to follow group activities, because I had a pressing need: I needed to buy doors for my house. We started with an individual weekly saving goal of 100 Burundian francs – only 6 cents in U.S. currency – but our money grew rapidly. 

A few months afterward, I took out a loan of 20,000 BIF ($13) and bought two avocado trees. After the sale of the crops, I had 85,000 BIF ($55). With that money, I bought two doors to close the house. The neighbors were surprised to see this process completed. With the remaining money, I bought a pig and a goat. I continued selling avocadoes and ripe bananas. My small business evolved rapidly, so that in September 2014, I had about 100,000 BIF ($65). 

I have two brothers and two sisters who had been forced to drop out of school when my mother got sick, because we could not afford the necessary supplies. Now, I realized that my savings were significant enough to allow my brothers and sisters – and me – to go back to school. In September 2014, I enrolled the five of us in school. 

I realized that I had strengthened my leadership skills since becoming a VSLA member. I was more aware of my rights following weekly trainings on life skills. In early 2015, I thought about how I could get access to cultivable land. I invited members from my group and they helped me cultivate rice on land that was previously used by my father and his wife. A member of my group informed my father that my intention was to grow food for my brothers and sisters. I also insisted that it was my right to cultivate the land as a member of the family. My father did not react, and I am still cultivating this land. 

Later, during a weekly savings meeting, two boys attacked our VSLA and stole 89,750 BIF ($58) of our savings from the cash box. Evil never comes alone. One of them beat me, tore my shirt and broke my glasses. This attack hampered the growth of our group. We complained to the court and I, as the group leader, had to sacrifice some schooldays to follow the case in court. We are still waiting for the closure of the process. In addition, when the boy attacked me, my eye was injured, which disturbed my vision. When we had first-quarter exams, I had a vision problem. During final examinations, a teacher saw me turning my head down – so that I could see the paper – and thought I was cheating. He failed me for the course, but that did not discourage me. I had developed coping strategies, and I continued school despite the failure.  

With my small commerce, I manage to cover my family’s basic needs and pay school fees for the five of us. I tend to my business during the day and review my studies at night. Normally, during the school period, I study long after my brothers and sisters have gone to sleep. In the morning, I wake up early to prepare food for them and to revise their lessons before sending them to school. In February 2015, I bought a new pair of glasses. I still have 75,000 BIF ($48) in capital, besides the pig and goat that I bought. At the end of the school year, I succeeded in passing and am very proud for that I will soon go to Form 4. Three of my four brothers and sisters also passed the school year successfully. 

It is difficult to take care of my younger brothers and sisters as a single woman. However, through my VSLA group, I have learned that regular meetings are a good strategy for developing positive relationships with other people. I use this same strategy in my family. At the end of each week, I organize a family meeting with all the children, and we exchange ideas on what went successfully and what went wrong during the week. When I hear that one of them has been repeatedly misbehaving, I organize a meeting even before the end of the week to correct his or her behavior. 

CARE has given me a spirit of leadership that has inspired me to help guide my family and lessen our suffering. POWER Africa has helped fill the gap my mother left, and my siblings and I are no longer orphans. I am proud of this, and I am confident that I will successfully lead my family to a better life. 


Dorothea Mpawenimana was able to provide a home for her daughter and seven younger siblings thanks to leadership training and income-generating skills she learned through her village savings and loan association.