Burundi is a small, Central-East African nation whose recent history is tarnished by ethnic conflict, genocide, war and extreme poverty. However, it is a nation that is beginning to write itself a new story. In this photo a traditional Burundian drumming troupe take cues from its dynamic conductor. (It's a show not to be missed!)
Photography by Brandon Thiessen
Mennonite Central Committee (MCC) service worker Brandon Thiessen recently finished a three-year term working with partner organization Help Channel Burundi as a capacity-builder/reforestation worker in Burundi. Also an avid photographer, Thiessen put together a small collection of images he created during his term. "It was a nice way to remember some of the rich experiences I've had in the past three years," he said about working on this gallery and captions during his flight home. Thiessen has returned to Southern Ontario to spend time with his family before journeying across Canada and seeking work as a photographer.
Traveling around the country, one is mesmerised by the incredible beauty of the landscape, however, it is often a conflicted beauty, with the ubiquitous scars of unrestrained exploitation and erosion characterizing the densely populated hills. In this photo a well-known scene marks one's approach to Gitega, "Burundi's tea corner."
Help Channel Burundi, one of MCC Burundi/Rwanda's primary partners in the country, draws together a response to widespread food insecurity, environmental degradation and ethnic conflict in its flagship project of food-for-work reforestation. Communities establish nurseries, grow and maintain tree seedlings and plant them on the surrounding hillsides, for which they are paid salaries of food. In this photograph, Francine transplants freshly germinated tree sprouts into seedling sacks where they will remain until planting.
Twa (Pygmies) make up approximately 1 percent of the population of Burundi and neighboring Rwanda. With the disappearance of the majority of the original forest cover, their ancestral way of life as stewards of the forest is no longer possible. Most turn to day labor on neighboring farms or take up pottery to eke out a living. The feasibility of even this is now greatly diminished due to the importation of inexpensive plastic items from China. Here Mabgwana, a village elder, presents visitors with a pot.
MCC supports several projects whose goal is socio-economic reintegration of the Twa, including the Hope School for Twa children in Gitega Province. Most Twa children in Burundi will never complete elementary school because of intense poverty at home or stigmatization from other ethnic groups at school. In spite of this, their self-identity and culture remain remarkably intact and vibrant. In this photo, young Odette claps along to traditional singing and dancing led by the village elders.
Young shepherds monitor their herds above a spectacular vista of rolling hills covered in tea. Tea and coffee are the nation's only significant export commodities; its economic wellbeing depends on harvest yields and prices in the world market, both of which regularly fluctuate, as do the financial commitments of donor countries and agencies.
Maria plays peekaboo with the camera during a food-for-work salary distribution in Kirundo Province, northern Burundi. Her parents work in the MCC-supported reforestation project and are paid salaries of maize and MCC canned turkey meat in exchange for doing important work that will help to restore their environment.
MCC distributes school kits to thousands of needy students around the country. In 2008, every high school student in the province of Rutana, some 9,000 young Burundians, received a kit of school materials that had been donated and packaged by volunteers in Canada and the US.
Burundi is scrambling to deal with tens of thousands of refugees returning, voluntarily or not, from exile in neighboring Tanzania. Many fled Burundi as far back as 1972 during the first bout of ethnic conflict and genocide; others left in the mid '90s when the conflict sparked again. They often return with nothing at all and find that their ancestral homes and properties have been taken over. Here, Superida and her daughter Rose share a tender moment amid the difficult conditions of a refugee camp in which they live.
MCC has partnered with Help Channel Burundi to carry out distributions of food, seed, hoes, cooking utensils and shelter materials to thousands of returning refugees in Rutana and Makamba provinces of southern Burundi.
A distribution of goats continues in spite of a downpour in Rutana Province, southern Burundi. The most vulnerable households were targeted to receive three goats each, which will serve as an important source of manure for fertilizing fields, and the sale of offspring will provide much-needed income.
Anésie is embraced by her mother who recounts how Help Channel Burundi's reforestation program has helped their family. Through her mother's participation in the project, Anésie has been able to grow up with enough food to support proper early childhood development.