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Interview: Claudette Kigeme, literacy, numeracy, and business-skills educator

26 July 2019

‘We need to make sure that girls are going to school — and staying there’

I’m the national co-ordinator of the Mothers’ Union in Burundi. I’m one of the 27 members of staff and more than 800 volunteer facilitators. Together, we work on a literacy and financial-education programme which supports more than 55,000 families.

We’re involved in transforming communities, but focus especially on families, and relationships within families, and helping with literacy and economic empowerment. The Mothers’ Union, Five Talents, Läkarmissionen, and other partners fund our work. In Burundi, I work within the Anglican Church, but our work reaches all members of the community, regardless of their religion, sex, age, etc.

We’re also dealing with gender-based violence, parenting, child-protection, reproductive health. As we work holistically, there is also the spiritual aspect.

The Bible says that the harvest is big but there few workers; so, we work alongside the ordained and lay ministers of the Church, contributing what we can. We can support marriage in a Christian way, and the education of children in the faith, and through fellowship.

Praying together as women and as mothers can be meaningful, rather than praying in a big group with people who may not have the same interests and issues and experiences. It’s a safe space for mothers to share more, especially spiritually. We do have members who joined when they were young, but we have a lot of young women who join as soon as they get married, because they want to know about marriage and parenting. I used to be the youngest member of my group, but now I’m middle-aged.

I used to work in rural development for the government, and I wasn’t happy to see that women were keeping silent and not expressing themselves. I wanted to see them acting for themselves, rather than waiting for men to speak for them.

I was happy to join the Mothers’ Union, because I felt it was a good time to help empower women and make them able to voice their concerns.

The Five Talents partnership came as a response to the needs of the people in an already established Mothers’ Union literacy programme. They wanted to help women to become more economically empowered, and receive training in business skills to gain access to the financial market that they didn’t have. Now it continues to fund and provide technical assistance.

I started training people in 2000. Nelson Mandela said that education is the most powerful weapon you can use to change the world. I wanted to empower people: to see what they can do better.

Burundi is among the poorest countries in the world, and education has not been seen as important. Now, things are changing, but girls’ education is not valued. We need to make sure that girls are going to school — and staying there, because this has been neglected in the past.

I am not teaching. Teaching means giving knowledge; we are facilitating. People already have knowledge; we help expand the knowledge that they have. Many vulnerable people have not been to school; so, we are facilitating the knowledge that they do have to help them in the future. For example, we encourage women to come together and discuss their own issues in their community, and to find a solution by themselves.

In the literacy programme, for us what is important is not formally teaching literacy but what women write, coming from themselves. They have something to share with others.

We don’t tell them: do this and this and this. People have a lot of knowledge; so they can come together and unlock their knowledge, perhaps about preparing food or knitting, and can go on and run small businesses.

Saving makes a great difference. Some people think that they are very poor, and can’t do anything, but, when they put a small amount of money together and start a small business, women realise that it’s not just economic gain. It helps their self-confidence, and they realise that they don’t need to beg from their husbands. Couples who used to quarrel get on better. Women can be valued, and help each other. Some say: “I used to be lonely, but now I have friends.”

I am not training directly in the field. Because I am a trainer of trainers, I can also use French or English. I am lucky to speak three different languages. When I work with community people, I use Kirundi, but in other regions I can use French or English.

The most difficult thing is getting the funding to enable us to reach all the people. There are so many people who want to be a part of the programme, but we do not always have the money to be able to do that.

If people can get on the programme, everything changes. In the beginning, people feared that they did not have money to save. Now, they can save. And now, when you ask those same people about the impact of the programme, they do not mention money. They mention the love and relationships that they have built because of the programme. The biggest impact is not financial empowerment (which they need), but the way the community grows and builds relationships together. The people’s transformation is the most surprising I’ve found. It is not about the amount of money they end up saving, but the transformation that the group gives them.

I enjoy being with family and friends. At work, I enjoy visiting people and families the most. I love to see the joy and laughter that the programme has brought into their families and into their lives.

In the morning, I pray and do my Bible study, and then I have household activities for my family, like shopping. During the day, I have to go to the office and do work. Afterwards, I may have social activities, before going home for more household duties and managing my family: like helping my children with homework.

I was educated by my family, and really enjoyed it: this was my informal education. I was also privileged to have a formal education. It gave me a chance to use all my skills and competencies. Some women are illiterate and neglected, and they are given limited opportunities to understand their potential. I was very lucky that I was able to attend school, learn, and grow my skills.

The first person who inspired me in my life was my mother. She is the one who taught me everything at home, sent me to school, and encouraged me to be the best. She is my inspiration. Mary Sumner says: “The education of a child starts 25 years before they are born”; so my mother has been teaching me a long time.

I can’t remember my life without God in it, because I grew up in a Christian family where I was taught at an early age that God is my protector. I grew up already knowing God. As I grew up, I felt that God was talking to me personally, and I knew his voice.

I have journeyed with God all my life. Now, I have more time to listen to him, and I know he is always on my side. Now I can also share my faith with others.

The one memorable thing that demanded the most courage from me was during the war, where we had to go on field visits to members of the community. I knew that God was my protector, even though others thought that going on those visits was not a very good or very safe thing to do.

I like to see people at peace, joyful, and with good relationships. It is injustice that makes me angry. My dream is to empower vulnerable people. Now I wish I could help more vulnerable children on the street.

There is a song which I love. It is a song about commitment to serve the Lord: “I, the Lord of sea and sky.” I know that, if I am here on the earth, I am here for a purpose. Wherever God sends me, I will go — that is my purpose.

My faith gives me hope for the future. I know that I am here for a reason. God put me here for something, and he will use me to make things better.

What I pray most for depends on what is happening. You cannot have the same prayer every day. I thank God for what he has given me, but I always pray for peace, justice, and security, as I come from a country that used to be at war. The Lord’s prayer is somewhat of a summary of all my prayers.

If I was locked in a church with anyone, I’d choose Jesus, for many reasons. Every time I read the Bible, I always get something new. I want to understand more about his love and his work, and what he wants us to do.

Claudette Kigeme was talking to Terence Handley MacMath.

www.mothersunion.org; www.fivetalents.org.uk

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