“Return to My Burundian Roots”

Elavie Ndura-Ouédraogo, Ed. D.

Associate Professor of Educational Transformation, George Mason University

(Welcome letter:Issue #59 – October 2008)  

The day I thought would never come actually came on a bright day of May 2006.  In the midst of the racing and pounding of the heart that I had for so long labored to maintain still- almost like in a frozen state- but which at this particular moment felt like it was about to burst from my narrow chest, the commander’s halting voice broke through. “Ladies and gentlemen, we’ll be landing in fifteen minutes. Thank you for flying Ethiopian Airlines. Welcome to Bujumbura.” The heart racing accelerated and the pounding intensified. My throat tightened. My exhausted eyes filled with a well of unanticipated tears. The Boeing touched down. I dashed to the exit, quite unaware of the presence of the other passengers on board the airplane. My trembling feet embraced the ground. Indeed, the day had come. I was standing on Burundian soil. It had been 16 years and 9 months.

The immigration services agent gazed at me through his glass window. He looked puzzled, almost confused. He stared again at my passport; my United States of America passport. “Look carefully,” I said, “I promise it’s me.” I managed to pull a faint smile out of him. “Welcome to Burundi,” he mumbled, hesitantly.

My eyes fell upon a smiling man of modest stature in a green suit and a white clerical collar, standing in front of the security gate. “Mon frere!” I exclaimed, falling into his wide open arms, with the weight of the almost 17 years of separation. He led me to a small crowd of survivors, congregated anxiously in the waiting area. With each hug, more tears flowed down my cheeks onto the dark blue casual blazer I had been wearing for three days. “Thank you for being alive,” I whispered in everyone’s ear as we squeezed each other’s ribs and wept, together.

Through countless supplications I had petitioned and begged the Almighty to grant me the opportunity to set foot on my native land, Burundi. The land that witnessed my simple arrival into this world, with no ushers, no fanfares, under a banana tree, on a bright and promising day of May almost five decades ago. I was back to the land over whose youth and beauty I marveled in “Voici Mon Pays,” a poem I wrote in March 1976 and which always brings tears to my eyes. Burundi, often referred to as the heart of Africa, is a small landlocked country located in central-eastern Africa between Tanzania, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and Rwanda. I was back to the native land that had witnessed the blinding storm of widowhood tear through my tender youth as my sweet husband and the father of my children fell victim to Tutsi supremacy.

Years of ethnic turmoil and civil war have left a lasting mark on the fragile nation of Burundi. And here I was, surrounded by broken hearts, abandoned graves, dilapidated neighborhoods, and ruined schools, yet trusting that education can mend lives and restore peace to my native land of Burundi. I landed as an American educator and researcher anchored in my Burundian roots. I wanted to capture educators’ perceptions of the role of education in the quest for sustainable peace. I was encouraged by what I learned, so I returned to the field to learn more the following year in 2007. This time, I wanted to gage the contributions of instructional materials to peacebuilding. I also wanted to find out about educators’ needs and opportunities for professional development. What did I learn? In the midst of the anecdotes and testimonials of endless pain and suffering, I learned that no one really wins from war and violence. From shared anxiety and hunger, sleepless nights and dark days, fear and suspicion, empty store shelves and market places to shelves and markets filled with goods accessible to the eyes only, war destruction ravages lives across ethnic lines. I also learned that the Burundian spirit of survival thrives unbroken and that hope is real. As I visited schools in several provinces, I learned that children are indeed our future and the future of humanity. In one fifth grade classroom where 103 boys and girls crowded the wooden desks in threes or fours, I learned about the true meaning of and difference between needs and wants. When these children were given an opportunity to ask me questions, they did not ask for shoes, clothes, toys, or other things that would have been obvious to any visitor. They asked for books. Most importantly, I learned that as peace educators and researchers, our work has to be grounded in transformative actions that contribute to immediate and sustained capacity-building. The fifth grade students did not have the luxury of waiting for the several years it takes to analyze my research data and publish my findings in books or journals that would then confirm that peace education cannot materialize in contexts that lack the bare educational resources. Therefore, upon my return from the 2006 research trip, I initiated the Burundi Schools Project which seeks donations of bilingual English-French dictionaries, laptop computers, and other educational materials to benefit Burundi schools. When I returned to Burundi in 2007, thanks to the generosity of friends and colleagues from George Mason University and surrounding communities, I was able to provide about 1,000 dictionaries to five schools. My dream is to help provide 48, 000 bilingual English-French dictionaries and 1,000 laptop computers to Burundi schools in the next 2-3 years.

Dear friends, Peace Education is an action verb. Through our teaching, research, and outreach endeavors, may we forever remember that we have the power and the duty to mediate our recurring human conflicts nonviolently and peacefully. May we work tirelessly to spread love around us and reclaim our humanity that has for so long been challenged by senseless conflicts and wars. May we forever be reminded that we are guests on planet earth, and that as my mother taught me, responsible guests leave the host house as tidy, or even tidier than they found it, or they may never be invited back. In our case, we have to be responsible guests or our children and grandchildren will have no hosting home at all. This would be our worse failure. May we return to our roots to gather whatever wisdom we can so that our hearts will be open and receptive to the sorrows of others.  May we teach, work, and love for peace. This is our ultimate calling.

Peacefully yours,

Elavie Ndura-Ouédraogo and Matt Meyers co-edited the recently published book “Seeds of New Hope: Pan-African Peace Studies for the 21st Century.” For more details please see the announcement below under “publications.”