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Burundi Struggles To Implement Free Primary Education

The tiny African Great Lakes nation of Burundi is the latest on the continent to institute free primary school education, which began last September following more than a dozen years of civil war. The program is widely seen to be a blessing, but its implementation is fraught with challenges. Cathy Majtenyi was in Burundi recently and files this report for VOA.

Math and environment teacher Genevieve Banyanse has 155 students in her Grade 5 class, 75 who come to school in the morning and 80 in the afternoon, almost double the number from the previous year.

Wringing her hands and grimacing, the teacher describes the frustration of seeing four children sitting at a desk meant for two at Nyakabiga Primary School in the capital, Bujumbura, where she teaches.

Banyanse shudders to think of how the lack of teachers and resources affect the students.

Banyanse says four students share one textbook. She says the strongest usually gets the book, which means that the other children are unable to study at night.

The fifth-grade teacher figures that only about half the students understand the lessons because of the sheer size of the class, misbehavior by some students and the fact that many children in poverty-stricken Burundi come to school on an empty stomach, making them sleepy and unable to concentrate.

Burundi is the latest African country to offer free primary school education, a policy newly-elected President Pierre Nkurunziza announced in his inaugural speech last August.

A dozen years of civil war has gutted the education system. About 41 percent of adults are illiterate, and only a little more than 50 percent of all primary school-aged children are in school. Many schools do not have electricity, running water, washrooms or other basic facilities.

Poverty is rampant, with almost 60 percent of Burundi's seven million people living on less than $1 a day.

While Banyanse and other teachers, parents and students laud the new policy, they also have to contend with swollen classes that, in most cases, do not receive extra teachers, books, desks, and other resources to match the class size. Banyanse says teachers' salaries are also very low, ranging from $15 to $72 a month.

Saidi Kibeya is Burundi's education minister. He tells VOA that since primary school fees were abolished last September, enrollment shot up 30 percent, from one million to 1,300,000 students.

He says his government has put together an emergency plan to cope with the increase that includes recruiting 5000 teachers to add to the existing 21,000; increasing the education budget by more than $1.5 million, and purchasing thousands of benches and blackboards.

Kibeya says that, despite the problems, free primary education represents a turning point for the country.

He says a good number of Burundians are poor, and the decision to abolish primary school fees will allow those poor parents to send their children to school.

The government's emergency plan mostly targets Grade 1, the grade with the largest increase in students. Kibeya says international donors such as Britain, Japan, and other governments in conjunction with the U.N. Children's Agency are building extra classrooms, training teachers, constructing water and sanitation facilities, and other assistance for students.

But a lack of resources is not the only challenge dogging Burundi's primary education system. Twelve years of a civil war that killed 300,000 people has left an indelible mark on the country's children.

The deputy executive director of the U.N. Children's Agency, Rima Salah, explains.

"Children did not see, they do not know school, they do not know what a school is because of the long years of war," she says. "You need more [of a] psycho-social [approach]. It is no more education like before, to read and write. You need to help children to get over the trauma of war, and that is why in Burundi it is very important to have psycho-social educational counseling. Those children are traumatized. They were born in war and they saw war all of their life."

Salah says the U.N. children's agency supports organizations that provide this counseling so that children are better able to learn and the country can move forward. She applauds the decision to abolish primary school fees, saying that education is vital to the success of Burundi's postwar reconstruction and development.

Also being integrated within the primary school system are more than one million former child soldiers. Salah says these children need special attention

"They will never recuperate if you do not give them personal attention," Salah says. "A social worker has to be with them all the time to help them overcome years and years of abduction and years and years of being in the army as children. They have lost their childhood - how do we bring them back their childhood?"

Salah is urging the Burundi government and donors to ensure that children's psycho-social, and not just physical, needs are being met in the primary school system.