NYANGUNGU, Burundi — Gaudence Nzotungandushe’s family faced many challenges before a local school started its health project.
“Sometimes life is not easy for us, but it was very hard in the past,” she said, pulling her thin kitenge wrap tightly around herself against the morning chill.
She is a widow, living alone with her two daughters, who attend the nearby Mennonite Central Committee-supported Hope School.
“My girls would go a day or two without eating, and I would go even longer,” she said. “Many times, I would send them to school knowing they had not eaten anything for days. You cannot learn when you are hungry. They were always sick, always had belly pains and infections.
“But now, thanks to God, they are no longer sick, and they have no more pains. They are no longer hungry when I send them to school, and they are learning.”
Nzotungandushe smiles proudly: “I thank God every day that they will not suffer in the ways that I have.”
Nzotungandushe’s daughters are just two of more than 500 students, from preschool to high school, who benefit from an MCC-supported health program that began in 2016. Christian Union for Education and Development of the Underprivileged, the MCC partner who started and has operated Hope School since 2001, gives Twa children, a commonly disparaged ethnic group, an opportunity for high-quality education.
The program provides a daily nutritious meal at the school. It is many students’ only meal for the day.
In addition, the students benefit from clean water, soap and latrines as well as menstruation management supplies for girls. Messages of nutrition, sanitation and hygiene also are taken into the community.
Burundi has one of the world’s highest rates of chronic malnutrition. An estimated 56 percent of children are seriously stunted in physical development.
Malnutrition in children can have life-long consequences, including poor brain development, heart damage, metabolic disorders, autoimmune disorders and susceptibility to infectious diseases.
The situation is even more difficult in Burundi’s rural areas and among ethnic minorities. By integrating simple and effective health work into Hope School, the project has been able to reduce many risks at low cost.
Like Nzotungandushe, Richard Irakunda is the father of two students.
“Before this work,” he said, “my family could not go a month without one of us being so sick we needed the doctor.”
Because of the health program, six months can go by before he or his children need to see a doctor.
“Now, my children are learning at school, and they’re so smart!” he said.
Each day, cooks at the school prepare a nutrient-enriched, multi-grain breakfast porridge, enriched bread and iron-rich meat, which includes MCC canned meat and locally sourced meat. This year the school is adding tomatoes and leafy greens to meals to give even more balanced nutrition.
The students not only get food, they put peacebuilding into practice when the children from Twa, Hutu and Tutsi ethnic groups eat together, a practice seldom done in the community.
“What I like about this school, is that we get something to eat every day, like the bread and meat we had today,” said secondary student Bernard Nyandwi. “We all eat together as one. There is no difference between us, and we all get what we need. The food helps to keep our bodies healthy from diseases. We are strong now.”
Integrating health work into school has reduced absenteeism and dropouts, especially for girls. Only one student has dropped out in the last three years.
School administrator Béatrice Munezero attributes this to the health program. Better nutrition allows students to concentrate and succeed academically. Sick days are down, and improved menstrual management reduces embarrassment and infections.
The sanitary pads the school provides are important, said student Nadine Kanyambo.
“Before, we used small bits of cloth we found. Sometimes they weren’t clean. We got a lot of infections,” she said. “I missed school because I was afraid of making a mess and being embarrassed. Now there are clean bathrooms at school, and water and soap, and we have pads. We don’t have those problems anymore.”
In the coming year, a new project will help the school start its own vegetable garden so the daily meal for students will be even more nutritious without relying on outside funds. For the poorest families, primarily households headed by widows, the project will provide new safe and sanitary latrines that will help health for years to come.
One widow and mother of three students, Bujeniya Mpfayokurera, summed up her appreciation.
“I’m grateful for this school. If it weren’t here, my children would have no education,” she said. “They wouldn’t have been welcome at other schools [as an ethnic minority Twa], and I wouldn’t have been able to pay for it anyway.
“The food they get at school is from God. Before this, we would go days without eating even one bite. I thought my children might die from hunger and illness. The school cares not only for my children but for me, too. We’re treated like people. We are not forgotten.”