A community united against suicides in Burundi's Gitega Province

 

In the central region of Burundi's Gitega province, the Bugendana community is facing a significant challenge. There has been a considerable increase in suicide cases, which has brought about a serious concern for the area. With an average of four lives lost each month, the suicide phenomenon has become a pressing concern that correlates with health, peace, democracy, and inclusive development, prompting urgent collaborative action.

Bugendana, a commune with a population of 121,401 and a density of 409 inhabitants per square kilometre, bears the scars of Burundi's tumultuous past. During the inter-ethnic violence that afflicted the country in the 1990s, this region was severely affected, leaving deep psychological wounds that have yet to heal. The lingering effects of these crises have impacted the mental health and psychosocial well-being of the population, intensifying existing challenges.

Recognising the gravity of the situation, the communal administrator of Bugendana acknowledged, "The phenomenon of suicide is a reality...the rates are even higher compared to the suicide rates recorded in other communes...we still do not know the causes of this phenomenon."

However, in the face of adversity, a positive development has emerged from within the community itself. The Bugendana community group, with support from the Synergy for Peace III project, which seeks to facilitate inclusive and collaborative livelihood and social cohesion initiatives, has come together to confront this crisis. Identifying the suicide issue as a priority, they have developed an action plan to tackle the problem.

The local administrator, who is also a member of the Bugendana community group, participated in the discussions and stressed the urgent need for action: "We need to run awareness campaigns and organise psycho-emotional support activities for the family members of people who have committed suicide. Hill administrators should also be equipped with the skills they need to identify signs of distress among people in their communes so that they can intervene as quickly as possible."

Collaborating closely with local authorities, the Bugendana community group has identified individuals experiencing suicidal thoughts or whose family members have committed or attempted suicide. They plan to provide them with psychosocial support through community healing spaces. These spaces will also welcome other community members going through difficult periods in their lives. They will serve as sanctuaries for those grappling with distress, providing much-needed solace and hope for the future. 

The initiative has received commendation from both community members and the administration. The head of Bugendana commune commended the initiative, affirming: "Beyond community awareness-raising, the healing spaces will carry out targeted and in-depth support interventions to better respond to the phenomenon of suicide in this community."

As the Bugendana community unites to confront the devastation of despair, their efforts resonate with the power of grassroots initiatives in building a brighter future. If successful in reducing suicide rates and promoting mental health, this initiative could serve as a beacon of hope, inspiring replication in other provinces and even nationwide.

In a context where psychological trauma is prevalent, community-led efforts to promote mental health and psychosocial well-being are not only crucial but also a testament to the resilience of the human spirit. The journey of the Bugendana community is one of healing, unity, and the unwavering determination to reclaim their collective well-being from the depths of despair.

Mugisha’s transformation from a rebel to a community champion

Mugisha Pascasie, a 39-year-old woman from Nyamisure in Gitega province, Burundi, has been the driving force behind the impact on her community. Her efforts have influenced how the community addresses its most pressing issues, particularly the problem of access to clean drinking water.

For a long time, Nyamisure has suffered from a shortage of safe water, resulting in health concerns and the spread of illnesses like cholera and diarrhoea, especially among children. The responsibility of fetching water primarily falls on women and girls, exposing them to risks, including harm and violence. The competition for limited resources has also created social tensions and conflicts, potentially leading to displacement and hindering children's education as they prioritise fetching water over attending school.

Mugisha's personal transformation has marked a turning point in addressing this urgent issue. As a former rebel who has undergone demobilisation, her community once feared her. Known for her forceful demeanour and lack of collaboration, she experienced a significant shift in perspective after participating in a training on citizen participation and community needs organised by Interpeace’s Synergies for Peace III programme in February 2023. The programme seeks to facilitate inclusive and collaborative livelihood and social cohesion initiatives.

Reflecting on her transformation, Mugisha acknowledges, "In the past, I used to be very brutal and relied on force to make others understand my point of view." However, the training opened her eyes to the power of collaboration, leading her to realise that "by working together, we can overcome any obstacle."

With her newfound collaborative approach, Mugisha has catalysed positive change in Nyamisure. Her efforts have garnered admiration and appreciation from her fellow residents. The local leader recognised her remarkable transformation: "She has transitioned from being forceful to embracing collaboration and humility." Mugisha's initial actions included summarising the training for her community and emphasising the importance of identifying problems and seeking solutions collectively. She then approached the local leader, who had also received training from the Synergies for Peace III programme, to discuss mobilising the community to install a fire hydrant. Together, they presented the project to the zone chief and sought support from the communal agronomist and administrator.

After identifying erosion and water scarcity as critical issues, they engaged all community members and partners, mobilising workforce and resources to address the challenges. Through their collaborative efforts, they successfully installed the operational fire hydrant, known as IGITO, effectively resolving the water scarcity issue in Nyamisure. Emmanuel Bacanamwo, a beneficiary of the newly restored water source, expressed gratitude for Mugisha's leadership and its positive impact on the community. Bacanamwo stated, "We warmly welcomed Mugisha's good deed; we were exhausted." Mugisha continues to work with the local population, and the hill head confirms, "Mugisha has truly transformed! Now she supports me in organising community development work."

Mugisha's journey is part of a larger transformation unfolding in Nyamisure. It is a testament to the increasing involvement of community members in addressing local needs. This shift underscores the importance of investing in community-driven solutions and promoting inclusive governance. Mugisha's transformation from a figure of fear to a respected leader is a powerful example of the resilience and potential within communities to overcome obstacles and pave the way for a better future for all.

In Nyamisure, the journey of a demobilised woman towards community empowerment has not only provided access to clean water but has also ignited a flame of hope. This illuminates the path towards a more inclusive and collaborative approach to addressing the challenges that bind a community together.

 

A young changemaker's crusade for women’s involvement in governance

 

Yassin Nimubona, a young visionary from Muyinga province, Burundi, is leading a cause that aligns with the nation’s goals - enhancing women’s involvement in governance and decision-making. Although Burundi has adopted international instruments and national policies to promote gender equality, the number of women in leadership roles remains low. As Burundi aims to be an emerging country by 2040 and a developed one by 2060, the necessity to tap into the potential of women, who make up more than half of the population, is urgent.

Yassin, who heads the social affairs department in the Muslim Community of Muyinga province and is responsible for recruiting new members and providing ethics training within the National Council for the Defense of Democracy—Forces for the Defense of Democracy (CNDD-FDD) party, set out on a path that would reshape his views on gender roles and ignite a passion for advocating for women's rights.

The turning point in Yassin's journey came in September 2023, when he attended an awareness-raising training course on "Citizen participation, good governance, leadership and positive masculinity". This course, offered by the Synergies for Peace III project (SfP III), aimed to foster inclusive and collaborative livelihood and social cohesion initiatives. Reflecting on his past mindset, he admitted, "Before the training, I thought that women were incapable of managing important affairs, that they could only take care of household chores. This conception was nurtured in me by the practices of my religion, which does not emphasise women's participation in governance." However, the training on positive masculinity sparked a profound change in Yassin, as he revealed, "I began to give more consideration to my wife and to all women in general.

Empowered by this newfound perspective, Yassin started promoting women's involvement in decision-making. He advocated for the appointment of women at the nursery school where he works and spearheaded efforts to include women in decision-making positions at the communal level in Muyinga province. Yassin established two groups, "Mukenyezi Girijambo" and "Terimbere Bibondo," with 40 and 35 members, respectively, comprising both women and men but with a majority of women. These groups aimed to provide a platform for raising awareness and coaching women to ensure their effective participation in governance.

Yassin's commitment to gender equality was reflected in the groups' organisational structure, as he emphasises, "Each group's committee is made up of seven people, with four being women, and the chairman must be a woman, as stipulated in the code of conduct."

Yassin's initiatives have had a profound impact on the residents of the Kiswahili district of Muyinga. His efforts have empowered women, making them more aware of their rights and inspiring some to pursue decision-making roles.  Safia Miburo, secretary of the "Terimbere Bibondo" group, shared her experience: "I was already intrigued by the fact that it's always men who head our hills, but I did not know that the law also grants this right to women! Now, thanks to Yassin's teachings informing us that women have the same rights and duties as men when it comes to governance, I felt challenged to get myself elected in the next hill elections to carry the women's voice far and wide."

Yassin's efforts also challenged traditional gender norms and influenced men's perceptions of women's roles in decision-making. Jumapili Gahungu, an area manager and group member, observed, "Yassin's teachings have already borne fruit. Only men were in leadership positions, but now there are women in these groups vying for posts of hill leader and other decision-making positions."

As Burundi prepares for legislative elections in 2025, initiatives like the one launched by Yassin Nimubona are vital in promoting gender equality and women's participation in governance. His commitment to advancing this cause demonstrated the influence of education and advocacy in challenging gender disparities and fostering inclusive societies. Yassin emphasises the importance of women's contributions: "The role of Burundian women is essential for our community's development, considering their majority representation in the Burundian population."

In the Muyinga province, a young changemaker's crusade for gender equality is gaining momentum. It is inspiring a generation to embrace the principles of inclusive governance and paving the way for a future where women's voices are reinforced and their leadership potential is realised.

One woman's resolve to promote women in decision-making roles

 

Adelaïde Uwimana’s efforts to advocate for women in decision-making roles and protect their interests have led to a significant shift in a community that previously lacked female leadership. Over the past year, her journey in the Kavumu district, situated in the Kamenge zone of Bujumbura Mairie, Burundi, has reshaped governance dynamics. It has also stimulated initiatives to tackle the prevalent problem of violence against women.

Like many parts of Burundi, Kamenge bore the scars of the 1993-2003 civil war, intensified existing challenges and leaving its women vulnerable to various forms of violence and systemic exclusion. Women in the community faced barriers to participation in decision-making processes and experienced high rates of domestic violence. Adelaïde's efforts aimed to dismantle these obstacles by promoting women's leadership, mediating conflicts between couples, and encouraging women's participation in economic activities – recognising financial independence as a crucial step towards broader societal transformation.

Appointed as the chief of the Kavumu district in 2010, Adelaïde's path took a turn when she joined the Synergy for Peace III project (SfP III) Bujumbura women's platform in March 2023. Empowered by Jimbere Magazine's Inkingi programme, a radio show focused on topics like female leadership, she overcame her initial hesitations and embraced her role as a leader. "I've realised that my voice can have a greater impact, especially by involving more other women committed to a kind of synergy within the community," she affirmed, determined to deconstruct gender stereotypes and combat violence against women.

In January 2023, Adelaïde took a decisive step by appointing four women as cell leaders – a historic moment for the community. These leaders met regularly to discuss how to promote women's interests, encourage one another, exchange experiences, and explore matters of responsible leadership. Some meetings were supported by the SfP III project through Inkingi broadcasts, while others were initiated independently.

Solange Ndimurukundo, one of the appointed leaders, is determined to drive change in Kavumu. She embarked on a mission to sensitise other women on the importance of active participation in local governance and community development initiatives. Together with Adelaïde and the other women leaders, she contributed to the fight against gender-based violence through mediation initiatives for couples.

The impact of female leadership in Kamenge soon became evident, with a notable decrease in reported cases of domestic violence – a transformation acknowledged by other leaders in the area. According to Adelaïde, the presence of women in decision-making positions instilled a sense of trust among survivors, who felt more comfortable confiding in fellow women. "The successful cases we handle on a daily basis motivate others to come to us and ask for our intervention," she said, noting that the determination of women in leadership roles prompted perpetrators of domestic violence to question their behaviour.

Women's leadership extended beyond resolving conflicts, fostering economic empowerment and community development. As Adelaïde put it, "This change has enabled us to get on with other development activities because where there is peace, development continues." Jimbere's Inkingi activities, through the Synergy for Peace III project, which seeks to facilitate inclusive and collaborative livelihood and social cohesion initiatives, provided crucial support in consolidating these gains, encouraging women to join cooperatives, borrow capital, and earn a profit for their sustenance – ideas born from testimonials of women entrepreneurs featured on the programme.

Adelaïde Uwimana's journey showcases the potential of female leadership in combating violence against women and fostering societal change. Her commitment to promoting women's empowerment extends beyond immediate outcomes, envisioning a future where women's leadership becomes synonymous with an equitable and resilient society. Investing in women’s leadership is vital as a catalyst for building sustainable peace and development.

 

A friendship restored through the formation of a dialogue space in Kenya's Kerio Valley

In the Kerio Valley in Kenya's North Rift Region, two former close friends, Francis, a Marakwet, and Johnstone, a Pokot, were once united in their agricultural pursuits and shared common goals. However, as conflicts escalated in the valley, their friendship deteriorated, leading to unrest within their communities.

For ten years, Francis and Johnstone lived physically and emotionally apart. Their bitterness eroded their relationship, leaving behind broken dreams and unfulfilled promises in their agricultural pursuits.

The conflict between the Pokot and Marakwet communities in the Kerio Valley belt is mostly linked to fights over pasture and water, animal theft disputes, revenge and counter-revenge attacks, and tribal clashes. This conflict has hindered development, caused insecurity, and resulted in violence. Local peace committees play a crucial role in promoting peace. However, achieving lasting peace in some areas remains challenging, highlighting the importance of community engagement to address drivers of conflicts and foster sustainable peace and development.

Their fate changed with the creation of the Mikeu-Sagat Inter-Village Dialogue Spaces (IVDS), the immediate structure on the conflict belt that responds to violent incidents. The IVDS was established by Interpeace and the Network for Peace, Cohesion, and Heritage Trust (NEPCOH) and funded by the German Federal Foreign Office (GFFO). Francis and Johnstone embarked on their journey towards reconciliation by attending the IVDS meeting at St. Abraham's Catholic Church in Endo on 16 March 2024, with a mix of anticipation and unease.

Inside the church, Francis and Johnstone confronted their past, burdened by regrets and unspoken apologies. Despite their history of conflicts, they glimpsed a flicker of the bond that once united them. As they embraced, memories resurfaced, revealing a connection that went beyond tribe and ideology. In that decisive moment, they rediscovered their shared humanity amidst the aftermath of conflict, becoming symbols of hope in a landscape scarred by division and distrust.

Expressing his gratitude for the encounter, Francis shared, "As a farmer from Kasegei, I have fond memories of working the land alongside my dear friend Johnstone. We had plans to cultivate maize and then venture into tomatoes.  Conflict separated us like heaven and earth. Today, through this village dialogue initiative, we have been reunited, and I am overjoyed. I intend to return home and discuss with my family and elders how we can move forward together." Addressing Johnstone directly, Francis added, "Jonathan, my friend, I look forward to the day when we can once again work side by side on our farms. During the years we were apart, I often thought of you and your well-being. I even prayed to God that we would meet again. My prayers have been answered, and heaven and earth have been reunited."

Today, Francis and Jonathan stand united as members of the Mikeu-Sagat IVDS committee, committed to rebuilding the bridges destroyed by hatred and animosity. Their journey is one of forgiveness and reconciliation, showcasing the transformative power of dialogue and understanding.

In the Kerio Valley, Interpeace and NEPCOH are establishing IVDS to mediate conflicts and prevent further escalations between clans. IVDS has also been set up in various corridors in Kenya's North Rift and North-eastern regions. For instance, in the North-eastern region, Sala-Jabi 2 Corridor has four dialogue spaces, the Banisa Corridor has five dialogue spaces, and the Takaba Corridor has four. The Kerio Valley's Mikeu-Sakat IVDS is the first IVDS structure being created in the North Rift region, and the team is foreseeing the creation of over 20 spaces in the coming months. These spaces, as well as other peacebuilding structures in the regions, such as the Conflict Monitoring Committees (CMCs), serve as platforms for open conversations, conflict resolution, and trust-building among diverse communities, making significant contributions to the region's sustainable peacebuilding efforts.

Hassan Ismail, the Country Representative of Interpeace in Kenya, emphasises the importance of locally driven solutions, stating: "Interpeace strives to create and execute community-driven solutions. Through regular meetings and sustained dialogue in IVDS, local communities empower themselves to work towards long-lasting peace and reconciliation. IVDS demonstrates the power of grassroots initiatives in building a brighter future."

The reunion of Francis and Johnstone symbolises hope and resilience in the face of adversity, resonating with those impacted by conflict and offering hope during challenging times. Despite the challenges they encounter, their unwavering dedication to promoting peace in the Kerio Valley motivates them to engage in dialogue and community efforts, one village at a time.

Learn more about Interpeace's holistic approach to building sustainable peace. Click here to access our "Livelihoods for Peace" paper, which explores how fair access to livelihood opportunities, social cohesion, and inclusive development are essential for lasting peace in communities like the one featured in this story.

Cultivating unity and peace in Burundi through reforestation initiatives

In Burundi, the impacts of climate change have been widespread. With a surface area of less than 30,000 km² and a population of nearly 12 million, the depletion of limited land and natural resources has been an issue for many years, and it is becoming increasingly more.  Deforestation has rapidly cleared large areas across Burundi, depleting a major source of firewood, timber for construction, and protection against soil erosion. Recognising the urgency, the government launched a national reforestation campaign called "Ewe Burundi Urambaye"(Let's Reforest Burundi) in 2018. Although the initiative successfully planted almost 45 million tree seedlings in its first year, reversing decades of rampant deforestation requires sustained and collaborative efforts.

In the Giteranyi commune, Muyinga province, residents have witnessed firsthand the localised effects of environmental degradation. Just ten hills had any tree cover left, leaving the rural area vulnerable to erosion, landslides, and loss of arable land. Community priority-setting sessions facilitated by the “Synergy for Peace III project,” which seeks to facilitate inclusive and collaborative livelihood and social cohesion initiatives, identified environmental protection as a top priority.  

In July 2023, the Giteranyi community group, a diverse collective of stakeholders, came together to make a significant impact. They identified a hill (Shoza) and planted over 10,000 seedlings, a testament to their shared commitment to environmental protection. The participation of both young and old in the reforestation work underscored the unity and shared responsibility in the community. As one participant remarked, "This activity benefits the whole community. By protecting this hill, I'm protecting the people around me and the environment of Burundi."

Beyond environmental benefits, reforestation addressed a driver of potential conflict in the region. Without tree cover, communities are left vulnerable to erosion and landslides. This can spark disputes over land ownership and access to increasingly scarce natural resources like firewood for heating and cooking.

"We are not often aware that climate change is a major contributor to land conflicts, which is why we need to support this reforestation project," explained Floride Nduwayezu, the administrator of Giteranyi commune, who instructed local residents to protect the seedlings.

For the Giteranyi administrator, allowing further deforestation risks escalating resource conflicts. “If the environment is not safeguarded in Giteranyi commune, there is a great risk of major community conflicts due to competition for natural resources such as firewood, trees for building houses,” emphasised Floride.

Further deforestation risks escalating resource conflicts in Giteranyi, where women heavily rely on firewood for household tasks and trees to support crop fields. Renewing these critical resources motivated the reforestation effort’s community participation. Local leaders and other stakeholders like the permanent dialogue group (PDG) of Giteranyi have championed protecting Shoza hill’s new trees.

The Shoza hill reforestation sets an example for other Burundian communities to follow. By taking collective action to address environmental issues, they can strengthen social cohesion while reducing drivers of potential conflict over scarce natural resources.

 

Learn more about Interpeace's holistic approach to building sustainable peace. Click here to access our "Livelihoods for Peace" paper, which explores how fair access to livelihood opportunities, social cohesion, and inclusive development are essential for lasting peace in communities like the one featured in this story.