Until recently, education wasn’t accessible in this country, not in any sense. School fees for grades 1-6 were abolished in 2005. In two years’ time, they’re supposed to abolish fees for grades 7-9.
Although deeply disturbing from a humanitarian perspective, this was understandable from a financial one. If in a country you have no tax base, where are school books and school lunches going to come from? NGOs? Not four million school books! The parents, of course. And if the parents can’t pay, then, well…what choice do you have?
The result is terrible. In rural areas especially, today’s adults and teenagers are almost as likely to be illiterate as literate–although for the post-2005 generation, school participation is over 90 per cent, so it wasn’t for lack of will that parents didn’t send their kids.
In the past, Antoine told me, families with many children and not much money would pool their savings to send one or two of the children to school, and the rest of the kids (more often girls than boys) would stay home, work in the fields, cook and clean and hope to be able to live from the farm, marry well or land a menial job.
That happened in Antoine’s own family. Professor K, his uncle, was the one who went to school, studied hard, made the right connections, became successful, multilingual, well-traveled and in Burundian media circles, famous.
Professor K’s sister, Antoine’s own mother, is a semiliterate house cleaner who never went to school–because Antoine’s grandparents could only afford one set of school fees. She stayed in Ngozi and married Antoine’s father, who disappeared after a while, and scrambled for her entire life raising Antoine and his three brothers. Any potential she might have had to do better for herself was wasted, and she had no control over it, as the conventional wisdom here is that learning must be done in childhood.
And the same thing happened in tens of thousands of families, to hundreds of thousands of boys and girls. The only thing that saved Antoine’s brothers from the same fate is that their uncle, the one that had the chance to study, the one that got away, the radio broadcaster who studied in France and later became a university professor in communications, paid their school and university fees.
“That’s intellectual genocide!” I said, when Antoine told me the story of what had happened to his mother, over dinner.
He shrugged and looked at me with sad eyes. “It’s like that.”