Learning From One Another
The 'Petit Séminaire St-Paul' in Buta, Burundi
rh. Buta's grammar school 'Le Petit Séminaire St-Paul' in Burundi has 350 students from 7th to 13th grade. They belong to different ethnic groups, mostly Hutu and Tutsi. The school was started in 1965 by the first bishop of the diocese Bururi, which was founded in 1961. In 1997 the school was the scene of a massacre: so-called rebels forced their way into the dormitory where about 100 school children were asleep. The rebels demanded that the children separate according to their ethnic groups, either Hutu or Tutsi. When the children spontaneously refused to do so, the murderers fired into the assembled children, killing 40 Hutu and Tutsi children, as well as a teacher. A memorial service on the 30th of each month reminds the students of the crime committed at five o'clock in the morning on 30th April 1997.
The following interview with the headmaster Père Denis(*) is a striking example of how much the situation of a Burundian student differs from that of a student from Western Europe. The daily difficulties and worries of those responsible for the school revolve around the question of how to provide enough food so that the children are able to learn, and how to pay the teachers so that they can live in the school grounds together with their families and the students. The students' main concern is how to learn more and more efficiently to achieve the best results in the final exams, so that parents and teachers have reason to be proud of them. Buta's students are proud of the fact that the students who left last year finished best in the whole of Burundi. The parents' main concern, on the other hand, is how to find the $40 for their child that they have to contribute to the annual school fees, since $40 are five months' wages for a person working 6 days a week, from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m.
How surprised our 6th form students, who do not know much about the serious side of life, would be if they visited Buta! How proud, though, the Burundian students would be if they were able to feel how much our students could learn from their attitude towards learning, their commitment, their seriousness and their culture. How glad the Burundian students would be of our help, which would require such a small effort on our part. And how it would give our children a sense of achievement if they were able to pass on to their European friends what they had learnt from the Burundians.
They would become more conscious of the fact that a fulfilled life means not only taking but also giving. They would become acquainted with a school community in which two different ethnic groups which are considered eternal enemies manage to live together peacefully. This living example would once more make it clear that sudden conflicts between two peoples are artificially incited, are the work of money- and power-hungry people from outside. A partnership between 'Le Petit Séminaire' and one of our European grammar schools would not only benefit both schools, but would also immensely further friendship among nations.
The following Current Concerns interview with Père Denis, headmaster of the 'Petit Séminaire', provides insight into the living conditions and everyday life at the school.
Current Concerns: Where exactly is your school?
Père Denis: Our school is situated in the countryside and surrounded by the village of Buta, 1800 m above sea level, in the Burundian province of Bururi. When our school was founded as a seminary by Bishop Joseph Martin in 1965, only grades 7-10 were taught. Grades 11-13 were added in 1987. Last year 12 of our students were ordained as priests. 9 of them had successfully passed their school-leaving exams at our school.
Do many of your students become priests, or do they choose other professions as well?
In fact, only 1% of those who have passed their school-leaving exams choose to become priests. Many continue in the field of economics, go into politics, work for the government, or join the army. The school is sponsored by the diocese because it knows that our students receive a sound basis which will enable them to become excellent students who can later do many positive things for our country. The school enjoys a very good reputation and is rated as one of the best in our country. To give you just a few examples: Last year we had the best school-leaving exam results. One of our former students has become a government minister, another one a merchant, and he donated 5 tons of beans to the school. He wanted to express his gratitude for the good education he received. Every year he gives us something. Other former students do that as well, if they can. Without this support our school could not survive.
Where do your students come from?
Most students come from the neighbouring parishes. We take care not to take on too many students from too far away, about 10 in 40 come from villages further afield. Most families are of course very poor and can hardly afford the annual $40 school fees. It's difficult to imagine but people work for 3 days from 7.30 a.m. to 3 p.m. and do not earn more than 1 Euro! Some families are so poor that they are unable to pay anything. Of 350 children there are always about 50 who do not pay anything. It is important to us to give children from the poorest families a chance if they learn well. We have orphans as well, or children whose parents have AIDS.
What are the annual costs for one student?
The school fees paid by the parents do not of course cover our actual costs. A student costs about $220 per year, half of which is spent on food, the other half on teachers' salaries, personnel, books, etc. This means that we have to produce a large proportion of our food ourselves. We produce about 50,000 kilograms of potatoes a year, as well as rice, beans and corn. Although we rear pigs, too, we eat meat just three times a year. Our 350 children eat 250 kilos of potatoes in just one day, and that perhaps gives you an idea of how long our own produce lasts.
Who else then supports your school?
Part of our costs are covered by donations from Rome, another part by the neighbouring parishes, and the communities of the dioceses collect for us, too. All in all we receive about $6,000 in contributions. Above all, people collect dried beans for us, about 30 tons a year. So we have beans for breakfast, for lunch and for dinner, about 110 kilos a day. We need the same amount of rice for breakfast and lunch. Our children are very happy that they get a breakfast. We also cultivate some vegetables and corn, and in the near future we want to try growing bananas. We also have a small mill. There is also a cow which is for the families of the teachers. Most of them live in small houses in the school grounds with their families. It's a fact that now teachers throughout the country have been on strike for two weeks. They receive a wage from the government which is too low to live on. If we gave our teachers a small pay rise we would be able to get the best teachers. Since this is very important to us, we are trying to find ways of bringing this about. We have 24 teachers. If we had 14 Euros a month more for each teacher, it would be wonderful. At the moment we cannot choose the teachers because we cannot pay any extra.
But how does your school nevertheless manage to achieve such good results?
The good results are, in my opinion, due to the selection of the pupils. We mainly take pupils who enter school between the ages of 12 and 14 at the latest, whereas other schools take 18-year-olds, too. And we also take the pupils' marks into account! They are very, very motivated pupils.
What knowledge and training do your students have when they enter your school?
They have attended primary school from grades 1 to 6. At the end of grade 6 there is a national exam. Did you know that we have a lot of boarding schools in our country: 30,000 to 50,000 pupils attend boarding schools. We, however, take into account the pupils' marks, which should be above average. But we also admit children for social reasons if they don't have a good average.
What is the daily routine at your school?
The children get up at 5.30 a.m. Then they wash. Often the water supply has been cut off, which means that they have to wash themselves at the fountain. At 5.50 we have morning prayers in the chapel. Afterwards, at around 6.15, a lot of the students go to their classrooms to do their homework until breakfast. Lessons start at 7.30.
How willing are the children to learn?
The children like learning a lot. You almost have to battle with them to make sure they don't overdo it, above all before the final exams. The school-leaving exams take place nationally and are organised by the Ministry of Education. The exams are very demanding. I was all amazed at the school-leaving exams in Germany, and could hardly believe that you can pass your school-leaving exams in religion and just a few other subjects. Our school-leaving exam subjects include mathematics, French, physics, chemistry, history, Kirundi (our mother tongue), geography, biology, English and economics. The children learn a lot; from primary school on, they have to sit exams every three months.
What role does Europe play? Is Europe a model for your school?
Europe is, of course, the perfect dream for many. Our lessons are held in French. Many would like to visit a European university after school since the quality of our universities isn't very good and our professors are dissatisfied with their wages. That is why some professors want to go to Ruanda because they will earn more there. But the Ruandan universities are not independent. They are funded from abroad. The country is not wealthier and hasn't got more natural resources than Burundi. But the UN support Ruanda with the UNDP (United Nations Development Program) and pays for the professors' salaries. The program is scheduled to last for ten years. After those ten years they will have a problem.
What interest do the donors have?
You have to fulfil certain conditions to be entitled to get the money. But Ruanda is exempt from this obligation because of the genocide. Switzerland also gives money to Ruanda. Burundi doesn't get anything.
But let's get back to our children's daily routine. Lessons begin at 7.30 and last until 13.15. Of course there are breaks in between. Later we have lunch: beans with rice or potatoes. Sometimes we have a few vegetables from our garden. But although the meal isn't very varied, the atmosphere is very cheerful. At half past one some of the children have to do the washing up. Other children are on duty for peeling potatoes. But they have fun and nobody complains and says they are fed up. They laugh and tell stories. Each of them has to peel potatoes once a week. Afterwards everybody can do whatever they like: relax, sleep or play games.
What games do the children play?
They play football, volleyball, basketball, and go swimming. We have got our own small swimming pool. It was built in 1965, so it really needs repairing, but it is the only swimming pool in the whole province!
At 3.30 p.m. they all go to their classrooms. They do their homework and study until about 5 p.m. They all learn together: the more advanced students help the weaker ones, they show, for instance, something on the blackboard. Later, from about 5.30 on, they work on their own until 6 p.m. Afterwards they attend church service with their class, which takes place for the whole school on Tuesdays, Thursday and Sundays. Our service is very cheerful, there is a lot of singing and dancing.
On Saturdays, we summon all the children for one and a half hours to talk about a certain topic. It brings the community together. Each Saturday we have a different topic. It is actually the students' question time: they make suggestions how to improve the cooking, they ask for more books, and we talk about their complaints.
Don't they complain that there are no girls or that they have to go to church so often?
Not at all. I once asked the 39 boys of grade 10: 'Wouldn't you like to go somewhere else? No girls and church service every day!' But only four of them said that they would like to go to a different school. On the other hand, we do have problems with the food, but they know quite well that other schools cannot even provide breakfast for them. And our school has a very good reputation, too!
Do you never have problems with discipline?
Discipline isn't really a problem. Of course sometimes the children are too noisy in the evening, or they may be late for church in the morning; some smoke, some may have drunk alcohol. In these cases the punishment may be to collect wood for the community, or their monthly day off may be cancelled. But this rarely happens. If something serious occurs, the punishment entails staying at home for a week, which is followed by a talk with parents and teachers, before the child is allowed back at school. Both the director of the boarding school and the headmaster decide on the disciplinary measures that are to be taken. On one occasion the boarding school director proposed sending home seven children. But I didn't agree and so this didn't happen.
What is your background as headmaster of the school?
After I was ordained in 1990 and finished my curacy in Africa in 1992, I spent a year as a vicar in Pfaffenweiler near Freiburg in Germany, where I was invited by our bishop to do a doctorate. At the same time I took a master's degree in sociology. Then I returned to Burundi, and I have now been headmaster of St. Paul's in Buta for three years.
As a last point we would like to ask you what happened in April 1997.
I wasn't yet at the school then, since I was studying in Germany, but I heard about it many times. The 'rebels' came at 5 o'clock in the morning and entered the building. We have no fence or anything to protect us. There were about 100 Hutu rebels from Burundi. Among them there was one woman from Ruanda. They forced their way into the dormitory and told the pupils to line up, Hutus and Tutsis separately. They knew the names of some of the pupils, in fact the names of some of the best. That's why we assume that the murderers had been informed. You see, two boys had run away shortly before and had joined the rebels. It seems that it was them who had informed the rebels.
The young people in the dormitory, however, stuck together and refused to line up. That's when the 'rebels' began to shoot the children at random. They even threw hand grenades into the dormitory. Some of the smaller boys climbed out of the windows of their dormitory, while the massacre was going on, and tried to escape. The children were were shot off the ropes as they were climbing down. The '' who were waiting in a field fired with machine guns at the fleeing children and at those still on the ropes. 40 children and one teacher were murdered.
All of us, the whole school community, commemorate those victims each month in a special service in the small chapel beside the 41 graves.
Père Denis, we thank you for this interview.
|(*) Dr. Père Denis Ndikumana, has been director of the boarding school 'Petit Séminare St-Paul' in Burundi for three years. He was born in 1965 in Kivoga (Rutana),which is situated in the southeast of Burundi.
After he was ordained and after a curacy of 18 months in Burundi, he went to Freiburg in Germany, where he did his doctorate in theology about the reception of the Second Vatican Council in Burundi; he also studied the effects of ethnical conflicts on the Catholic Church in his home country.
It was natural for him to return to his country in order to help the Burundians, regardless of their ethnic belonging.