My time volunteering

The posting, as professeur d’anglais, was to the Ecole Secondaire de Matana, on a mission station of what is now the Eglise Anglicane du Burundi. I arrived seven years after Burundi’s independence from Belgium, and three years after a military coup, to find a secondary school with dormitories, a hospital with leprosy and Kwashiorkor clinics, bungalows for the British mission doctor, nurse and teacher, and one for the VSOs, complete with a long drop toilet at the end of a short path. After some time we VSOs felt the need to build a traditional stockade (urugo) around our house, a decision we sensed met with local approval: at last we’d started thinking like Barundi. There was a diesel engine so we had a few hours electricity each night, with Aladdin and Hurricane lamps if there was no diesel fuel, and a wood fire for evenings, which could be cold. For most of the time I was there, running water was not a problem.

The capital, Bujumbura, was reached by lorry down a single track road with ‘up’ and ‘down’ traffic alternating every four hours. The British consul resided in Kinshasa, three hours away by Air Congo, but there was a consulate building in Buja which was opened occasionally for official parties. In Bujumbura you could buy - for a price - luxuries like apples.

The impact of my placement

The English language was taught in order to improve contacts with the Anglophone countries of East Africa. A knowledge of the Kirundi language was useful for teaching. The official languages of Burundi were French and Kirundi. (If one Murundi meets another Murundi in Burundi, both Barundi will speak Kirundi.) Many VSOs learned enough Kirundi to get by quite well. The words for “How are you?” and “eggs” sounded pretty much the same, and for the first few weeks I wandered over the hills greeting people like an itinerant omelette pedlar. One tense in Kirundi is, I discovered, very similar in use to the Continuous “-ing” form in English – “I am walking”. This form can pose problems for French speakers, and I was able to save pupils a lot of trouble by telling them that “-ing” was just like their equivalent tense in Kirundi. The main textbook used was H.A. Cartledge’s “An English course for French speakers”, written specifically for African students, using modern direct methods in a culturally appropriate way. I met the author once at a conference and was able to thank him for it.

The pupils had little chance of gaining knowledge of the world outside their country. When I could get hold of a copy of the Belgian paper Le Soir I posted the pages on the walls of the refectory and explained the main stories. Reception of the BBC was usually poor, but we could get Deutsche Welle in French from their relay transmitter in Kigali, and previous generations of VSOs had built up a small school library with donations from aid organisations. VSO teachers received the standard government teacher’s salary, and I used some of mine to replace the roof of a primary school, which had blown off, and to build a toilet block for the dormitories. For dry matter there was a twin long-drop (there was a man who specialised in digging really deep holes) with a reinforced concrete floor: I was getting worried about the consequences of termites eating away at the timbers over the long-drop at the VSO house. In a book left by a missionary I’d  read that it was best to separate wet from dry, so built a separate urinal. (The Bill Gates Foundation recently launched a toilet using similar principles – but adding composting.)

We walked everywhere, receiving invitations to visit pupils on hills several hours away. (Your address was the name of your hill.) Long-horned Burundi cattle represented wealth, and there was surprise and some pity when I disclosed that I didn’t have any cows waiting for me back in Britain – a place that few pupils could envisage. To convey the idea of a two storey building I had to draw on the only one they knew – the church tower. Though sometimes malnourished after holidays spent at home during the dry season, pupils were amazingly fit. I had to take “Education Physique”, and once tried to lead a cross-country run around the nearby hills. At first the pupils politely let me lead, then eventually asked if I wouldn’t mind if they ran back to the school.  They arrived long before me.

My unforgettable moments

Our cook, Kristof, had worked most of his life on the mission station and fellow VSO John Western and I decided to thank him by buying him a cow. It seemed the Burundi thing to do. We should perhaps have anticipated that various traditions were associated with the gift, and we still possibly have claims over the first born of the latest generation of her calves.

Matana was 1,900 metres above sea level, which helped acclimatisation for a trek 4,400 metres up the Ruwenzori, the Mountains of the Moon, in the north of Uganda. Other trips included Rwanda and Eastern Congo, Kenya, Tanzania and Zanzibar, using transport methods from hitching (though you always contributed to the cost) through a Congolese army lorry to a light aircraft. VSOs had a really extensive network of contacts and were extremely generous in offering hospitality no matter how late your unannounced arrival (a.k.a belated thanks, guys.)

The impact my placement has had on me

I returned to the UK in summer 1971, and early the following year learned of a Hutu uprising in the south of the country against Tutsi rule. This was followed by the massacre of around 120,000 Hutus, including pupils I had taught. That autumn I joined the BBC, and spent thirty years in the World Service English language teaching department. I never returned to Burundi but I still wonder, if I had been there at the time, whether I could have done anything to help those pupils who were taken away by the army one morning and never returned.

Ecole Secondaire de Matana


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