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Laying a foundation for learning in Burundi

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A group of children walk towards a block of classrooms on the edge of a dusty schoolyard in Gisuru, a rural province in eastern Burundi. Suddenly, the sky opens up and it starts pouring rain. Children run for the shelter of the classroom, and the sturdy roof that keeps their desks dry.

A year ago, the students at this school would have had a much different experience. There were holes in the roof and cracks in the walls that let the rain in. When it rained hard, teachers would have to send students home. Nice days were another problem. The crowded classrooms didn’t have enough room for desks for every child, and many had to sit on the floor or on makeshift benches made from boards propped up on bricks.

Learn more about how Right To Play is making classrooms safer and more engaging.

Combatting dropout rates and creating safer schools

Students face a lot of obstacles in Burundi. UNESCO estimates that only 34% of Burundian children complete primary school. Classroom shortages lead to overcrowding, which makes it difficult for children to concentrate and learn. Teachers receive limited training and low wages and struggle to manage large class sizes, with up to 100 students per classroom, and keep them engaged in lessons. All of these factors lead to high dropout rates.

The My Education, My Future program, funded by Global Affairs Canada, aims to strengthen access to education for children experiencing the effects of displacement. The commune of Gisuru, where the program is based, is home to a large population of returnees – Burundians who fled the country as refugees during periods of political unrest and have now returned home. Located close to the border of Tanzania, many returnees choose to settle in Gisuru just in case they need to flee the country again. For returnee children, returning to school can have additional challenges, as many did not attend school while they were away.

When the program started in 2020, it set out to restore the crumbling infrastructure that made classrooms unsafe for students and equip teachers to make class more fun and engaging. Since then, Right To Play has restored more than 10 school buildings, replacing roofs and windows, desks and chalkboards, even building completely new structures when necessary. But it does not stop there.

We’ve also trained more than 200 teachers to boost children’s learning outcomes using play-based learning approaches. Making school fun and safe helps students learn and thrive.

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Before receiving training from Right To Play, Bernard felt discouraged because he struggled to manage his crowded classroom and help his students learn. Before their classroom was rehabilitated, the walls had cracks and there were holes in the roof that leaked every time it rained.

How Bernard is making learning come alive

Bernard is a teacher at a school in Gisuru. He remembers how much of a struggle it used to be to manage his large class.

“The conditions in which I was teaching children before were awful. I had a large class size, with over 103 students enrolled, who were sharing only 18 school desks. These desks kept on breaking day by day. For this reason, a large number of my pupils sat on the floor. They were not able to write in their copybooks because they would get tired from being squeezed together.”

In 2022, his classroom was rehabilitated: the new building has more space, so he can walk up and down between the rows of sturdy desks as he helps students with their lessons. There are big windows, which let the light in, and make it easier for students to read what’s written on the new chalkboard. And every child has a seat.

“Before, the blackboard was in bad condition, but with these new [classrooms], we have a new blackboard and the roof is very solid. There are no holes in the metal sheets, as was the case in the old classrooms. Even if it rains, we’re not afraid of the rain. The pupils study in good condition and are happy.”

He also received training on how to use play in the classroom to keep students engaged and learning, and now the training has helped him become a more confident teacher.

“Now, when I teach, I use games and those games help children to be more focused and follow along in class. The subject matter becomes easier for them to understand.”

Watch Bernard in action as he brings math lessons to life through games.

My Education, My Future is a program that aims to improve access to and the quality of education for primary school-aged children, especially girls, affected by the Burundian refugee crisis. The program has been active in Tanzania and Burundi since 2020, and is made possible with the financial support of the Government of Canada provided through Global Affairs Canada.