Determined to Learn: Mamerte's Story
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In an open field of dry red earth surrounded by the green trees of Gisuru, Burundi, a dozen children dance in a circle, holding hands and singing a song. Around them, more than a hundred others gather, watching and listening closely.
The small group in the centre are members of a Right To Play-organized Girls’ Club, and the song they sing is about the importance of access to education for all.
Fourteen-year-old Mamerte is among them.
Like the other children, she’s dressed in a tan-coloured uniform. She smiles and laughs as she sings, though she moves a little less freely. She was born with clubfoot, a physical disability that caused both her feet to rotate inward and downward, which impacts her ability to walk and dance without pain. But it does not impact her ability to learn.
Unfortunately, many people in her community believe that children with disabilities do not belong in the classroom. They see her disability as something that her family should be ashamed of, so they tell her she should drop out and stay at home – out of sight. But she refuses to cave to the pressures of social stigma. Instead, she’s using her voice to encourage other children, especially children with disabilities, to claim their right to education.
OVERCOMING DIFFICULTIES & DISCRIMINATION
Mamerte is no stranger to finding a way forward through difficult circumstances.
From 2015 to 2020, Burundi experienced a period of intense political, social, and economic instability that led an estimated 400,000 citizens to seek refuge in neighbouring countries. Mamerte and her family fled to Tanzania, where they lived in a refugee camp.
After the election of a new government in 2020 and the relative stability that followed, they – like some 210,000 Burundians to date – returned to Burundi. But coming home wasn’t easy. Social pressures, financial challenges, and lack of academic support made it difficult for Mamerte when she re-enrolled in school.
“When we came back from Tanzania, life was so difficult,” says Mamerte’s father, Oscar. “All of our family’s belongings were stolen, so we had to start rebuilding our life again.”
Neither of Mamerte’s parents has been able to find permanent employment. Without a consistent income, they struggle to provide their children with necessities like enough to eat, school supplies, and durable footwear. They want to be able to provide for Mamerte’s specific needs, but accommodating them can be difficult. For example, Mamerte’s disability can make it painful for her to walk. But if she doesn’t wear shoes, the sensitive skin on top of her foot drags across the ground causing even more discomfort and possibly injury.
“When we came back from Tanzania, life was so difficult.” – Oscar, Mamerte’s father
“The only footwear I can get for my daughter are sandals,” Oscar says. They are made from soft rubber. “As she can't walk on the ground barefoot, they never leave her feet; so, in one week, they wear out.”
The challenges that Mamerte and her family have experienced are not uncommon. Poverty is widespread in Burundi, which ranks 187 of 191 on the Human Development Index. The UN estimates that 70% of returnee households eat only one meal daily, and 50% of repatriated children do not return to school. While the country has made significant strides toward universal access to primary education in recent decades, estimates show that there are 1.9 million out-of-school children between four and 19 years old. Fifteen per cent of these children live with a disability. Factors including poverty, insufficient school infrastructure, poor teacher training, gender-based violence, pregnancy, and early marriage contribute to high drop-out rates. This is especially true for adolescent girls, of which only one in five are enrolled in secondary school.
On top of these already substantial challenges, children with disabilities face significant barriers to accessing education. Discrimination and social stigma can impact their self-esteem and willingness to go to school. Inaccessible school infrastructure and toilettes can make it difficult for children to physically access the spaces. And without specialized training for teachers on how to make their lessons and classroom environment more inclusive and tailored to the needs of children with disabilities, many feel left behind or excluded.
FINDING SUPPORT IN AN INCLUSIVE CLASSROOM
Since 2020, Right To Play has been working with schools in Tanzania and Burundi to improve access to quality education for children like Mamerte, who are dealing with the effects of conflict and displacement. The My Education, My Future project trains teachers on how to foster inclusive learning environments by incorporating active, child-centred, play-based learning methodologies into their teaching practices that create opportunities for equal participation, regardless of gender or ability. The training sessions inspired Mamerte’s teacher, Louis, to integrate more games and playful activities into his classroom.
“Today, I feel comfortable at my school. My friends are nice, and the teachers take care of me like everyone else.” – Mamerte, 14
“Since Right To Play started to get involved in our school, we have learned how to integrate children with disabilities properly, to the point that now when we teach a class, we use games that allow everyone to participate,” Louis says proudly. “Before the trainings, we struggled to include Mamerte, and she was being left out of class. But now, she feels appreciated and participates like other students.”
With more support from her teacher, Mamerte is excelling in the classroom. The games the students play together have given her a stronger sense of connection and belonging with her classmates. Her favourite subjects are reading and math.
“Today, I feel comfortable at my school,” Mamerte says. “My friends are nice, and the teachers take care of me like everyone else. When I arrive at school, I meet my classmates and we play games together, then we go to class.”
Mamerte refuses to listen to the people who tell her that she doesn’t belong in school. Now, she’s also encouraging other children to claim their right to education. She has become an active member of a Right To Play-supported Girls’ Club, where trained teachers and student leaders engage girls and boys in activities that build understanding and skills in critical areas such as children’s rights, gender equality, and sexual and reproductive health. The clubs are also a safe space where students can build their confidence, discuss issues facing local youth, and advocate for change at the school and community levels.
Issues like the importance of education.
In the club’s back-to-school campaign last summer, Mamerte led efforts to raise awareness amongst local parents about the importance of education, especially for girls and children with disabilities. She bravely shared her story, hoping to help dismantle some of the stigmas she has faced all her life.
“What I admire about Mamerte is that even though some people have told her that a child with a disability should not study, she doesn’t listen to them,” says Louis. “She is motivated and has the courage to continue until she finishes her studies.”
“I believe that when a child has an education, they will be of great value to the country.” – Mamerte
These efforts are contributing to an incredible impact. Through the efforts of more than 60 clubs and 300 community volunteers, attitudes and perspectives are starting to shift.
In September 2022, 752 children across the Gisuru region who had previously dropped out of school re-enrolled because of awareness campaigns like the one Mamerte’s club ran. A mid-project study of My Education, My Future showed that 69% of girls participating in the program felt they were able to make decisions about their education, up from 8% at the start. And the same study showed that 68% of community members in program locations, mostly parents and caregivers, shared that they are supportive of children with disabilities’ right to attend school, up from 14% at the start of the project.
That’s good news for all of Burundi, according to Mamerte. “I believe that when a child has an education, they will be of great value to the country.”
Whether singing a song on the school’s red dirt field, surrounded by a forest of trees and peers, or walking to class in worn rubber sandals, every day, Mamerte is proving what an incredible value she can create.
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.