by Fr. Ken Gavin, S.J.
Jesuit Refugee Service/USA National Director
(Washington, D.C.) June 30, 2010 – During a recent visit to Jesuit Refugee Service teams in Burundi, everyone was talking about JRS’s so-called “goat project.” The goat project distributes animals to poor Burundian refugee families returning home after many years in exile. In visiting the JRS Giteranyi team in northern Burundi, however, I soon discovered that the goal of the program was far more expansive than simply providing goats to needy families. Our JRS projects in Giteranyi and Giharo in the forgotten backcountry of Burundi aim at responding to the all-important larger issue of ensuring lasting food security for these returning refugees.
In 2008 the government of Burundi and the rebel armed forces finally reached a negotiated peace settlement that marked the end of nearly two decades of conflict. During the past two years more than 95,000 Burundians have returned home after having spent nearly twelve years as refugees in Tanzania. In the face of this large influx of poor refugees, we asked ourselves how we could help create an environment that ensured adequate food for them as they return to Burundi.
Father Tony Calleja, S.J., the Regional Director of JRS Great Lakes, has had long experience with Burundian refugees, having spent years working with them in Tanzanian camps. He poignantly described the plight of these returnees: “When they come back, it is a joyful occasion. But they come back with nothing. They have nothing.” Most of the returning refugees are farmers, but they discover on their return that they have to start all over again from scratch. Father Calleja said he thought that “a simple and very effective way of helping them was to start this ‘famous’ goat program.”
The goat project is a central piece in a much larger program of educating Burundian subsistence farmers in modern agricultural practices. With the support of local farming associations, the past year saw more than 6,000 families receive a pair of male and female goats. These goats provided the manure needed to fertilize their crops and thereby multiply the yield from their harvests of bananas, beans and soy.
In addition, JRS opened veterinary pharmacies where farmers can receive advice and medication for treating sick animals. As their goats breed, the farmers are required — in what JRS calls “a chain of solidarity”— to return two goats to JRS so that other farming families can enjoy the same benefit.
Furthermore, farmers are being taught by JRS agricultural specialists how to use disease resistant plants and how to plants their crops in order to maximize food for their families. As in the goat program, groups of families who receive and plant new disease resistant cassava plants are allowed to keep a small number of the plants and part of the total yield of cassava tubers but they must return the rest to JRS for distribution to other families. In so doing, the multiplication of food and the promotion of lasting food security in Giterenyi is slowly but surely being achieved.
The results of this simple program have already begun to have dramatic results in the lives of these poor Burundian returnees. Farmers, accustomed to older methods of subsistence farming, are being won over by the startling results of this program. Experienced farmers see that smarter farming methods have produced greater amounts of food. JRS is currently expanding its food security project as it opens this summer a model farm project that will systematically train groups of local farmers in best practices for the care of animals and crops.
Simply put, JRS has proven that for the returning Burundian refugees a pair of goats can become more than simply food for a few days or weeks. These animals become the source of greater yield and healthier food for an entire farming family and the surrounding community.
Father Calleja told me the story of recently meeting a soft-spoken Burundian returnee whom he had known from his years working in a Tanzanian camp. He described how this shy man’s face lit up on seeing the priest again — but this time in Burundi! Taken off guard and moved by Father Calleja’s loyalty to the Burundian people, the man shed his normal reticence and called out to him from a distance in a loud, excited voice, “Father, you have not forgotten us!” In telling that story, tears whelmed up in Father Calleja’s eyes, and smiling he said, “That made my year!”
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