By Nancy Okwengu
After visiting volunteers in Burundi, you will remember these phrases. One person calls out: “Tugire ubuntu” (“May the practice of humanity last forever”). Another answers: “Imisi yose na hose” (“May this practice be present always and everywhere”). This is the volunteer’s way of greeting each other. It is repeated so often that it is hard to ignore it or not join in. “This greeting style unifies 350,000 Red Cross volunteers in Burundi,” says 27-year-old Alphonse Uwimana, a volunteer with the Kibenga Red Cross unit.
On this day, volunteers of Kibenga Red Cross unit have just finished digging a rough road. They carry their tools and now embark on clearing land for the construction of a food store. The food store will be used to store rice that they harvest from a communal farm. This is part of their income generating initiatives.
It is communal work, with spirits united for a common good. It is a marvel to watch them digging tirelessly in the hot midday sunshine. One bursts into a song and other joins in. “The singing makes us feel that the task at hand is not too much to be completed,” says Alphonse. “The talking makes us know what everyone is up to. We discuss various challenges and receive advice.”
The community takes pride in its main source of income; a ten hectare rice plantation that members regularly tend. As an encouragement to their good work, the Red Cross headquarters office recently donated a machine that assists in removing the husks of the rice before it is good for market.
Usually after harvesting the rice, the sacks are divided for three purposes. Some is saved for planting next season, some is sold, and some is passed on to vulnerable people.
The food store they plan to build will have a big impact. “Currently we are hiring a room to store the rice. Unfortunately, we have had cases of insecurity at that premises and that is why we want to build one of our own,” Alphonse says. “We have also developed a security plan where we will work in shifts to guard the rice. We might employ a security guard if we get a good income from selling the rice.”
Like many others in the team, Alphonse volunteers because it is the right thing to do, and because vulnerability is never far away. “No one can be sure that they will not be vulnerable tomorrow. I could also be vulnerable and I will need help, I therefore feel it is my duty to give help. Moreover, by saving lives I rejoice; I am paid by this inner satisfaction.”
The strength of the unit means it can look beyond its own community to help others. In 2009, the unit was able to donate seven tonnes of food to Kirondo Province in Northern Burundi when it was facing drought. The vice president of the unit, Bizimana Oze, also visited Kirondo Province and set up four Red Cross units and one youth section.
Nduwayo Ferdinand, a volunteer at the unit adds that the volunteers assist their communities through provision of food, building houses, doing manual work in their farms, building latrines, raising awareness on malaria and HIV/AIDs prevention, and administering first aid. They are also involved in disaster risk reduction programmes.
Nkunzimana Stany president of the Bubanza Red Cross branch, says that the success in these programmes is due to many years of investment in volunteer development. “We have received training, volunteers guides and manuals, our stories have been aired on Red Cross radio, our stories have appeared on Red Cross newsletter.”
Volunteers have become a positive catalyst for community disaster risk reduction initiatives, helping communities expand their horizon for the benefit of their families. In the end, their volunteerism, motivation and work has enabled them to become models of change and industry in their own villages.