By Jennifer Weiss, Health Advisor, Concern Worldwide US
I started my work in Burundi around a year ago. Before I visited the country, I remember my colleague describing Burundi to me. “It’s off the grid,” she said.
The comment struck me as odd. I assured her that I had lived in Africa before and was more than prepared for the work that lay ahead. I couldn’t possibly understand what she meant by “off the grid.”
I quickly learned. Burundi, despite its geographic proximity to Tanzania, Kenya and Rwanda, countries with growing economies and booming tourism industries, is heartbreakingly poor. In fact, Burundi is one of the world’s five poorest countries. I knew this statistic before departure. However, it wasn’t until I arrived in Burundi’s capital city of Bujumbura that I completely understood my colleague’s description. While in other capitals, there are new businesses and construction, in Bujumbura there are none to be seen. When I asked a friend of mine who had been in Burundi in the ‘80s to explain how the capital had changed since then, she frankly responded: “It hasn’t.”
Yet, despite the unaltered state of the urban landscape, I see great hope and change in Burundi. Perhaps too often overlooked is Burundi’s stunning beauty: the lush mountains, the blanketing greenery, the villages or colline perched atop the peaks of countless hills. These villages are commonly reached by winding footpaths, sometimes a two or three-hour walk from the main road. The people living in these communities are accustomed to the climb. Gathering water, a chore for children anywhere from three years old to teenagers, can involve a walk (or hike) of around an hour.
Since the journeys are long and arduous, most villagers do not immediately seek medical assistance at the first sign of illness. It is the children who are the most vulnerable. Malaria, diarrhea, pneumonia and malnutrition are the most prevalent health concerns within these communities, predominantly affecting children ages five and under. Although treatable, these diseases become fatal when not detected immediately.
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