We landed in Bujumbura, Burundi, last February in a driving thunderstorm. We got soaked trying to get to the terminal but that wasn’t important. What was important was that the storm signaled the start of the rainy season and there would be water for our 4-H sister schools’ gardens.

Since 2013, Washington State University 4-H and Extension faculty, staff, and volunteers have been working with Burundian partners to develop a garden-based, 4-H Positive Youth Development (PYD) program at six elementary schools near Gitega in the small, east central African country. The WSU group collaborates with the Burundian-based Trauma, Healing and Reconciliation Services (THARS), an organization dedicated to re-establishing peace and promoting reconciliation after a 13-year civil war that damaged the mountainous country’s agricultural, economic, and social structures.

The partnership emerged after Mary Deen, associate professor in Human Development, visited the THARS teaching center near Gitega in 2012. During the trip, she visited several local elementary schools and learned that the students had no access to food during the school day and many came to school hungry. Deen, who has worked with 4-H for decades, quickly realized that 4-H international programs could easily be applied to Burundi. She immediately found a willing partner with THARS.

Deen formed a team from Human Development, 4-H, and Extension to develop the program, while THARS recruited local support staff. The team identified culturally appropriate agricultural teaching resources for Central Africa, including an elementary school garden curriculum written in French, which was translated into Kirundi, Burundi’s indigenous language. Deen and King County Extension Director Kevin Wright returned to Burundi in 2013 to train the Burundian 4-H staff and educators. As a way of taking ownership of the program, the Burundian leaders translated the term “4-H” into “UUAA,” the Kirundi equivalent of “Head, Heart, Hands, and Health.” The Burundian team offered workshops for teachers, school administrators, and community leaders on sustainable agricultural techniques and the tenets of PYD.

In September 2015, garden spaces were cleared and planted at each school and became an instant hit with the students, teachers, and their communities. The students learned about sustainable gardening practices such as using raised beds, managing soil fertility, mulching, natural pest control, and sustainable water management. Students took their extra produce and new ideas home to their mothers, the farmers in Burundi. Burundi follows a traditional African agricultural model that relies on seasonal rains, hand tools, and traditional seed stocks. Water catchment systems were installed at the schools to supply water to the gardens outside the seasonal rains, which have become unpredictable in recent years.

After a few years of political instability, our WSU team returned to Burundi last February to provide workshops and document the program’s impact. Deen and her husband Ed, Wright, and I presented an overview of 4-H, PYD, and—since there are no food processing or refrigeration capabilities available to farmers when they bring their crops to market—we also taught solar-powered preservation of fruits and vegetables. The dried food can be stored at home for use between harvests or taken to market to extend sales between harvests.

Sam Tower and Sarah Storm-Tower, 4-H volunteers and representatives of nonprofit Play for Peace, also joined us. They facilitated noncompetitive games that emphasize cooperation and communication. Play for Peace is an international organization that uses cooperative play to bring together children, youth, and organizations in communities affected by conflict.

The team visited the schools and were joyously welcomed with Burundian traditions of girls dancing and boys drumming. Some of the girls had translated the 4-H pledge into a song and a dance.

We toured the schools’ gardens, where the students proudly explained what they were growing, the techniques they were using, and why. Each raised bed was managed by a group of students who cooperatively made decisions about growing and harvesting their crops. At the Busagana School, the students used their new agriculture skills to purchase a weaner pig with plans to sell the babies to the community to raise funds for their garden.

As we were saying goodbye to the students, they broke into “We Shall Overcome” in English. It was one of those magical moments that connected us all.


Pat Munts is an agricultural coordinator with Spokane County Extension. Learn more and donate at extension.wsu.edu/4h/youth/global-4-h/burundi.