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Women empowering women in Burundi

“It’s my passion, my hope for all of us to be healthy and educated and to help others.” Virginie Nizigama

March 6, 2017

By Will Postma

Virginie Nizigama is one of many exceptional local women who volunteers at the Village Health Works clinic in Kigutu, Burundi. She is a bundle of energy and involved in every aspect of the clinic. There she is explaining new varieties of maize, onion and beans and how they can best grow with organic fertilizers. “No outside fertilizer needed!” There’s Virginie again, with other women, milking the cows, tending to the pigs and the chickens and collecting the eggs (there were 32 on the day we visited with her) to give to the patients. As for the milk, that’s also for the patients who need it. There’s Virginie, telling women and men, both, how to diversify their diets, grow the best varieties of vegetables so they won’t need to come to the clinics as often and to keep their children healthy for school. “We can’t eat manioc all the time,” she patiently explains to the others. It grows easily and quickly on the hills around Kigutu but so can many other plants that are much more nutritious.

“I want to give back, I love being able to share whatever I know,” says Virginie. As we mark International Women’s Day on March 8, I can’t help but be reminded of Virginie’s indomitable spirit.

Village Health Works is one of four Maternal, Newborn and Child Health partners in our All Mothers and Children Count program, made possible with the support of Global Affairs Canada and Canadians across the country.

VHW integrates health, nutrition, food security and education programs – and makes sure that the program benefits all 18 communities it serves. Community volunteers organize monthly Health Days with growth-monitoring events, vaccinations and teachings about malnutrition, water-borne diseases and malaria, (which affects half of the population and where the number of deaths in Burundi has doubled in the past year). The medical staff from VHW is ready to meet moms and dads with their children and they do so with a backdrop of music, dance and the famous Burundi drums. This is an important day in the life of the community. Good nutrition and health are key to its future.

Virginie benefited from the support of VHW after her first child died and her second child got very sick in 2005, but was returned to good health with the help of VHW, just as the first room of its clinic was being built. When Virginie’s third child was born in 2006, there wasn’t maternity support at the time, but VHW medical staff were there. They delivered her daughter, Iteriteka Gloria, on a grassy area under a tree. Today that 10-year-old is known as Gazon, the French word for grass, and she stands as proud as the bit of lawn that still grows under that tree. She is following in her mom’s footsteps with a smile that speaks joy.

Across VHW’s program we see the nit and grit of empowerment. Women meet together to talk about the design of expectant mothers’ homes. “Keep the sinks higher so we don’t need to bend down too much,” they advise. “Space the beds in the houses just so; the windows should be here; let’s build the expectant mothers’ homes closer to the maternity ward itself.” Here mothers can stay in the days before they give birth, get the care they need and not have to walk long distances over the many hills so as to deliver their child in a safe, clean environment.

I continue to hear the encouraging words of Virginie to all around her. “It’s my passion, my hope for all of us to be healthy and educated and to help others,” she says, then turns to get back to the business at hand. “Now, let me show you how you can plant and grow bananas…”