Giving Burundi a Healthy Chance

Cameron Calabrese shares how God is moving in Burundi to alleviate the harshest health ills

Liduine Mpawenimana, a 6-year-old Burundi girl, shows her distended belly caused from intestinal parasites. Cameron Calabrese and other Food for the Hungry staff members partnered with the Burundi government to put on a health event that gave special deworming pills to alleviate such intestinal issues. © Cameron Calabrese 2009

Cameron Calabrese smiles with Burundi children during a special health event in Burundi to combat a handful of nutritionally-related ills. Calabrese and other Food for the Hungry staff members are launching a similar event in tandem with the Burundi government this summer. © Courtesy of Cameron Calabrese 2009

Many kids gathered for treatment at the health event. Some kids here at a local school gather to sing a song of thanks. © Cameron Calabrese 2010

I didn’t know what to expect for my first visit to Africa. I knew I would see harsh conditions...but didn’t expect that reality to meet me nearly right after stepping off the plane. After traveling for 32 hrs (22hrs in the air!) I arrived in Bujumbura, Burundi (on the U.N.’s list of least developed nations) at 1:30am on an ever-so-early Monday morning. While most are sleeping comfortably in their beds and just as we were leaving the lights of the airport behind I saw a little boy around 3yrs old (my son’s age) in nothing but old tattered shorts walking barefoot on the side of the road, alone. I have heard it said that in the developed nations many are “sleep walking” through life, God used the sight of this small boy to awaken me, both mentally and spiritually. He was an instant reminder as to why we needed to be in the “hard places” and why I left the banking world to join the fight against poverty.

As a staff member with Food for the Hungry (FH), the international relief and development organization that (among other things) manages food programs in the developing world, the Lord has given me an incredible opportunity to step in to the need. Here in Burundi, He has set me on a special mission. Alongside others from FH in North America and in Burundi, as well as the Burundi Ministry of Health we are here to help alleviate the struggle against intestinal parasites that are caused from the country’s poor water conditions and sanitation. FH has collaborated on an annual health event (the next one is occurring now [June 1-3]) meant to tackle head on some of Burundi's top health issues on a national level.

At this event, held in a number of key villages throughout Burundi, de-worming tablets and Vitamin A capsules will be administered [Vitamin A combats child blindness and high mortality rates]. Other partners at this event will contribute vaccination against measles and distribute mosquito nets, all in an effort to give the people of Burundi a better chance at life. Last year’s national event targeted the 7.8 million people of Burundi. Food for the Hungry gave one de-worming tablet (good for six months) per person. This year, we have sent 8.3 million tablets, which will again cover the entire population!

FH has committed to providing 8 million-plus doses of these tablets for the next 5 years to be distributed through our community partners in Burundi.

The journey to such an event and to greater impact on the health in Burundi was one that the Lord has been helping shape for over three years. FH’s relationship started when the Ministry of Health for Burundi and the Burundian leadership decided a few years back to partner with a few key organizations to confront the health issues in their country. Food for the Hungry was blessed enough to be one of those organizations. FH entered Burundi in March 2006 in response to the demand created by a destructive 13-year civil conflict in the country. FH leaders planted in the country have built strategic community partners to carry out God’s vision for food and health programs in Burundi.

Thankfully, He has put the right people in the right place within the Burundi infrastructure to create significant change. After seeing the Vice-president of Burundi’s wife take the first de-worming tablet on national TV, meeting many of the governmental staff in each village, and talking with Dr. Ndayishimiye Onesime (the national coordinator for neglected tropical diseases), we discovered that Burundi has some amazing Christian leaders in place, each of them wanting to passionately help their countrymen! We asked Dr. Onesime how Burundi was able to logistically accomplish this nationwide plan with such poor infrastructure. He responded simply, “it is through the churches… and organizations like Food for the Hungry.”

Food for the Hungry’s Burundi director Yves Habumugisha and Planning Coordinator Jean Nibayubahe have created a strong relationship with the President of Burundi and filled a “spiritual gap” as a Christian relief organization. It was through that relationship that FH/US was able to offer our support of the de-worming portion of this initiative. This meticulously thought out plan used churches (predominantly), TV, and other media to convey the message of the health event schedule and locations. The distribution happened through the government staff via clinics, hospitals, police/ military camps and small groups of volunteers they called “committees”.

In 2009, we were fortunate enough to visit distribution sites in Ruyigi, Kayanza, Kirundo and Ngozi. At each of these locations we met governmental and FH staff that were meeting the mission and goal of the event to a tee. As we finished interviewing Dr. Onesime at the end of that year’s event, we asked why the campaign seemed to be working so well. He simply explained that he felt the success of this and future initiatives for Burundi will be because of Jesus Christ. Just as His work continues in each of us, He continues to develop Burundi for the better. We are very excited for the outcome of this year’s event and other programmatic endeavors that are taking place throughout the year.

Overall, the story of Burundi, one of the poorest countries in the world and yet a country that is experiencing a health revival, is a true testimony of faith in the power, provision, and sovereignty of our Savior…a Savior that reaches down to the little boys walking by the side of the road at 2am and whispers, “I’m here.”