Burundi president builds schools, but education remains weak
Burundi's President Pierre Nkurunziza has built more schools in his eight years in power than all of his predecessors put together, but education levels are still at an all-time low.
When Nkurunziza came to power in 2005, he immediately declared primary education free, a widely welcomed policy which resulted in the number of children registered for primary school tripling in a year.
In some schools, as many as 200 children piled into classrooms built to accommodate a fraction of that number.
"It was one of the biggest rushes to get children into school that we've ever seen," said Johannes Wedenig, UN children's agency Unicef's chief for Burundi.
Soon, Burundi ran into the problem of insufficient schools, said Willy Nyamitwe, one of Nkurunziza's spokesmen.
Undeterred, Nkurunziza decided to set an example to encourage local communities to build more schools. He adopted a hands-on approach, criss-crossing the country to give a helping hand, even making bricks and jumping onto school roofs to hammer down sheets of corrugated iron.
His opponents accused him of neglecting to run the country, but the results are there, at least as official statistics.
Between independence from Belgium in 1962 and Nkurunziza's coming to power in 2005, 1 723 primary schools and 173 secondary schools were built, according to Nyamitwe.
The small central African nation was left devastated by decades of on-off civil war, but reconstruction began in earnest after 2006.
Since 2007, Burundians have "built some 2 500 primary and secondary schools... and the percentage of children in school shot up from 59.8 percent to the very impressive figure of 95 percent," he said.
President Nkurunziza loves to boast of his achievements in the sector and his entourage goes as far as talking about the "Burundian miracle".
Unicef has praised "an initiative that allowed education to become virtually universal."
But the quality of that education has suffered.
According to Unicef, a third of children retook a year of school in 2012, while 38 percent dropped out.
One of the reasons for the drop-out rate is that schooling is not actually free, as parents have to make a "voluntary" financial contribution to the cost of building the school.
In addition, they have to buy uniforms and school materials, while more children in school means there are fewer pairs of hands to help with subsistence farming and chores.
In what is one of the world's poorest countries, and where most families count six or seven children, those fees can easily prove too much.
"We see it every day in the results of tests or even in the answers children give in class, the level of education is at an all-time low," said Eulalie Nibizi, who heads Burundi's main teachers' union.
She said the education ministry had had to drastically lower the bar for admission to secondary school, slashing the minimum grade required on the country's national exam -- perhaps by as much as half.
Teachers' unions and civil society organisations say the main problem is the spate of reforms rushed in with no preparation.
Five years ago the government introduced the teaching of English and Swahili at primary school, refusing to recognise that teachers were already struggling to teach both French and the local Kirundi, the two official languages.
"It's a nightmare for me, I don't know a word of Swahili and I can barely say 'good morning' in English," complained Marie-Claire, a primary school teacher at Giheta, a town in the centre of the country. "I've never had any training in either language and I'm obliged to teach both," she said in Kirundi.
Since the beginning of this school year the government has launched a new reform of primary education.
The aim is to increase years spent at school from six to nine "in order to have young people able to start work straight away, thanks to the introduction of new subjects such as business studies," said Rose Gahiru, the minister for primary education.
But these latest reforms "were also brought in overnight, without teacher training, without classrooms and without teaching materials," opposition politician Leonce Ngendakumana told AFP.
"Numerous challenges remain. We're aware of that, but Burundi is emerging from a long war and has more problems to tackle than other countries do," said presidential spokesman Nyamitwe.
But teachers' union boss Nibizi is not convinced by that argument.
"Even the authorities don't believe in their own reforms," she said. "The proof is they all put their children in private schools or send them abroad."