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Our 100 children

Mathilde Nkwirikiye, Provincial President of Mothers’ Union Burundi, is passionate about her work helping children affected by the country’s civil conflict

01 May 2016

In 2015, ethnic and political violence in Burundi, especially in the capital diocese, Bujumbura, caused thousands to seek refuge in other parts of the country or across the borders in Rwanda, DR Congo and Tanzania. When Mothers’ Union provincial president, Mathilde Nkwirikiye, was able to come to the UK in January to accompany her husband, Archbishop of Burundi, Bernard, as he attended the Anglican meeting of the Primates, she spoke with Families First about the mission work of Mathilde through the Church and Mothers’ Union.

‘I’ve always had a faith,’ says Mathilde. ‘I grew up in a Roman Catholic family and went to a church school. I met my husband at the end of my secondary school education and we became pen pals. Years later when I went to university we became very close and got married, and on my marriage I became an Anglican and a Mothers’ Union member. My family was bemused at me marrying a priest! But I’m not simply a clergy wife! I qualified as a lawyer after university, and I’ve combined being a successful career woman and a supportive wife and mother. Ours has been a marriage of equality. When I was in a high-pressure job as the director for a commercial firm I frequently had to travel. Bernard took on many of the parenting and household duties at this time, and we always plan things together.

‘During the civil war in Burundi in the mid-1990s I saw so many children who had been left alone, or become separated from their parents as they fled to hide. I felt so called to efforts to help them. I resigned from my high-flying job, and took a job in an organisation being set up to trace these children’s parents or family members. It was a non-Christian organisation but I made it clear to them that I would abide by Christian values in my work and would not do things I did not believe in. The charity was fundraising successfully, but the donors were happy to see a box ticked for those whose families had been found, but the condition of the children wasn’t considered, so the family dynamic, or the family living conditions, were not part of the process of reconciliation. Safeguarding wasn’t part of the process either.


‘I felt strongly that first and foremost the children needed care: the basics of food, clothing and medicine. I felt it wasn’t enough to simply find their families and then hand over the children. They needed to be more than just names on a project list. So I began to look after the welfare of the children and encouraged the organisation to look into the care of the children while they were waiting to go to their families. ‘After six years I began to think that some of these children’s parents would never be found, so thought: what about placing them with an extended family member, or with adoptive families? I was so passionate about this line of work that in 2000 I started my own charity, The Rainbow Project: it is a centre for abandoned babies who have been left in displacement camps or in hospitals. Babies are looked after at the centre, but the ultimate aim is to find ‘forever homes’ – either through adoption or fostering. Because I meet so many caring women through the church and through Mothers’ Union, we have been able to place almost 400 children in foster or adoptive homes since I started the work. Many Mothers’ Union members have taken in children.

‘In Burundi we are very good at adoption and my husband and I have taken in nieces and nephews and they feel like our own. Altogether we have over 100 children that we would call our own and eight grandchildren. Every New Year we all get together!


‘Now, again, families are being split apart through conflict. The unrest in Bujumbura, on the face of it, is political, with disagreement over the third term of the president. However the conflict goes much deeper. Culturally we are a people who kill over a disagreement. Mutual respect, respect of life, needs to be rebuilt, starting in the home. Through Mothers’ Union groups, prayer groups and parenting groups, we are instilling new values. How do we value children? We are building peace. Prayers are needed though.

‘In Burundi, officially there are no internally displaced people (IDP) camps, but there are displaced people staying with families for safety who would be targeted in camps. Families have gone from five to 20 members in many cases. Some areas of Burundi are almost empty. IDPs create an invisible problem – non-governmental organisations (NGOs) don’t know where people are. No one is supporting them and families aren’t coping but that’s when Mothers’ Union gets involved.

‘Families are already in poverty and in the city the situation is getting worse. But our members are rising to the challenge when they can – though of course they face the same unrest, violence and fear as the entire population. But we have set it as our number one priority to provide assistance to the displaced through shelter, food and sanitation in camps and overcrowded and ill-equipped homes. Mothers’ Union community development coordinators (CDCs) and trainers are trained in counselling and families come to Mothers’ Union members for advice, support and a listening ear. They trust Mothers’ Union. Mary Sumner House has given a relief grant of US$20,000 to be used in two installments for this work to be carried out.


‘We also are so moved that our sisters are reaching out to Burundian refugees in Rwanda, Tanzania and DR Congo. Over 150,000 people have fled and conditions in Tanzania and DR Congo are inhuman – we need to pray for them. In Rwanda, the camps are well kept and clean. Mothers’ Union Rwanda is also using a relief grant to assist 2,000 people there. ‘When we visit we are struck by all that is being done. When you see that blue and white Mothers’ Union print or spot the badge you know you’ve found a sister! This is a really positive thing, this solidarity that we all have because we are a part of Mothers’ Union. When you meet on the road you stop and talk because you know that you have that strong bond. ‘The recent visit of the Archbishop of Canterbury and Mrs Welby has been a real boost. Even in our trials we know that our brothers and sisters all over the Communion are praying for us.

‘Despite the struggles in Bujumbura, much of the Mothers’ Union work in the six dioceses outside the capital is carrying on as normal. The literacy and financial education work is exceeding expectations and transforming lives. You feel vulnerable when your children and husband are literate and you are not. Women are now more respected and feel they are contributing to the family. The savings groups are still running, which enables women to save, discuss peace and learn about their rights. The groups provide solidarity – they protect each other. When men get money they drink it, but women invest it. ‘One of the positive things to come out of visiting Rwanda is to see the difference the Parenting Programme is making to family life there. So we are now initiating our own programme, training facilitators ready to run parenting groups – we’re really excited about this.’

Find out more about Mothers' Union in Burundi