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Principles that unite


How volunteering brings untold value to communities without health care and offers hope of social cohesion in a country torn by civil strife

Back in 1994, when Biriho Edward was a young boy, he never imagined he would be a refugee, or a Burundi Red Cross volunteer — or a lifesaver. Today, he is all three due to a series of circumstances that tranformed him from victim of war to someone who is changing the lives of others.

When civil war broke in Burundi in 1993, Edward joined many other Burundians who fled to the neighboring Democratic Republic of the Congo.  When hope of returning home died, Kibogoye camp became his home.

It was while at the camp that he first met Red Cross volunteers from various National Societies. “I used to admire them, they always seemed happy,” he says. “Their inspiration and commitment to help the refugees was amazing. They always endeavored to make us feel at home while at the camp. This they did through conducting first aid, visiting us regularly, distributing food, tracing our families services among others.”

Bringing it home

For the one and a half years when Edward was in the camp, he got to know the Red Cross workers and was naturally assimilated into volunteerism.  First on his agenda when he returned home in Burundi, therefore was to find a Burundi Red Cross office.  He found the Mpanda Red Cross unit and went through various training sessions on disaster risk reduction and emergency response. 

Today, he is not only in charge of volunteer emergency response in the local Red Cross unit but has been called upon to support national level emergencies. “In 2004, I went to respond to civil war in Bujumbura (Burundi’s capital),” he says. “I was able to administer first aid to many injured people and I escorted five others to the nearest health facilities. I got the satisfaction to later learn that they all survived.”

Over the years, Edward has also been able to attract more people to join the Red Cross.

“I was once called upon to help a child who had inserted a bead in his nostrils,” he recalls. “Everybody had tried to safely remove it without success. The family was panicking and could not afford to take the boy to Bujumbura. The boy’s eyes could tell that he feared the worst. I then took the tube of a pen and slowly blew through the other nostril until the bead came out. The family was more than grateful for this help. The next day I received many visitors asking me to teach them how to administer such first aid.”

Another time, Edward found two children stuck in a burning house. He quickly asked for a blanket, put it in water, dressed up in it and, at great risk to himself, removed the children from the house.

“Our community has appreciated Red Cross support,” he says. “For a country with an ugly past of division, Red Cross principles have found favor among us. These principles unite us. The visibility of the National Society has grown and volunteer recruitment has become easier.”

The value of life

Edward’s own story, and the stories of his life-saving work, are just part of the value that volunteering is bringing to communities throughout Burundi, many of which lack access to basic emergency health and first aid care. Though it’s difficult to fix financial value to these services, such stories are the reason that the number of volunteers is increasing in many Burundian communities.

Volunteering in Burundi is also helping to improve social cohesion in the wake of civil strife (see: Tugire ubuntu! May the practice of humanity last forever) and the efforts of the Burundi Red Cross to build local volunteer networks is serving as a case study on how local volunteer development is critical to long-term social and economic improvement (see: Building sustainable local capacity in the branches of the Burundi Red Cross Society).

By Nancy Okwengu
Nancy Okwengu is an IFRC senior communications specialist based in Nairobi.










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