By Celine Klosterman
The three months Julie Marner spent teaching English at a private university in Burundi were filled with challenges: lack of materials, sporadic electricity, oppressive heat and cultural differences. But her time in the African country in late 2011 was extremely fulfilling, she said.
“It’s a pleasure to teach people who want to learn,” said Marner, who grew up in St. Joseph Parish in Wellman. Students’ eagerness to participate in discussions, especially about issues facing Burundi and the United States, was encouraging.
Currently on sabbatical as music director at the Newman Center at the University of California – San Diego, Marner was motivated partly by knowing how important it is for Burundi students to learn English. She noted that the East African Community, a group of five countries including Burundi that have joined economic, political and social forces, uses English as its official language.
But the poor country of 8 million people doesn’t have the facilities or resources to educate all its citizens, said Jeanine Niyonzima. A Catholic native of Burundi and current resident of San Diego, she founded Burundi Friends International (BFI). Marner taught in Africa through that non-profit organization from October to December 2011 to help fill the educational gap.
She spoke about the experience late last month to Catholics at St. Joseph Church in Hills and to religious education students at St. Thomas More Parish in Coralville. She’s working to raise awareness about needs in Burundi, which she grew familiar with thanks to her friend Niyonzima.
Niyonzima founded BFI in 2007 after attending a women’s retreat at the Newman Center, where fellow Catholics urged her to pursue her dream of improving her home country. Five women offered to help, and they established priorities of providing education, health care and sustainable enterprise opportunities.
Niyonzima said Burundian national tests progressively weed out students because there aren’t enough resources to educate everyone. So only a sliver of young people make it all the way to a public university. But some students who aren’t admitted to a government-funded school are finding opportunities at private colleges, such as Light University of Bujumbura, where Marner taught.
Education is key to changing Burundi’s corrupt political system, she and Niyonzima said. “We’re trying to teach people wherever we can, so the next generation can take better leadership,” Marner said. Many of the 70 juniors and 79 seniors she instructed expressed a desire to improve their government. They’re well aware of their country’s history that includes civil war and violent conflict between Hutu and Tutsi ethnic groups. But the students aim to foster change, Marner said.
She hoped to effect change as a young adult, too. After studying music education at St. Ambrose University in Davenport in the late 1980s, she began serving at a soup kitchen and halfway houses in Colorado Springs, Colo. She took part in those efforts through the Congregation of the Humility of Mary’s volunteer program Seeds of Hope.
In 1996 she moved to San Diego, where she later earned a master’s degree in theology and met Niyonzima. After helping organize some fundraising concerts for BFI, Marner made an eight-day trip to Burundi in 2010 with some fellow Newman Center parishioners to explore the possibility of teaching there.
She visited Burundi last year for the second time, not long after spending five weeks in summer 2011 teaching English to Buddhist nuns in the Himalayas.
Marner said her time in foreign countries reminded her not to judge people when you don’t know their circumstances. “In Africa, I had shoes stolen, but people stole them so they could sell them to buy food.” It’s disappointing, but “God is love. We are to be love.”
Niyonzima, who has an MBA, also believes the Lord gave her certain responsibilities. “God put me where I am so I can do what I’m doing right now.” She said she wasn’t smarter or more deserving than other Burundians of the opportunities and education she’s received. “This didn’t happen because of luck — I believe God touched me.”
For more information or to donate to BFI, which is currently raising funds to buy books for Burundian students, visit www.bufri.org.