An unusual school day in Bujumbura

Civic space in Burundi has been almost totally destroyed following a government crackdown in 2015 according to the most recent update from CIVICUS. In this challenging environment, RNW Media’s Yaga platform represents an alternative civic space where young people can discuss their country’s issues peacefully with their peers. Burundi’s authoritarian government cracks down hard on any kind of citizen activism, and this repression can even extend to high school students going about their daily business, as a recent blog from the Yaga team reports. 

High-school students at the Lycée Municipal de Rohero are used to having their mobile phones regularly searched by their teachers. But were taken by surprise when officials from the Ministry of Education appeared in their classrooms to carry out a less routine kind of search. But why?

Ministry orders
It’s 12.30 on a Friday, the second-to-last period of the day has just started. Some students are getting ready for sports, some are puzzling over the assignment they’ve just received, others are just staring blankly ahead thinking about the looming weekend. It’s business as usual within the school – but the main gate has just been closed under the watchful eyes of teachers and supervisors. The school’s management has been ordered by the Ministry to keep all the students in the classrooms for a “little routine search”. Students are required to stay in class and wait. This is supposed to be their free time – but there’ll be no sport today.

Finally, at 3 p.m., a team of five officials, equipped with cardboard boxes, start going round all the classrooms. The teachers are just as amazed as the students.

General sweep
In the classroom, students are ordered to leave their seats, one row at a time, leaving their schoolbags behind in the desks. That’s when they realise this surprise visit is actually a search. And these people aren’t just looking at mobile phones but gathering up all kinds of things – knitwear, rosaries, combs, nail clippers, scarves, are all being collected. ‘You should only be carrying school supplies! School isn’t a market where you can just lug everything around’ is the closest thing the students get to an explanation from one of the searchers. The Ministry team pack up their boxes and leave.

The students are left stunned – radiating astonishment and frustration. They simply can’t understand what just happened. The same goes for the supervisors who air their disbelief: ‘What will the combs and nail clippers seized by agents of the Ministry of Education be used for?’ asked one mockingly. ‘Does this order to search the students come from the ministry in charge of education or that of public security?’ adds another. The school head says she can’t give a reaction straight away but will try and explain after consulting with the Ministry. One faculty member says the main thing is to calm the students down and wish them a good weekend.

The School Dean does ask if the pupils could get their belongings back but is told the Minister herself had ordered that all schools be searched. Which is strange as it only happened in this one school.

Who knows?
Assuming this search was indeed carried out by the Ministry of Education, Technical and Vocational Training or the Ministry of Public Security, what exactly was the point of rummaging through classrooms and then confiscating students’ simple everyday belongings? Who knows. Maybe they expect that one day they’ll find an AK-47 or a stun grenade hidden in the satchel of a student who’s struggling to get through school. Only time will tell.

Click here to read the orginal blog in French by Tanguy Irangabiye and Ajax