A little over a week ago I travelled back to Bujumbura to take part in the Hope Africa University graduation ceremony.
It was a very significant event for several reasons. Firstly – the graduating class was huge – double what it normally is. One-thousand-two-hundred-and-four students who have received their training, been equipped, and are now ready to head out to impact their communities, their nation(s). These students will become: engineers (of various types), teachers, business leaders, nurses, doctors, mid-wives, community development workers, and so much more. In a country, and part of the world, where post-secondary education is still quite a rarity, these one-thousand-two-hundred-and-four graduates stand a chance at making a significant change in their world. The sheer size of this made the graduation noteworthy. The parking lot was mostly covered in tents, but that was only enough seating for the graduates, faculty etc…the other 4000 or so people were squeezed in all around us, looking down from windows in the building, even climbing up on fences, standing in the shade behind the tents. There were a LOT of people there.
Secondly, this has been a tough year at HAU. The violence in Bujumbura these past 10 months or so has not been evenly distributed throughout the city for various reasons, and the neighbourhoods around the HAU campus have seen far more than their share of violence. At one point during his opening words, the Rector (~president) read the names of a student and a staff member who were killed, and asked everyone present to stand in a moment of silence for their memory, and to thank God that we are all still alive. It was very moving, as I can’t imagine there was anyone there who wasn’t keenly aware that it’s not a given that we’re all still alive. The fact that ‘only two’ members of our community were killed I think makes it seem like it has not been that big an impact. Just living in the city means that almost everyone knows someone personally who has seen something, been way-too-close to something, just missed something. There is no way to avoid the impact that the violence has had in the city.
For everyone at HAU, I think it was hugely important to have this graduation successfully take place – partially just to be able to stay: “We’re still here. We’re still educating people. Students are finishing. We haven’t given up.” So in light of that security was tight…very tight. From where I was standing on the platform, I could see at any time more automatic weapons than I had ever seen in my entire life growing up in Canada. (OK, bad comparison, as that number was zero…but still)
The other thing I’ve learned is that you just roll with things here. If the graduation is supposed to start at a certain time, it maybe will not. If your secretary asks “do you have the words for your speech ready?” about 30 min after said start time, she is, in fact, not joking. The event will take place. Someone will hand you a copy of what your supposed to say. Things may seem kind of chaotic to a western mind, but honestly, they seem to always pull things off. Sure maybe I was already standing on the platform just prior to the start of the awarding of diplomas, and in my role as Directeur Pedagogique (~VP Academic) I was the one to say the “can the head of the ______ program please come forward and present their candidates …” (in French of course) – yes, on the platform with the microphone in my hand in front of thousands of people when I was told what I was to do, what to say. But, you know what, maybe everyone else didn’t even notice (note: Dr Alyssa said that in fact they could hear me saying “what order do I read this? When do I say it?” in the mic…oh well, c’est la vie).
The whole day was a great celebration. The rain held off, it wasn’t too oppressively hot, and there were no security issues. It really was a great day. I think in some way my mind-set makes it hard to comprehend what a university degree means to these students, to their families, to this country. This is not a place where basically everyone goes to university, and a bachelors degree is the new high-school diploma. This is more like a Bachelors degree is our graduate degree. When HAU first started about 12 years ago there were less than 8,000 students enrolled in post-secondary education in the entire country, meaning on average, somewhere around 2000 graduates per year – for the entire country. So if you go back even one generation, you can see how rare post-secondary education was, and how it is considered such a precious, rare, and treasured thing by these students, and their entire extended families. These one-thousand-two-hundred-and-four students getting degrees – including MANY of them masters degrees in Business, International Law, Theology, and eleven medical doctors – really is a very big deal.
The day was a great testimony to what Hope Africa University is, what it has become, and what it represents. In the midst of seeming chaos, students still end up learning. In the midst of violence, they still show up, and they graduate. In the midst of economic and security problems, they persevere.