Iowan pedals on RAGBRAI for Burundi, East Africa

Julie Marner’s heart has two homes: Iowa and Burundi, East Africa. Both places are agriculture rich and full of friendly, generous people. But as one of the poorest countries in Africa, average Burundians struggle to survive.

Marner’s first visit to Burundi came in 2010, as an invited guest of Burundi Friends International (BFI) founder Jeanine Niyonzima-Aroian, who told her that, “generosity and kindness are Burundi’s abundant resources; however, these things cannot pay for the future of our society.”

Marner agreed that education was the key that enabled generations of her family to live healthy, self-sufficient lives in America’s heartland. In 2011, Marner returned to Burundi and helped establish BFI’s English Education Program with 35 students and three teachers. Today, there are more than 55,000 students and almost 4,000 volunteer instructors.

Burundian Fabrice Bizimana dreamed that one day, something good would come. That day arrived in 2011 when BFI empowered him with an education and something more. “I view BFI as a family who must set a good example. Families support you in difficult times, comfort you, and lead you the right way.”

Julie Marner (left) and Fabrice Biziman

Bizimana became one of the first English instructors of BFI’s English Education Program after Julie returned to the States. He was barely able to stay ahead of the students he was teaching, yet his perseverance paid off and Fabrice became a Washington Mandela Fellow in 2015, allowing him to study in the U.S.

He understands that Burundi can be a distant thought in everyone’s daily struggles, but Bizimana still wishes that poverty and pain will not define his country.

Instead, “I wish that the world will visit us in Burundi and see firsthand the genuine kindness and love we have for all peoples, our desire to innovate, and our passion to improve our society.”

Marner is now the executive director of BFI after years of volunteer work. It has been a long road, yet BFI has been so impactful that the U.S. Ambassador to Burundi, Ms. Anne Casper, called them ‘trailblazers’ for the work they do.

But Marner has a much simpler take on it, “Really, we do it because this is part of my Iowan heart. We’re just one big family helping each other live the best lives we can.” She believes Iowans and the RAGBRAI® community can make a significant impact on the lives of thousands of Burundians.

Marner lights up when talking about BFI. “All donations go toward building schools, community libraries, and advancing curriculum. Just $20 will buy five BFI English textbooks and $100 will cover college tuition fees for a month. There are so many ways to show the world that we are kind, generous, caring people.”

Look for Bizimana, Marner, and others with orange ‘Cycle4Burundi’ BFI team shirts riding in RAGBRAI –– connecting two heartlands together with one mission of family, education, and empowerment.

For more information on BFI and ways to help educate new leaders, contact Julie at: Julie.M [at] bufri [dot] org. Thank you RAGBRAI Iowans! Make any tax-deductible donations at:

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