The chief of cooks prepares a meal – and dreams of a future

“They call me the chief of the cooks,” is how Janvier starts our conversation.  He’s been cooking for a long time now. As the youngest child in his family, he spent most his free time with his mom, who showed him the way.  He loved it from moment one.  At age 17, he’s a pro chef, and with the right ingredients, he can make anything.  Just ask the 70-plus children in the Rumonge reeducation center, where Janvier whips up three meals a day.  “I’m happy when the other kids eat my food.  I know I did good work.”

Janvier is here because he is accused of assault. Not too long ago, he might have spent years detained in squalid conditions alongside adults in one of Burundi’s 11 prisons.  Before arriving at Rumonge, one of two UNICEF-supported reeducation centers, he spent a year in an adult prison. “I never got enough food, and the experience was very bad.”

A long shot of buildings in the landscape.
Two UNICEF-supported reeducation centers provide a safe space for children in Burundi.

Now, he can benefit from a structured day designed especially for young people, with psychosocial and legal counseling and opportunities for sports, culture, learning and vocational training. The center prepares children to go back to their homes and schools as skilled, valuable members of their communities. Since it opened in April 2015, the center has served 221 children – with only two instances of recidivism among those who returned to their families.

Janvier is committed to his duties to provide each child with a proper meal.  If he could make any meal he wanted for himself and the others, he’d prepare a feast of fish. He’s getting some great training here – but someday, after he returns to his community, he’d like to use his talent to make money.

Meanwhile, he’s got some tips for any aspiring cooks out there: “Controlling the amount of ingredients used is key.  You’ve got to have the right water levels, the proper portions of oil, and then have the necessary measurements of seasonings.”    Janvier should know, as he’s got more than 70 critics who don’t hesitate to give their feedback after each meal.

We spent the afternoon with Janvier as he created a video tutorial for our social media audience on how to make pâte de manioc, or Cassava Bread – a local favorite in Burundi.  He took the cameraman through the steps needed to make the bread, from start to finish.  Just like the professional he’s becoming.

Janvier hopes that the video will be appreciated and shared widely, showcasing his talent around the world.  At Rumonge, he’s already a star. When he brings his creation – bread with beans – to the table, the other kids devour it within seconds.  No complaints here!

Bon appétit, Janvier.

Nicholas Ledner is a Communications Specialist at UNICEF HQ.

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