Bienvenue au Burundi
Yesterday, I did something brave. I drank the water. Repeatedly.
Apparently, you can do that in Bujumbura. That makes my life wonderfully simpler. No boiling, cooling, and bottling. (We’ll see how I feel in a couple of days.)
I’m back to Africa this summer, this time working for an NGO in Burundi. Due to confidentiality restrictions, I won’t be able to provide too many details about what I’m doing, but I will share some of my experiences living in this new place. It seems to me that there isn’t much information available about Burundi, both based on the lowly 13 pages of the Lonely Planet’s guide to East Africa and the response of the doctor in DC who gave me my tetanus shot (“Burundi? Is that a city or a country?”).
Burundi and Rwanda used to be one country, Ruanda-Urundi, under the German administration. The two were split in July 1962, when they gained independence. In many ways, they are sister countries—with a similar ethnic makeup, hilly geography, and basically the same language. Kirundi and Kinyarwanda are mutually comprehensible. It’s wonderful that I’m able to use my Kinyarwanda here, but I’m trying to remain sensitive to the fact that there are some differences, and that I should learn and use the locally-appropriate terms.
The two countries differ in their development. Driving around Bujumbura, you get the sense that it is at least a decade behind Rwanda. The buildings are shorter, the streets are dustier, there are plastic bags by the side of the road, there are no stoplights (that I have seen), and internet cafes do not seem to be as omnipresent here as they are in Kigali—or even in secondary towns like Gisenyi. This is all attributable, in part, to the fact that Burundi emerged from a civil war only three years ago. The evidence is everywhere; signs across the city show doves with olive branches, and there are provocative billboards reading, “Debarrassons-nous des armes, pour eviter les drames!” (Let’s get rid of arms, to avoid drama!”) It is a reference to general disarmament (I have heard that almost everyone here has arms at home) but in particular the disarmament of the Hutu rebel group, the FNL, which is reintegrating into society. While a Burundian has told me that the civil war is considered history at this point (“No one is particularly interested in talking about it,” he said), I have heard otherwise—that ramifications of the recent civil war and ethnic tensions persist.
Oh, and while it’s not development-related, I should note that while Rwanda has become Anglophone in the last couple of years, Burundi remains strongly Francophone. The Belgian and French presence is significant here, despite Burundi's membership in the (Anglophone) East African Community. My French feels a little rusty, and my comprehension is slow at the moment (particularly with all of the jargon that has been tossed around the office since my arrival), but I should be ready to go by the end of next week.
In the meantime, I’m just trying to gain my footing and start to make a life here, if only temporarily!