Destination: BURUNDI

(The article was written for the "European Stagiaires' Journal", 13/01/2007)

In order to get a complete picture of humanitarian and development aid funded by the EC, trainees from DGs ECHO, AIDCO and DEV have been organising study field trips to countries of their concern for the past few years. The trips take place following the traineeship and are organised by the stagiaires themselves, including fundraising activities, arranging meetings with partner organisations and visiting their projects in the field. Former trainees have visited such countries as Senegal, Mali, South Africa and Malawi. This traineeship period, in keeping with this "African" tradition, the destinations for this March are Burundi and Rwanda in the case of a joint ECHO-DEV group, and Morocco, which has been selected by AIDCO trainees.

The following article aims to introduce the country the least known out of the trio as Burundi has been overshadowed by events in neighbouring Rwanda for years.

A war-torn country

Since 1962, when Burundi gained its independence from Belgium, the country has experienced years of civil war arising from tensions between the Tutsi and Hutu ethnic groups. In 1993, Burundi was close to entering a new, more peaceful era, as the first democratic elections were held. However, the assassination of the newly elected president, just a few months after his inauguration, plunged the country into a 12-year violent civil conflict. An estimated 300,000 people were killed, most of them civilians, and more than 400,000 fled to neighbouring countries, in particular Tanzania, DR Congo and Rwanda.

Emerging peace

A peace process, initiated by the Arusha Agreement in 2000, has been followed by a political transition resulting in the establishment of a new democratic government in August 2005. Since then, progress has been achieved in both political and security matters. In September 2006, the government signed a ceasefire with the only remaining rebel group, removing the last barrier to peace and stability. Despite the positive development, "the situation in Burundi is still fragile and major peace consolidation challenges remain" (Ban Ki-Moon, 2.1.2007). The government has, in the meantime, launched a series of recovery and development initiatives, in addition to a number of ongoing humanitarian projects aiming to alleviate suffering and maintain human dignity.

Hutu, Tutsi and… Twa people

The tiny African country is home to around 8 million people, resulting in Burundi’s 2nd position on the chart of the most densely populated countries on the continent (after Rwanda). Hutus (86 %) and Tutsis (13 %) are the two main ethnic groups but along with them, a minority of Twa (Pygmy) people inhabits the country, maintaining their own, distinct culture. They are known for their fine pottery and some of them still live in the forests as their ancestors did hundreds of years ago. Their life is, however, very difficult and most of them make their living as labourers on other people’s land. They are poor, landless, and often face discrimination.

Burundi - a traveller's paradise (?!)

Due to the long-lasting insecurity and political instability, Burundi has not been considered as an appropriate destination where one could spend his/her holidays. But the fact that the country is sometimes called “the Switzerland of Africa” indicates its tourism potential. A few “travel” agencies that organise excursions to interesting localities across the country have already been established in the capital, Bujumbura. Burundi’s picturesque landscape is “home” to several natural parks and reserves, spectacular lake regions, waterfalls and thermal springs. A symbolic pyramid has been erected in the south-eastern part of Burundi marking the source of the Nile River. Burundi does not lack cultural or historical monuments either: the place where the two explorers Livingston and Stanley met in 1871, the National Museum in Gitega, traditional craft wares villages of Giheta or the formal royal site of Muramvya… In the central part of the country, visitors have the opportunity to experience the unique performances of the Drummers of Burundi, the tradition of which has been passed down from father to son over the centuries.

The unhappiest place in the world

In July last year, a British social psychologist, Adrian White, published a world map of happiness, based on a vast number of studies and interviews conducted around the globe. At the very bottom, ranked as 178th, came Burundi. While checking numerous websites in order to find information on issues connected to our trip, I've read many interesting reflexions of people who have either travelled to or worked in Burundi. In the vast majority of these stories, shared by individuals with the rest of the world, I could only feel positives vibes. A contradiction to what is said daily in the news or Mr. White’s findings. My curiosity led me to carry out a further exploration and, besides the above mentioned expatriates’ experiences, to find what a real Burundian thinks. Here is one example of an opinion, which I got after establishing “pen pal” connections with several young Burundians: “…do not believe in the newspapers. It is especially necessary to believe in people who live in the country. These newspapers disseminate horrible information. I swear to you that you will have another image if you come to Burundi, you will be surprised: the beauty of Burundi is incomparable. There is another element which is most important: it is the hospitality of the Burundians.” Thierry (28) from Bujumbura.

…but in the end, one has to experience the country for him/herself in order to create their own, unique picture.
So - "TUZOBONANA MU BURUNDI"! (…which means "See you in Burundi" in Kirundi language)