Thursday, February 21, 2008



By Jerry Okungu

This was the plea of the Burundian Minister for Planning in her closing remarks at the end of a four day UN ECA Regional Consultative Conference on trade, food security, regional integration and infrastructure development.

Her plea echoed the cry of a 19 year old girl, a tour guide who at first glance looked timid and uninformed, until I and another Kenyan invited her to have tea with us.

In her faltering but perfect English, interspersed with Kiswahili, the young girl told us her story of the Burundi conflict in a most passionate but brutal manner. Her story was the tale of a tragic conflict that lasted more than a decade, claiming more lives than the now famous Rwanda Genocide, yet the world totally ignored it.

As much as she is now grateful that the civil war is over, her concern is that the present political leadership may not last long as people always lose interest in new leaders as soon as they elect them. This loss of following is always occasioned by unfulfilled promises and greed for power and wealth by Africa’s elected leaders.

Our girl told us that even though the conflict lasted a long time, most of the wars were fought in the rural areas. The more reason buildings in Bujumbura were never affected the way Kigali and Kampala were. In her opinion, the reason both the Buyoya government and the rebels went to negotiate was because they realized neither side was capable of winning the war. It reached a time when government troops could not fight the bush war at several fronts yet the rebels too were unable to get to the capital and occupy vital installations like broadcast stations and government buildings.

Although life is still rough for the young tour guide, she cherishes existing peace prevailing in most parts of Burundi even though there are still some rebel groups in the bush. The country’s economy is yet to recover with inflation pretty high. The cost of consumable goods is pretty high yet most Burundian families must contend with survival on a $ 2.00 a day.

Genocide in neighbouring Rwanda affected Burundi in more ways than one. First, the international community focussed its attention on the tragedy. Secondly, when the world recovered from the shock, they forgot the prevailing war next door and channelled most of the resources to Kigali at the expense of its neighbour.

On reflection, I remembered what I had always known of Burundi when I was growing up. Being a French or Belgian colony, our early years’ Geography lessons were rather scanty. Our East African perspective was restricted to Kenya, Uganda, Tanzania, Somalia, Sudan, Ethiopia and Egypt in the North. This was because the Horn of Africa was dominated by Great Britain while the war between Ethiopia and Italy in the early 1930s made the Emperor of Ethiopia a 20th century African icon.

Whenever we learnt of the Geography of Central Africa, we were always told of Rwanda-Urundi like the two countries were twin sisters tied together by some umbilical chord. It was therefore difficult for our young minds to decipher the difference between the two. We always thought of them as one country. More interestingly we were never taught about their administrative capitals- not at least to my knowledge.

Even though the two tiny Central African countries are now enjoying relative peace, there are little signs that they intend to come together soon to harness their resources for collective economic reconstruction. Never mind that the two states are occupied by the same two ethnic communities speaking mainly French, Kirundi, Kiswahili and Kinya-rwanda on both sides of the border.

However, on another level, both countries have applied to be admitted into the East African Community with the likelihood of signing the final protocols by the end of 2006.

Talking to two Burundians on two separate occasions, one of them was emphatic that if they have to join the Community, one condition they will demand will be to come with their French and that the rest of East Africa must be prepared to learn French as they too will be prepared to learn English as they perfect their Kiswahili. However, our tour girl’s worry was that this federation thing would wipe out Burundi and Rwanda from the world map! When told that Burundi would still remain Burundi as a state in the federation, she relaxed abit.

For Kenyans and the rest of the East Africans planning their first trips to Kigali and Bujumbura in the near future for whatever reason, there is something to smile about; every Burundian and Rwandese you come across in a cyber café, a hotel lobby or a shopping mall is likely to speak your national Kiswahili language. The arrangement of words may be different but you will understand one another in a most hilarious manner.
When a Burundian talks of makumi tatu na moja, he means salasini na moja!
Isn’t this sheer poetry?

Jerry Okungu
May 6, 2007