"Dr. Livingstone, I presume?"

Burundi's flag
Africa » Burundi
April 11th 2012
Published: April 17th 2012
Edit Blog Post

“Dr. Livingstone, I presume?”

Ok, so this famous query, which was supposedly pronounced by Henry Morton Stanley when he stumbled on the long errant Dr. Livingstone, was uttered in Ujiji, in what is now Tanzania, not in Burundi - yet I couldn’t resist using it in this context! In my defense, these two almost storybook characters did continue on to a point on the Burundian shore of Lake Tanganyika, just south of Bujumbura – a point marked by a rock “memorial” and a disused bar. As a history buff, I couldn’t not go to the site; my wonderful hosts, the Watson family, indulged my desire to see the spot, taking me despite the fact that we had to pass through an FLN zone*. But if Livingstone and Stanley could travel in this region without the aid of car and road, surely we could make it through a little rebel-controlled territory!


Burundi? Where is that?

I have gotten used to such responses when I tell people where I have traveled (or will travel). But somehow it seems all the more strange to hear this when I mention Burundi. While miniscule in size (it is one of the smallest African countries - in land area, if not population), it shares a border with another pint-sized country that almost everyone has heard of: Rwanda. Due to the considerable press that the 1994 Rwandan genocide received, that country is still relatively well known outside of Africa. Yet Burundi, with whom Rwanda shares a complicated, intertwined history, is a blank.

I will admit that I, too, knew little about the country until I moved to Sudan and started teaching African history. I began to learn a little about its colonial history, although it admittedly tended to be overshadowed by that of Rwanda. Burundi is almost an afterthought in most explanations of the “Scramble for Africa” and the crazy machinations of twentieth-century colonial politics. I gathered that it was somehow a distinct unit, yet connected somehow to the history of Rwanda – and then both territories were shackled to the tragic story of its behemoth neighbor, the Congo, by their almost accidental acquisition by Belgium when the Germans lost their African territories after World War I (Rwanda and Burundi were made a part of German East Africa in 1899, but German control, from the sounds of it, was minimal in Burundi, where the local king continued to assert his authority). When the Belgians took control, they reconfigured the two African kingdoms into one unit, Ruanda-Urundi. They remained politically joined until 1962.

As I learned more, I also became aware of the fact that Burundi shared a common ethnic make-up with Rwanda – Hutu and Tutsi. Moreover, in both kingdoms, the Tutsi minority had been in power before European colonialists came into the picture, though in Burundi’s case the princely class (the ganwa) saw itself as distinct from both Tutsi and Hutu subjects. During the colonial period, the Tutsis were favored by the Germans and Belgians in both territories, as they were seen as more “civilized” than the Hutus. However, the post-independence era saw a somewhat different dynamic emerge between the two major groups in Burundi compared to its neighbor.

At independence in ’62, Rwanda came to be led by a Hutu dominated government swept into power by the so called “Social Revolution” and the Tutsis came under attack; in Burundi, the “Tutsi” monarchy resurrected itself, becoming for a brief period (1962-66) the Kingdom of Burundi once more. Even after the last monarch was deposed, the Burundian government, in contrast to Rwanda, was largely controlled by the Tutsis (or rather a sub-group of Tutsis known as the Hima). These divergent political paths would play a profound role in the conflicts that wracked both countries, often feeding on one another, in the years to come. Especially, in 1994, when things turned truly ugly in both countries….

The more I read, the more I became curious about why Burundi remained more deeply embroiled in ethnic conflict after the mid-90s compared to Rwanda. Indeed its brutal civil war didn’t officially end until 2005, and even today there are still areas of Burundi controlled by rebel groups (like the FLN, which I mentioned above). Rwanda, at least on the surface (see forthcoming entries), appears to the outside world to have transformed itself after the 1994 genocide into one of the most peaceful, stable, and prosperous countries in all of Africa. How could two countries with such similar backgrounds and histories have fared so differently? But Burundi has remained, for the most part, a footnote in most African histories.

So I had to find out for myself.


It just so happened that I arrived in Burundi on April 6, the eighteenth anniversary of the shooting down in Kigali of the plane carrying Rwandan president Juvenal Habyarimana and Burundian president Cyrpian Ntaryamira (Hutus both) – the event that marked the beginning of the 100 days of genocide in Rwanda and that also fueled a new cycle of violence in the civil war in Burundi (where it was the Hutus who were often the victims). Like Rwanda, Burundi was in official mourning (but less overtly than Rwanda, as I was to discover later). An unintentionally symbolic start to my exploration of both countries!

While in Burundi, I had the great fortune of being able to stay with a family I knew from my DC days, the Watsons, who are now living and working in the country; I had been their daughter’s adviser at Potomac. To help me prepare for my journey, they had shipped several books on Burundi and the conflict in the African Great Lakes region to Khartoum (miraculously, the package got through!).

They also arranged for me – just hours after my arrival – to meet two men, one Burundian, one Rwandan, ** who had each been affected by they genocides and wars of the 1990s – and who were, importantly, willing to talk about it (not all are, especially in Burundi where the memory of conflict is particularly raw). The Burundian had founded an organization that works with street kids, originally ones made orphans by the civil war. During the war, when he was only 17, he saw his father killed. Finding himself on the streets after such a traumatic event, he could have simply focused on his own survival, but he started gathering the younger war orphans around him and tried to find safe places for the group to stay. It was out of those efforts during the worst of the conflict that he ended up finding his mission in life. Furthermore, in a major testament to his ability to forgive, he has even reconciled with his father’s killer…

The Rwandan was quieter, but he and his wife did talk about the issue of not being able to discuss ethnicity in Rwanda. It is actually illegal to do so; all must refer to themselves as Rwandans only, not as Hutus or Tutsis. But this couple think that it is necessary for the healing process to be able to talk about such things publicly.


On day two, the Watson family arranged to take me – and some friends of theirs from the embassy – up to Gitega, the former royal capital of Burundi and the second largest “city” in the country. The drive into the hills from the low plains around Lake Tanganyika was quite spectacular. The road switchbacks through the hills and mountains, providing panoramas of deep green forest and small farms cascading down the slopes. As it was Saturday, there was little vehicular traffic, but the road was full of people running (the Burundians seem to love running – and running UP hill) or performing some kind of community service (this is actually mandated by the government!). After a couple hours of twists and turns, our convoy pulled up to the tiny National Museum. We got a private tour of the collections by the curator who has looked after the place for more than 30 years. It was here that I got to see my first images of the pre-colonial Burundi and the kings who had ruled a strangely feudal like society, almost unique in Africa. The organization of the Burundian kingdom even reminded the colonialists of western political structures, leading the Germans and then the Belgians to develop theories on the origin of the Tutsis that cast them as somehow non-African, thus superior to the Hutus. A beginning of the solidification of ethnic difference that occurred under European rule.

But the highlight was driving up the rough road just outside of Gitega to one of the hilltop sanctuaries of Burundi’s sacred drums, Gishoro. Again, perhaps unique to Burundi, drums and drumming were inextricably linked to the royal family; no one could make a drum without the king’s permission and the drum itself was considered a sacred object. Only a special class of people (interestingly, usually of Hutu origin) were allowed to play them.

When we drove into the compound at Gishoro, we were greeted by a vigorous display of drumming and leaping, and were soon introduced to the “chief”. Before the full out performance, we got to duck into the replica of a former royal residence, basically an oversized thatched hut. They gathered us, then, outside the compound walls, where we were joined by a large contingent of locals who had also come to see the performance. The drummers entered carrying enormous drums on their heads and began a spirited show that included not only energetic drumming but also high leaps into the air and displays of great theatricality (the crowd seemed to get the “jokes”, laughing raucously at certain points – we weren’t sure what the triggers were!).

If that was all I had gotten to see in Burundi, I would have been happy. But there was more: there was coffee!

I got to join the Watsons on a tour of coffee washing stations in up country (well, everything is up country in relation to Bujumbura!). The first stop was a small operation run by a cooperative; they were clearly proud to have a delegation of Americans visiting their operations. Being led through all the steps required to get from picking the coffee “cherries” to pouring a cuppa in the morning made me appreciate my vice all the more. The second station was a larger affair, run by the government; quite the contrast! Of course, after all this examining of coffee production I was ready for a proper espresso macchiato at Aroma Café in downtown Buj….

These signs of pride and industry show that there is some hope for this fragile country as it tries to transform itself into a more stable, peaceful corner of the Great Lakes region. But there is much still to be done.


During these excursions, I had to remind myself at times that I was visiting a country that had only fairly recently emerged from more than a decade of major conflict (1993-2005) and which still suffers from occasional outbursts of violence (the most recent being an attack on a bar just outside of Bujumbura in September 2011 that left 36 dead). It seemed impossible that such a beautiful place, with such gentle, gracious people, could be so volatile. There appears to be no clear reason why it should be so, other than distrust seems to beget distrust, violence to beget violence.

As I mentioned earlier, when Burundi gained independence, the government - first the renewed monarchy and later the republican form - and the military came to be dominated by the Tutsi minority, in contrast to Hutu-led Rwanda. At times, these leaders, fearing a Hutu uprising, conducted campaigns that were genocidal in nature against segments of the Hutu majority. Most notablely, there was a major slaughter of Hutus in 1972 in response to a Hutu rebellion (one following on the heels of the probable assassination of the last king, Ntare V); intellectuals and other possible future leaders of revolt were especially targeted. Many Burundian Hutus fled into neighboring countries, including the Congo (then Zaire) and Rwanda. Radicalized by their experiences in Burundi, these Hutus helped stir anti-Tutsi sentiment both in Rwanda and Burundi. You can see where this is going...

The bad blood that such actions caused led to cycles of anti-Tutsi attacks followed by reprisals by the Tutsi leaders who remained firmly in power. Actually, it was not until 1993 that a Hutu, Melchior Ndadaye, was elected president - who was then assassinated in October of that year. His successor, Ntaryamira (Hutu), would be dead just six months later - on April 6, 1994. Hutus turned on Tutsis, many of whom ended up fleeing to, guess where: the Congo and Rwanda. Unfortunately, for those Tutsis who ended up in Rwanda, they arrived just in time for outbreak of that country's infamous genocide...

In Burundi, war would rage for twelve years before a peace settlement was finally reached. The conflict shattered the country and its people, but slowly, slowly attempts are being made to heal the deep societal wounds and get the country back on its feet politically and economically. But there are still rebel groups hampering the process. I hope, for the Burundians' sake, that peace prevails.


I boarded my bus to Kigali with some reluctance. Although I’d been in Burundi for only four short days, I’d found myself entranced by its gorgeous scenery and its hospitable people. I was also leaving with more questions than answers about the country’s troubled past (and present).

But it is no longer a footnote in my book! I will have to return someday to this too often overlooked corner of Africa, a place once appreciated even by the likes of Livingstone and Stanley…

* Front de Libération Nationale (National Liberation Front – a Hutu rebel group).

** Just in case, I will protect the identities of these two men by not naming them.

Additional photos below
Photos: 63, Displayed: 31


Tot: 2.67s; Tpl: 0.021s; cc: 17; qc: 82; dbt: 0.0286s; 2; m:saturn w:www (; sld: 1; ; mem: 1.6mb