After WWI, Germany had control of this area and handed it off to Belgium under the name Ruanda-Urundi. They did let them keep their kingdom status, though. (Gee, how kind.) However, the political instability in Rwanda between the Hutus and Tutsis and the massacres that were occurring between the two had its strain on Burundi as well, especially since the two were so tied together (I mean, at that time, they were still one colony). At this point, leader Mwami Mwambutsa IV suggested to the Belgians that they wanted to separate themselves from Rwanda, and in 1962, it finally became official. Of course, it didn’t take long before the Hutus and Tutsis in Burundi were also in disputes with each other which escalated into violence and killings. Burundi is a majority Hutu nation (85%) over Tutsi (14%) (with a small percentage of Twa or Pygmy at 1%). It’s been estimated that nearly a quarter of a million people have died needlessly since their independence and the early 1990s, mostly from the two major genocides that took place in 1972 and 1993. If you’ve seen the movie Hotel Rwanda, it’s much about the same kind of thing. (I highly recommend it, but it’s a very striking movie – I remember watching these events unfold on the news and being horrified at the carnage.)
The capital Bujumbura lies on the shores of Lake Tanganyika, a very large lake that touches four other countries. Lake Tanganyika has the distinction of being the second largest freshwater lake and also the second deepest lake in the world (after Lake Baikal in Siberian Russia), and it’s also the world’s longest lake. Since the country is landlocked, this is about as close to the beach as they’re gonna get. Bujumbura has roughly about 800,000 people, a little less than the city of San Francisco, California. The capital Bujumbura is the home to several universities and colleges as well as museums and restaurants and the like.
Because of the Belgian occupation, French is one of the main languages spoken and used in Burundi, but the native language Kirundi is also a secondary official language as well. Swahili is also an important language since it is often used as a lingua franca in eastern Africa.
Christianity remains to be the most-followed religion in Burundi, with the majority following Catholicism. Indigenous and tribal spiritualism comes in second and Islam follows with about 5% of the population.
There are many areas of Burundi that are considered undeveloped and underdeveloped. Their life expectancy is only about 58 years, and there’s definitely a shortage of doctors, hospitals, and access to basic healthcare. What’s amazing in a not-so-good way is that there are only 3 doctors for every 100,000 people. That’s like having 24 doctors to serve the entire city of Indianapolis. And on top of that, there are only 73 hospital beds per 100,000 people. Not everyone has access to clean water or sanitation yet; access is more readily available in the cities than in the rural areas though. AIDS is still a problem as well as other high risks for infectious diseases such as hepatitis A, malaria, and rabies. 39% of kids under 5 are underweight. Only 59% of the population is literate; more men are literate than females. 68% of the population lives under the poverty line. Burundi is 5th in maternal mortality rates. In 2009, they actually made homosexuality a crime, punishable up to three years in jail with a fine of 50,000-100,000 Burundian francs (about US $32.26 – 64.52).
Just from my initial look at Burundi, I can definitely tell the Belgian influences on the culture as well as the Pan-African influences and from their own identity. The country certainly has its struggles, but they are starting to make moves towards progressing to a better state. It’ll take some time, though. But in the meantime, I’m really excited to explore this country that I know so little about. I know I’m really excited about the meals, partly because I get to buy anise seed and fresh tarragon. And as usual, I’m pretty sure I’m going to be amazed.
Up next: holidays and celebrations