Burundi is a small, landlocked country in eastern Africa, bordering Rwanda, Tanzania, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo. An old country with rich cultural traditions, it is nonetheless, and perhaps unfortunately, better known for the devastation wrought by years of socio-political turmoil within its borders.
Burundi is one of the few modern African countries that is a direct successor to an ancient state: the Kingdom of Burundi was founded in the late 15th century when the ethnic Tutsi established a feudal regime over the Hutu and Twa peoples who had previously settled the area. Despite the political dominance of the Tutsi aristocracy, relations between the three ethnic groups appears to have been harmonious during this period, and the country flourished and expanded its borders through conquest. Nevertheless, it succumbed to German colonial interests in 1899 in order to prevent a rebellion. Germany’s colonies were redistributed following its defeat in World War I, and Belgium gained control of both Burundi and neighboring Rwanda, combining the two into the colony of Ruanda-Urundi. Increased political freedoms paved the way for the separation and independence of both countries in 1962; however, the seeds of the infamous and long-lived ethnic strife between the Hutu and Tutsi had already sprouted. Land ownership disputes in Rwanda in 1959 escalated into violence, which quickly spilled over the borders into Burundi. The mounting conflict eventually shattered the Burundian political system, ended the hereditary monarchy, and created a state of civil war that, almost without cease, continued for four decades. An attempt at instituting democracy was made in 1993, but dissolved into further strife within a year. A transitional government was finally implemented in 2001, backed by internationally-mediated peace talks between the state and rebel groups. This process resulted in a slow, but marked, decrease in violence. Large-scale conflict continued at least into 2008, and although the situation remains tense, the war seems to be nearing its end.
Suffering from the long civil war and exacerbated by its landlocked position, Burundi is among the world’s ten poorest countries. Poverty, illiteracy, and malnutrition are rampant, as is environmental degradation and internal displacement. The largest industry is agriculture, of which 90% is at the subsistence level. With a very small manufacturing sector and only a few export commodities, the country is heavily reliant on foreign aid.
Burundians nevertheless have reason to rejoice, as the winding down of ethnic violence is accompanied by growing prospects for the affluence that follows national peace. As international efforts have shifted from peacekeeping to reconstruction, the need for volunteers in Burundi has grown exponentially. Work is available in a variety of fields and for volunteers of practically all professional backgrounds. For anyone hoping to make a difference, and willing to sacrifice a large degree of luxury for the opportunity, Burundi is the place to be.
Of Burundi’s three official languages, French will probably be the easiest for most Westerners to grasp. In rural areas, however, travelers will be well served by a working knowledge of the local language, Kirundi–or alternatively, Swahili, whose speakers are centered in the capital and in the environs of Lake Tanganyika, and which is widely spoken as a second language throughout the country.