Rwanda has a conjoined twin, joined at the hip but twins that facing opposite ways. Their ways are inverted, but their actions affect each other in myriad ways. One of the biggest factors in the Genocide in Rwanda was the parallel volatile events in Burundi in 93, the death of Ndadaye, the subsequent chaos. If one were to make a generalised differentiation between Rwanda and Burundi, Rwanda was seen as more centralised with an all-powerful King, Burundi was more decentralised with Chiefs having power. So in Burundi you see the more free, relaxed attitude of frontier country as opposed to the stiff regulated life that has always characterised Rwanda. Burundians are free-thinkers, cynical of powerful people, laissez faire – live and let live, and above all humorous. Every Burundian is a comedian, I went to a function and a guy made me cry with laughter, I thought he was a comedian but they assured me “He’s just a regular guy, usual banter.” So it is ironic that Burundi is the most satirised country in the region, a joke beyond a joke, but no one can satirise Burundi better than the Burundian, it is a national art form. This humour saved them a genocide on the scale of Rwanda, the underlying factors are there; a tragic past, a poor uneducated population, cynical politicians willing to exploit, and above all population pressure.
Rwanda has humour but we use it differently, it is sardonic, visceral, full of more pain than humour, it is meant to elicit a bittersweet feeling and a slight sigh not a roar. At the heart of any Rwandan joke is cruelty of some sort: God tells a Rwandan that he can have anything but on the condition that his neighbour gets double, so two cars means four for his neighbour, so the Rwandan asked God to pull out one of his eyes, so his neighbour can have both eyes out. That is a Rwandan joke, sick, cruel, twisted and ironically triggers laughs in people who spend most of their days pulling out eyes of people metaphorically. The main jokes of Rwanda in the old days were riddles, wordplay, puns and oratory to shut up your adversary, what was left when our culture died was this bitter twisted sardony. Humour in Rwanda was used to divide, to spread hate, many of the presenters on Hate Radios were comedians. Jokes were all about differences, mistrust, causing strife, the punchline was “never trust.” So Burundi was a precarious situation that went from tragedy to farce, and just kept getting funnier and more absurd. Burundians get the joke, they live the joke, so to poke fun at them is pointless.
A billboard was removed just before I arrived, it had caused a stir in Bujumbura, it showed the President Pierre Nkurunziza on a cycling bike and dressed in Tour de France cycling shorts, with his genitals outlined by the tight shorts, you could see his dick basically, with his big smile. The IMF chief arrived in Burundi to talk about the rising economic crisis and corruption, the president slept through the meeting having been playing football and eaten too much. When the IMF man left he was given a poster of the Pres in his tight cycling shorts and huge grin, they were insulted when he threw the poster away. He is a man of the people, he reflects them in all their glory, his stories of lack of etiquette warm the hearts of his voters. To hear of your president arriving for a serious East African Conference in gumboots and taking them off because they are itching and stinking out the place, he reflects their past but not their aspirations, so he cannot take them to the promised land. Whether true or not, his voters don’t mind him sticking two fingers up to protocol. Most of the jokes are just true life situations; some officials were flying with Rwandair and walked into the VIP lounge bar and drank for several hours, when they were passed the bill they said “Rwandair will pay, they are the ones taking us, they have “received us.” In Kinyarwanda-Kirundi “Kwakira” to receive guests or to serve alcohol, they were shocked when Rwandair refused to pay.
Drinking as a national duty
Burundians take drinking very serious, I mean very seriously, it is your national duty as a Burundian to support Brarudi, the local brewery. In the 60’s Micombero, the then president said “these white men have done us the decent thing and opened us a brewery, the least we can do is drink it.” Burundi has 3 million less people, an economy 40% of Rwanda, but Brarudi outsells Bralirwa by far, Heineken group could sell their Rwanda operation but never Burundi. They are forever caught between remorse and regression, in the mornings you see them running the beer out of their blood, sweating out Amstel’s by the bucket. They drink steadily from 2pm as the Lakeside humidity kicks in, you get the same symposia, as the Greeks called drinking clubs. It is something corrupted in our culture, back in the day, boys would form milk-drinking groups, as they grow, the drinks get stronger. They seem to classify people in Burundi according to your alcohol intake
• The Pious – Bakizwa never drink, they are more pious than Catholics who uphold their sacraments but drink generously.
• Abidagadura – those who just drink socially but not excessively
• Abashingantaha – those men who have one for the road after work, though this can mean just a man, it means one for the road
• Abasamanje – You are now into dangerous territory, I asked repeatedly what it meant, they said AbaSM, SM – Sans Mange, without eating. They say “real men don’t eat food and drink, pick one, food reduces the room for alcohol in the stomach.” Then you hear a guy has done a 3-day SM, as close to zombie as you can get, they enter a parallel universe of alcoholic Zen wisdom, Socratic genius mixed with paranoid madness “shhhhhh can you hear that? God is telling me to go home to my wife before she thinks I’ve left her.”
• Abasafu – This is the lower level on the scale, these should be avoided at all costs. They get their name from a corruption of SAF in French – Sans Alcohol Fixte, those without a preferred type of booze, they drink anything. Some specialise in harassing people in a bar until you buy them a drink, they will hound you until you give in with a variety of tactics. One heard me speaking English and was repeating everything I said for 10 minutes until I bought him a beer to shut up. Not all Abasafu are low-class, you find a man working in a bank with; red wine, white wine, Bock, Amstell, Primus and Rugwagwa banana wine. You think he is part of a large group but he is alone, he drinks so much that one drink can’t do anything, he has to mix.
• Abatayekodi – translated he lost the PIN code to his own head, once you lose the code then you are useless you cannot access your own memory, so he’s just there. They are SM/SAF the lowest level, when one walks into a bar people run and hide, a person who doesn’t eat for days and consumes any form of alcohol for days, they are powered by ethanol not food.
A dream that died
All over Burundi and Buja there are monuments done in a very kitsch way, cast cement sculptures of various contradictory heroes, to each his own; Ndadaye for some Hutu, Rwagasore for the some Tutsis. They are both monuments that wonder what would have happened if they had lived, so people heap dreams and illusions on these lost leaders. Prince Rwagasore was the designated heir who had a modern approach in the 50’s, he was the driving force for independence and nationhood. He married a Hutu woman he loved to signify national unity, and to show his fellow Tutsis “if I can marry one, then why not you?” He started the sporting craze that Burundians have to this day, he had athletics clubs for jogging, and football was also his thing. Today Burundi has 3 players in the premiership, Rwanda none. Rwagasore was killed by a Greek mercenary sent by the Belgians, Burundi’s history changed as forces and counter-forces fought for power. It is still the best hunting ground for the former colonisers, they could never let go. I saw a rich Belgian in a hotel bar holding on to hooker’s ass like it was his personal property, this was an apt metaphor for the HOLD you still see. Into this Vacuum came 3 men from within 5km of each other in Rutovu, in Bururi, in the Mugamba Mountains.
The Bagamba from Mugamba
In Burundi they differentiate between Tutsis, the Baganwa – Royal were considered a different race, as were the Bahima from Mugamba who were excluded politically but formed the core of the army. Few people have anything nice to say about this triumvirate “insweranyana” – they have sex with their calves, they would marry their favourite cow, said one. One thing they say is “they knew how to govern a nation!!” They were men of limited education, rash brutality and closed-minded. There was never the poverty there is today, people ate least ate 3 times a day. They were not angels, many of the short-cuts they took are still having consequences today. The CNDD top brass is the children of the 1972 crisis, the children of the 1993 crisis are still in IDP camps. The legacy of those early UPRONA days was a sense of nationhood, even though the pie was not equally divided, they all accepted each other as Burundians. The first of these was Micombero, a young officer who led a counter-coup in 1965, he massacred some 150,000 Hutus putting down a rebellion and tried to create a pseudo-communist state with the help of China. He was swept away in a coup in 1976 and died a young man at 46 in 1983. Micombero pushed too far, Bagaza tried to hold on, and Buyoya tried to let go of power in a way that preserved as much privilege as possible.
Today Burundi is the butt of the joke, bottom of any index unless it is done alphabetically, it only ranks high in negative indexes. Yet there was a time when Burundi was considered an efficient modern state. They were ranking well in reducing child mortality, in maternal care, in education, in investment and they were held up as an example to Africa in the 80’s. You even see it today that despite falling standards the people are educated and have a good idea of a standard of living. As much as they tried to develop, the ghosts of the past were there, haunted by 150,000 dead, refugees massed in Tanzania, and social exclusion that caused inequality. No matter how clean the streets were, or how orderly it looked, there was a bubbling tension, and as much as the government tried to remove tribes from the conscious, it just couldn’t. The Ghosts of 73’ came back to haunt them in 93’ so today you have the refugees from 73’ ruling while the refugees from 93’ wait their turn. The problem of inequality is deep in Africa, especially this Great Lakes region, where population pressure wipes out any gains you make. You see the huddled masses in Kayanza, Ngozi, Gitega, pressed up against the road with nowhere to go, too packed, behind they are pushing and in front the cars are missing by inches. You see the bulging slums of Kamenge and Cibitoke, the promises they made them and the failure to deliver on them.
Out of chaos comes order
I sat in Toxxxic, the most happening club in Buja and saw a scramble outside, being a curious idiot – I went to check and was shocked. A bunch of youngsters beating up a cop, they accused him of stealing a phone while pretending to arrest one of the group, he was begging for his life while being slapped against the wall. I must add at this moment that he was armed, armed with an AK slung over his shoulder, he never thought to use it, he dropped it to the ground and pleaded for his life. After a few more slaps they let him run off but he forgot his gun. “Wait!! You forgot your gun!!!” and they just left it there as they went to drink some more, 2 minutes later the gun was gone, someone picked it and ran. I imagine what would happen to you if you did that to a police officer in Rwanda, not even God could save you. This is what happens when you simply arm someone without mentally empowering then, they are just a coward with a gun. I was sitting in Karondo with the Samanges when they all got a text from the Govt asking them to hand in their weapons. They all laughed at the thought “they just handed out 10,000 guns the other day to their militia in the Kamenge slum, just in case.” So there is a delicate balance, the army is still regarded as mostly mixed but Tutsi, but the Police is Hutu. The Hutu government was suspicious of letting in Hutus who don’t support them, so they focussed on police and militia. The main problem is between various groups who claim to speak for all the Hutu, FNL, Frodebu, and the ruling CNDD, while the Tutsis avoid politics as part of a Grand Bargain.
The problem is the Grand Bargain is coming to an end, the deal that gave Hutu-Tutsi a 60-40 split has hit the skids. The law of diminishing returns, they steal too much, so the donors reduce their funds, so they have to steal a bigger proportion, the donors cut even more, so they steal even more. Then they can blame the fact that Tutsi have 40% of appointments and that they need to reduce that. It made sense to keep 40% to keep the civil service going during the transition, now they risk losing a lot of experience in the name of quotas. The scary thing about Burundi is that you wonder if it is Rwanda in another part of cycle, they were the Rwanda of the 80’s, a model African state, but now nothing new has been built, the chickens have come home to roast, and there are more chickens on the way. The irony is that the Tutsi Elite within an elite never let the Hutu run even a village council then gave them the country to rule, like giving a passenger the pilot-seat of a Jumbo-jet of a nation. One voter lamented “we have never ruled in history and we are making mistakes, but we will learn slowly.” If only events are so kind as to give time. People have dawned on the truth, that this is not about Hutu and Tutsi, this is about a powerful elite of both sides preserving their privilege at all costs, to the exclusion of all. “Once you take power, you become another tribe, the powerful – the rest are a threat.” Said a drunk sage. That is how the Baganwa became a separate race, the power ran in their veins.
They remain secretive
Outside one of the few new buildings in Buja are the words “They remain secretive” the literal translation of the motto of the ruling party CNDD, but it means “they stay loyal” and they need a lot of loyalty in this tumult. There are crucial events that will affect the Great Lakes region, the issue of extending the term limits to allow Nkurunziza to run again, the revision of the quotas allowed for both sides, the clamp down on other Hutu parties like FNL and Frodebu, and the continuing downwards slide of the economy. Burundi has become a Tanzanian colony, the CNDD leadership will need the support of TZ to survive, this will bring it into conflict with Rwanda, and further isolate it in the East African Community. The party is arming militia, to attack its opponents, there have been over 200 political assassinations of opposition candidates in the last year, reports come out and no one bothers. Burundi is peaceful they say, don’t rock the boat. People find it hard to reconcile this picture with the image of a party led by a Bible-thumping soccer player. Still in the chaos there is order, the chaos theory – that many unstable opposing forces balance into an equilibrium of peace. If so then Burundi is very stable, they prefer their problems out in the open, not hidden away – so it was said that the Evil Warlord and wanted war-criminal Agathon Rwasa was my neighbour when I stayed in Kiriri, a posh suburb. All through the madness, they sing, they laugh, they drink, they make merry and sneer at those who judge. I saw more happiness and relaxation in Bujumbura than I did on the safe streets on Kigali, even with the menace of crime, there was more freedom by far. The fear element of Rwanda was not there, no one looking over my shoulder. In Rwanda you learn to live with Fear, it becomes your friend and when that Fear leaves you miss it, the Fear is what holds us together.
One thing that is missing big time in Burundi is a vision; nobody knows where the country is heading, like a rudderless ship heading for the rocks. Rwanda has Vision2020, they reached for the stars but even if we fail we will hit the moon. Burundi is just tragic, no vision whatsoever. The short and long term plan seems to be to hold on to power for the sake of it, the same problem that befell the Hutu governments of Rwanda, they just celebrated power. Can the government produce a program for the whole nation to subscribe to, for donors to invest in, for the region to help? When you cross the border it is instant, even the Congo border-post in Gatumba is better than Burundi’s border-post which was being used by traders as a shop, a store and a kitchen. The immediate pressures make it hard for the CNDD to figure a long-term plan, so many ideas are Copy and Paste from Rwanda, rewind back our policies of 8 years ago and you see what is happening in Burundi. They are trying the ‘Doing Business” reforms like RDB, Coffee cup of excellence, many more but they are not doing it with any level of zeal that Rwanda has. Till then they will just party away, as the Titanic heads to the iceberg they pour another Amstel.
Burundi has way more potential than Rwanda, Gold reserves, cobalt, nickel, coltan, wolfram. Add to that the best coffee in the world, exclusively enjoyed by only the most discerning coffee-lover. They have a lake with trillions of liters of water, yet Bujumbura is often without water. The lake has some of the best fish in the world, I just had an idea to get an ice machine and import fish to Rwanda and the region. Palm oil is abundant, beautiful beaches, rugged mountains, it has everything you could want. And great people, truly loving and funny, no malice in their words, I banged my head on the entrance to a man’s house. “Imana yaremye ibizi, yaremye umututsi muremure azi ngo azagya yigonga umutwe, nanjye umutwa ndarwara ijosi.” God created but he knew each will have his own problem, the Tutsi will always bang his head, the Twa pygmy will have neck problems as he strains to see higher.”
So to the Basamange and the Basafu, I salute you.
May you keep drinking through these hard times.