Burundi May 2009

Building new relationships

Following their visits to Rwanda and Goma (DRC), and before returning to Nairobi, the brothers made their way to Burundi where, among other contacts, they met young people who had taken part in the November 2008 meeting in Nairobi.
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Song practice before prayer at Ngozi University

With the stability which has followed the signing of a ceasefire and the rallying to the peace process of the last rebel group: the National Liberation Front, people are starting to hope again – especially the young. They have known only the years of trouble: “It was only four years ago that I was able to leave the capital, travel to the interior for the first time and discover my country”, explains Noёlla, a law student at Bujumbura.

Fifteen years of civil war, one million three hundred thousand victims, hundreds of thousands of refugees – Burundi has had no better fate than its cousin in the north. “The tragedy lasted longer here and affected more people.” The country has not seen the arrival of a new leader class trained overseas, it does not give rise to the same international mobilisation, and the transition is more laborious here. It is essentially agricultural; there are 283 doctors for eight and a half million inhabitants who live in less than 27,000 square kilometres. The minimum salary is 35 dollars in the capital, half that in the provinces. Yet a kilo of rice costs a dollar…

François Nitunga runs the interdenominational “Rema Ministries” association which began its action amongst the Burundian refugees in Nairobi. He relates: “… there have been so many atrocities committed… We are sick of this. We need people who feel in their hearts what we have been through. There have been more than five hundred thousand refugees. There were eleven camps in Tanzania and others in Kenya. In 2004 we moved to Burundi to participate in the welcome of those who were returning to the country. Some had left it in 1972; at that time there were three million inhabitants, today there are more than eight million. We ask ourselves: How can we welcome those who are returning? We need peace, so we must hope – and make sure – that the others will also have peace.

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Sellers beseige the minibus at every stop

With the approach of a general election in 2010, anxiety re-emerges. “The young are carried by hope, yet at the same time assailed by doubt”, comments Bernard Ntahoturi, the country’s Anglican Archbishop, “We are at a crucial turning point. We must help the young people not to be inhibited by their past.”

“Do you believe that the people of Burundi can change?” Raymond, one of the organisers of the Kamenge Youth Centre, asks some visitors. “I believe they can, as I have changed a lot myself” replies Nice, who continues: “My experience during the Nairobi meeting has had a big effect on me. Two of us were welcomed by a poor family. No running water, we slept with the two eldest daughters in the common room, squashed on the settees. We learned to wash ourselves in the courtyard with the neighbours. Happily the mother realised that we were having trouble eating the undercooked traditional food, she prepared rice for us each day.” Emmanuela continues: “These people welcomed us from their hearts, made us part of their family. I, who complain so quickly when I am lacking something, I really learned something! It is possible to welcome with almost nothing. We who are so closed in on ourselves, we could do the same. I should like to love as this family loved me.”

“In the past the young people thought only about going out and having fun. Now they are filling the places of prayer. Something is changing!” confirms Alphonse, next to her. “The aim of our centre is to teach young people to live together. After the crisis in 1993 the division was so great that one could no longer circulate from one neighbourhood to another. Gangs sowed terror. There were the “No failure”, the “No defeat””… We went to find the leader of the gang of Cibitoke to ask him to take responsibility in the centre. It was a way to get him to collaborate. Since its opening in 1991, 32,000 young people have used the centre. Through various activities, sport, training, culture, art, they must first know themselves then gradually acquire the same spirit.”

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“How to save your energy while going up Bugarama"

Many are turning to the churches. The parishes, sanctuaries, spiritual retreat houses are overflowing, the fraternities and prayer groups are multiplying. Children are bringing their parents. The Week for Catholic Academics invites people to deep reflection. Mgr Evariste Ngoyogoye, Archbishop of Bujumbura, reminds us of the stakes as it opens: “ Let us be a sign of new humanity in our wounded region. We are amongst the most weak economically, we have a country that has been torn apart, rebuilding is necessary but we must rebuild on rock. Use your rights as citizens in preparing yourselves to vote, but do not let yourselves be booby trapped by partisan passions. Your first choice must be that of respecting the other person as a human being. This is infinitely more important than the colour of your voting paper.”

As elsewhere, the young people of Burundi aspire to peace. But here the weight of the past and the economic constraints are very heavy. To contribute to the rebuilding of the country involves personal commitment. Some are aware that they must dare to go beyond the categories that have polarised the life of the country. They are beginning to build new relationships, to meet young people from other neighbourhoods, other settings, to go and visit, listen to and support groups in the provinces. When this sort of commitment is animated by a search for communion with Christ, it is a sign of maturity and can lead them a long way.

Last updated: 7 June 2009