Praying that avocado and sport will keep Burundi aliveBy TREVOR ANALO | Sunday, September 16 2012 at 15:02
The story goes that Burundi is a landlocked, resource-poor country. Wrong. Burundi has blue gold— in the form of Lake Tanganyika. The water body is huge, and viewed from outside the capital Bujumbura, breathtakingly beautiful....At that point, a few questions arise.
Is Burundi a shining star whose potential is under-appreciated?
Could Burundi be the “sick man” of East Africa, as a column in The EastAfrican asked recently?
Yes and no.
Has the story of Burundi been well told in the regional and international media?
Is Burundi comfortable in its Kirundi-French-Kiswahili-speaking skin?
In another place, there would have been beautiful people sunbathing on Lake Tanganyika’s beaches, and expensive houses and hotels along the lakeshore.
Not so in Bujumbura. One of the most prominent landmarks near the lake is the Industrial Park. It has a dozen small warehouses, otherwise little goes on there: Burundi imports almost everything stocked on retail shelves — soap, fruit juice, cookies, processed meat, cheese etc.
Wait, there is at least one big factory. It produces mineral water.
You might wonder why a country that is blessed with a part of the second largest freshwater lake in the world, and the second deepest, would have a big mineral water factory on its shores.
The answer is that while Lake Tanganyika is majestic and the only source of fresh water for the city, it is so polluted that hardly anybody in Bujumbura swims in it.
People just stand on the beach — which is covered with plastic bottles and seaweed — to take a few pictures then head home. One sign of the crisis is that the water supply has to move eight kilometres inside the lake to draw fresh drinking water.
It is estimated that by 2020, one would need to move 18 kilometres into the lake Tanganyika to get fresh drinking water — that is only two kilometres to the Democratic Republic of Congo’s eastern border in South Kivu.
This presents three scary scenarios: First, though Bujumbura is the poorest country in the East African Community, within less than 10 years, its capital Bujumbura may have to start buying water from the DRC.
Second, it could do what some countries have done in history — go to war with the DRC and secure the water by force.
Third, it could dehydrate itself to death.
Burundi can overcome its environmental crisis, but that will depend on its economy growing. The outlook for that is not bleak — the economy is projected to grow at 4.5 per cent this year.
However, a walk down the streets of Bujumbura reveals just how much work has to be done to make that happen.
A city that is supposed to be the driving force of the economy does not yet work like a city. It desperately needs a spark, and its mostly colonial-era structures are crying for paint.
Retail, finance, services and real estate, the mainstay of any city, have not yet found their feet.
No country for young men
The despair of young men in Bujumbura is unsettling. They are usually up by 6:30am, armed with their frustrations, to sit by the sidewalk gazing at Bujumbura as it stumbles along, expending little energy except that needed to brush away the morning flies.
Some sit on the edge of the road, so consumed in their predicament that they fail to hear the honking of an oncoming bus.
I spoke with a couple of young men in the capital city — students, hotel receptionists, taxi drivers, Karaoke singers, bank tellers, journalists — and they all agreed on one thing: They believe the country holds no prospects for them, unless there is a miraculous turnaround.
A Burundian high school girl studying at the Hope International School in Kenya says the government is doing little to improve their lot. Last in Burundi two years ago, she is not surprised Bujumbura has not changed.
Major construction works are an indicator of how well a city’s economy is fairing.
There are no major housing projects or new commercial buildings coming up in Bujumbura. The only major construction work seems to be road maintenance, financed by French aid. The silver lining here is that there is great opportunity in this area for East African developers.
Jobs are particularly hard to come by in Burundi. The economy, according to many of the young people I talked to, mostly generates teaching and private security jobs.
One must know somebody who knows somebody for one to get a job, and the “facilitation fee” is often as high as one year’s pay.
A receptionist at the hotel where I was staying unburdened his frustrations to me.
He struck me as a brilliant young man. He graduated two years ago with a degree in Economics, speaks fluent French and has a good command of English and Kiswahili; he has knocked on all doors in Bujumbura. Everywhere, he says, the message was the same — we are not hiring.
He got his lucky break with a clerkship opening with the government, or so he thought, but he was asked to part with $1,000 as “facilitation fee” for a $100 a month job. He could not raise the “fee,” not even with that salary for a year.
Burundi did itself proud, and put bigger and richer nations in Africa to shame when it became the second African country after Uganda to contribute to the African Union peacekeeping force in Somalia, Amisom.
While many Burundians feel good about that, the Somalia war has brought its own complications. Right now, Amisom offers the biggest job opportunity for young Burundians.
The downside, the young receptionist told me, is the Somalia war has become a cash cow for the generals. Many young soldiers know they will make more money than they would in a lifetime back in Burundi if they get to Somalia — and return alive.
The Somalia veterans are building medium size houses, buying the cheaper secondhand cars in Bujumbura, and marrying the beautiful girls.
Not surprisingly, then, to get a posting to Amisom, it is alleged many soldiers have to bribe their way. There was no way I could independently confirm this, but it would not be surprising given that most young Burundians have their eyes set on getting out.
Being part of the EAC is already impacting social and economic calculations. For example, one striking feature of Bujumbura is the plethora of English learning centres.
The young men who flock the centres believe opportunities abound out here in East and Southern Africa, and one only need learn English to ride the gravy train.
Armed with their hopes for a better life, many of these young Burundians head out for Kenya, Uganda, Zambia and South Africa.
Those who make it are the envy of their compatriots back home. In that sense, the EAC is a more important factor in the lives of young Burundians than most people in the region appreciate.
Avocado-driven jobs policy
President Pierre Nkurunziza’s response to the economic crisis is not only “interesting,” but shows he might be the proverbial leader who won the war but lost the peace.
The president believes planting avocados will not only improve the nutrition of Burundians, but also provide the millions of unemployed young men with jobs — directly in the only avocado processing plant in Burundi, and indirectly as small-scale farmers selling the fruit to the processor.
In 2009, the president launched a nationwide campaign to plant the fruit; the government rounded up rural folk and distributed free avocado seedlings to them.
According to Willy Nyamitwe, a senior aide to the president, eight million trees have been planted to date. It is hoped that Burundi will become a major exporter of avocado products in East Africa.
Market prices for avocados have since gone down from 300 to 150 Burundian francs (20 to 10 US cents), meaning many Burundians can now afford the fruit. One Bujumburien remarked that it is becoming a substitute for meat, which many Burundians can’t afford.
An avocado tree takes four years to mature; so we should expect an avocado glut in Burundi next year. But the president is not all about avocados, he has started a pineapples and bananas campaign.
To work the land, Nkurunziza believes a nation needs to be healthy. To ensure everyone exercises, on Fridays the government knocks off early for sports.
So, President Nkurunziza’s solution to Burundi’s economy seems to be health, physical fitness and prayers.
Though Friday is sports day for the government, as a visitor I didn’t know. Without this important piece of information, I set out to secure appointments with various ministries.
The government had shut down. I found the minister for environment had just left when I walked into his office a few minutes before noon.
Every Friday, government departments organise sporting events among themselves. It is seen as a way of uniting the three ethnic groups in a country that has experienced 12 years of ethnic-based civil war.
President Nkurunziza is not just a quintessential sports enthusiast, he holds a masters degree in sports and was a former lecturer at the University of Burundi’s Institute of Physical Sciences and Sports, before becoming a guerrilla fighter.
In his first term, the president built 12 sports stadiums of various sizes across the country. He believes people need to let steam off after a hard week’s work.
A prayerful man, the president holds national prayers for the country’s problems twice a year. On my way to Burundi from Rwanda, the president’s motorcade passed me; he was on his way to the biannual national prayers usually hosted in the rural areas.
You would be forgiven for thinking that the only thing that looks new and well maintained in Burundi is the presidential motorcade.
Some of the young men I talked to said the president spends too much time praying, and not enough minding the affairs of state.
The clichéd story of Burundi
Lake Tanganyika, a rich natural resource being polluted to death around Bujumbura, is vastly under-explored. The Port of Bujumbura is neglected and underutilised in spite of its history and commercial potential.
The port is supported by clear navigable waters, a “natural highway” to the DRC, Tanzania, Zambia and Malawi. However, currently, hardly any ships dock in Bujumbura. The port receives three ships on average, sometimes even one.
The government can turn around Burundi’s economy by modernising this derelict port, and making it the gateway to the sub region.
Bujumbura can be made a vibrant city; the government just needs to invest in the culture industries like music, dance, water sports, fashion, arts, marinas and cruise ships to attract tourists.
Avocados will make Burundians healthier, and give them beautiful skin, but a country can only eat so much avocado, nor can the fruit create the wealth needed to jumpstart the economy.
But smart investment on Lake Tanganyika will do it. The surprise is that anyone needs to tell that to Nkurunziza.
The writer was an intern with Nation Media Group’s Africa Project.
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