Rwanda and Burundi: neighbours world apartBy CHARLES OMONDI | Friday, July 20 2012 at 12:39
A tour of Rwanda and Burundi is a journey through different lessons; a journey through a worlds apart; a journey through different leadership styles and visions.
The two eastern African neighbours share a common history, having both been colonised by Germany and later Belgium, which granted them independence in 1962.
Their geographical extent and population compositions and sizes are more or less them same. Rwanda is the home of 13 million inhabitants while Burundi’s population stands at 10 million people of largely Hutu and Tutsi extraction.
In both countries, the two communities have had a history of mutual hostility, the high point being the Rwanda genocide of 1994 in which no less than 800,000 Tutsis and their sympathisers were killed by Hutu extremists.
Rwanda and Burundi are landlocked and depend largely on the East Africa coast for trade with the rest of the world. They are largely agricultural economies with coffee and tea contributing a substantial share of their foreign earnings.
Banana is a staple diet in both countries and the crop dominates the landscape.
Both Rwanda and Burundi are highly mountainous and are currently contending with immense population pressure.
Such is the gravity of the matter that the Rwandese parliament is debating on law to allow cremation as a way of easing pressure on the land.
The road connecting Rwanda and Burundi is a highway around many hills through numerous valleys. It is narrow; a single lane on either side, but smooth all the way.
The challenging terrain becomes more pronounced as one approaches Bujumbura, located at a much lower elevation on the shores of Lake Tanganyika.
The highway is like Kenya’s Limuru – Mai Mahiu stretch, many times over. It could also pass for the Kabarnet – Eldoret stretch in the north Rift.
Many times, motorists on the highway find themselves at the mercy of commercial truck drivers without whose total cooperation, they must crawl at a snail’s pace.
Luckily, it is not a particularly busy highway. However, cyclists who tag on to trailers on the Burundi side are not only a nuisance, but also a real danger.
Both Rwanda and Burundi are members of the regional bloc, the East Africa Community (EAC) and that is probably where the similarities end.
Whereas Rwanda seems to have made and continues to make great strides towards transforming into a modern state, the type that African elites are fixated with, but unwilling to work to create, Burundi remains faithful to the ‘African way’ where poor leadership and the resultant poor quality life are acceptable.
The Burundi leadership, like that of most other sub-Saharan states, seems long on empty rhetoric, but short on tangible positive changes on the ground.
You enter Bujumbura and the disorder and apparent lack of national discipline that greets you is a stack reminder that you are in a true African city.
In Rwanda, there seems to be a revolution that has transformed the national psyche, like has rarely been seen in post-colonial Africa.
The Paul Kagame-led state, a former Francophone republic, is now a member of the Commonwealth of Nations, with English elevated to an official language and a medium of instruction in schools.
The state-owned daily, The New Times, publishes in English and there are a number of other English publications in circulation.
Burundi remains Francophone, the only one in the EAC bloc. In Burundi, one would be lucky to stumble upon any publication in English.
Newspapers are either in French or local languages. Iwacu, the leading Burundi weekly, has a few pages dedicated to foreign news, in English.
Whereas President Kagame is an aggressive and charismatic leader, who has established himself as a critical player in regional, continental and even global affairs, his Burundi counterpart Pierre Nkurunziza, is rather laid back internationally where he is little known and is rarely heard of.
The Kagame government also stands tall in women empowerment, not only compared to Burundi, but also the world over.
Women constitute at least 50 per cent of representation in both parliament and the Cabinet in Rwanda.
The Rwanda vehicle registration style is in harmony with that of EAC founding members; Kenya and Uganda, and Tanzania, to some extent.
Burundi format is distinctively different. It comprises a little national flag with BU at the bottom, on the side of which stands an alphabetical letter, that would be at the end in the rest of EAC, then a four-figure numerical (1234) followed by another alphabetical letter.
Crossing the common border point at Kirundo from the Rwanda side, one goes through the normal immigration procedures. But even without the formalities, and physical demarcations, you soon realise that it is a whole different world.
You buy the Burundi Franc and on some notes are faces of mortals, Prince Louis Rwagasora and Melchior Ndadaye, a reminder of the fact that you are in real Africa, the land of the ‘Big men’.
Prince Rwagasora is associated with Burundi’s liberation from the colonial yoke, whereas Ndadaye is honoured for his role in the democratisation of Burundi.
In Rwanda, the currency bears images of national features, the mountain gorilla, the country’s famous tourist attraction, the national bank or some traditional dress.
Some Burundi bank notes, especially of the lower denominations, are so old and dirty that you fear you could be exchanging your dollars for some disease.
Sitting next to the window, with eyes trained on the road side, you realise that unlike in Rwanda, long road stretches in Burundi have few paved sidewalks and storm water drains, unlike in Rwanda.
Where the same exist, they are not well maintained, or they look like they were designed more to justify a fat pay cheque for some well connected individual as opposed to being effective. ..a replica of the ones common in Nairobi Landhies Road.
Road sides in Burundi too are untidy with trash, especially the ubiquitous plastic strewn all over. No different from the Kenya ones where littering seems to be like a national past time.
In Rwanda, use of plastic is strictly regulated and it ceased being a nuisance long time ago. Littering and reckless disposal of garbage are prohibited and offenders are punished severely.
In Bujumbura, like in Kigali, motorcycle taxis are common place. However, while in Kigali all riders wear reflective jackets and helmets, and carry only one passenger at a time, also donning a helmet, the Bujumbura lot represents a riot of colours, considering wearing a helmet a luxury and have no qualms loading more than one passenger onto to their machines.
Rwanda, which has been reconstructing since the 1994, remains faithful to planning, not only in the capital, but even small market areas. In Burundi, it seems, anything goes. Market centres along the Kigali - Bujumbura road on the Burundi side are largely a collection of haphazardly erected mud-clay walled structures with rusty roofs, whether iron or tiles, dotted with garbage heaps. Corners turned into urinals by men, and perhaps a few women, are not uncommon.
The children you see in homestead and market places are invariably dirty looking, leaving one wondering whether their parents do not love them, careless about basic cleanliness and hygiene, or they are orphans, courtesy of many years of conflict.
In Rwanda, street beggars, either old or young are a rarity. Not so in Burundi. At Ngozi town, where buses from or to Kigali stop for a lunch break, one virtually fights their way back to the bus through a forest of beggars and hawkers.
The demeanour of an average Burundian seems subdued and lazy, unlike their Rwandan counterparts who look more fired up and raring to go. Burundi markets along the highway seem to have fewer people engaged in productive work as opposed to those merely staring at the world move by or engaging in empty banter.
Clay brick making is such an important economic activity in Burundi. After every so few kilometres, one sees a point for the activity. Heaps and heaps of bricks are deposited by the road side ready for sale. The real impact of this excavation and tree cutting and burning is not hard to imagine. In Rwanda, such points seem to be few and far apart. Perhaps the latter have more environment-friendly ways of producing their building materials.
An average Burundian does not like President Kagame in particular, and Rwandans in general. Burundians consider Rwandans proud.
However, almost to a man, Burundians seem to agree that Rwanda is a better country and is destined to be even better, barring any major calamity.
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