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Burundi in Detail
Burundi, country in east-central Africa, south of the Equator. The landlocked country, a historic kingdom, is one of the few countries in Africa whose borders were not determined by colonial rulers.
The vast majority of Burundi’s population is Hutu, traditionally a farming people. Power, however, has long rested with the Tutsi minority, which historically has controlled the army and most of the economy, particularly the lucrative international export of coffee. Few real cultural differences are distinguishable between the two peoples, and both speak Rundi (Kirundi). Such linguistic homogeneity is rare in sub-Saharan Africa and emphasizes the historically close cultural and ethnic ties among the peoples in Burundi.
Even so, ethnic conflict between the Hutu and Tutsi has plagued the country since it gained independence from Belgium in 1962, at a great cost in human life and property. Few Burundians escaped the ensuing anarchy into which the country was plunged when this interethnic violence flared anew in the 1990s, a bloody conflagration that well illustrated the Rundi proverb “Do not call for lightning to strike down your enemies, for it also may strike down your friends.” Neither the presence of an international peacekeeping force beginning in the late 1990s nor the ratification of an agreement to share power between Hutu and Tutsi were immediately effective in curbing interethnic violence, which also spilled into the neighbouring countries of Rwanda and the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Burundians are now faced with the task of quelling ethnic dissent, promoting unity, and rebuilding the country.
Burundi’s capital, Bujumbura, lies at the northeastern end of Lake Tanganyika. The old section of the city comprises buildings from the German and Belgian colonial periods, as well as a central market filled with hundreds of vendors’ booths. The country’s second city, Gitega, is also its cultural capital, containing the national museum and several schools. Gitega lies near the southernmost source of the Nile River and a spectacular waterfall, Chutes de la Kagera.
Land: Burundi is bounded by Rwanda to the north, Tanzania to the east and south, Lake Tanganyika to the southwest, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo to the west.
Relief and drainage: Burundi’s topography includes the eastern flank of the Western Rift Valley. A chain of mountains and high plateaus formed from ancient Precambrian rock rises to 9,055 feet (2,760 metres) at Mount Heha, the country’s highest point. In the northwest the narrow Imbo valley extends southward from Rwanda to Lake Tanganyika and includes the Rusizi River, which separates Burundi from the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Farther south and west, along the shores of Lake Tanganyika, the land rises steeply to form part of the Congo-Nile divide, which reaches elevations of 8,500 feet (2,600 metres). East of the divide, plateaus slope gently to elevations of 5,000–6,000 feet (1,500–1,800 metres) to the southeast; the Ruvyironza River flows northeast, cutting through the plateaus. A few valleys and shallow lakes occupy the northern frontier near Rwanda.
Soils: Light, forest-derived soils predominate, forming a thin layer of humus over lateritic (iron-rich) subsoils. The best soils are formed from alluvium, but they are confined primarily to the lower portions of larger river valleys. Soil erosion, caused by a combination of steep slopes and frequent rainfall, is a serious problem and creates a major constraint on agriculture; ironically, erosion is further exacerbated by the clearing of land for agricultural purposes.
Climate: Elevation is a major factor in Burundi’s climate, greatly moderating its tropical character. The country’s generally high elevation produces relatively cool temperatures, which average only about 70 °F (21 °C) throughout the year in the central plateau area and usually drop to below 60 °F (15 °C) at night. At lower elevations the annual average is only slightly higher—for example, at Bujumbura in the Imbo valley. Annual precipitation, which averages 60 to 70 inches (1,500 to 1,800 mm) in the highest-lying areas, is only about 40 inches (1,000 mm) on the shores of Lake Tanganyika. There is a short dry season from May to August.
Plant and animal life: The natural forest vegetation has almost entirely disappeared from the landscape and is limited now primarily to higher mountain slopes. On the plateaus, wooded savanna is found at higher elevations, giving way to more-open savanna on the lower slopes. Poaching has dealt a severe blow to the country’s wildlife. The elephant population has virtually disappeared, leaving only warthogs, baboons, and antelope as the less endangered species.
Ethnic groups: As in Rwanda, Tutsi and Hutu are the principal ethnic communities, with the Hutu constituting the overwhelming majority and the Tutsi a significant minority. Other groups include the Twa Pygmies and a sprinkling of Swahili-speaking peoples from Tanzania and the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Common perceptions of Tutsi as uniformly tall and graceful and of Hutu as short and stocky do not fit the reality of physical variations because the two groups have frequently intermarried over the centuries.
Traditionally, the Hutu have been farmers, while the Tutsi have been pastoralists. Some regional status differences exist among the Tutsi, with the Tutsi-Banyaruguru clan found primarily in the north of the country and the Tutsi-Bahima primarily in the south. Historically, the Tutsi-Banyaruguru generally dominated precolonial Burundi, while the Tutsi-Bahima have generally dominated Burundi since independence. Society was originally organized around family and clan loyalties. Beginning in the 16th century, these ties were adapted to include a Tutsi monarchy. Intervening between the king (mwami) and the masses was a princely class (ganwa) that kept the ordinary Tutsi and Hutu on equal footing. The relationship between the two groups began to change during the colonial period, when the German and Belgian colonial administrators favoured the Tutsi over the Hutu.
Languages of Burundi: Burundi’s official languages are Rundi (Kirundi), a Bantu language that is the standard medium of communication throughout the country, and French. Swahili, the language of trade, is widely spoken in Bujumbura, as is French. It is notable that Rundi is spoken by both the Hutu and Tutsi, who together form the overwhelming majority of the country’s population; such linguistic homogeneity is rare in sub-Saharan Africa.
Religion: The country has a relatively large Christian population, with about three-fifths of Burundians identifying as Roman Catholic and more than one-eighth identifying as Protestant. A large minority and even some Roman Catholics also practice traditional religion. Muslims constitute less than one-twentieth of the population. Church-state relations have been a focal point of ethnic tension since the 1970s. The government of the Second Republic (1976–87) attempted to curtail the social and educational activities of the Roman Catholic Church because its policies were thought to favour the Hutu over the Tutsi. After a military coup in 1987, the issue was temporarily defused, yet the church continues to be seen by many Tutsi as a dangerously subversive institution.
Settlement patterns: The hilly geography of the country discourages village formation, and traditional family compounds tend to be dispersed rather than concentrated—a key settlement characteristic of the area. This pattern has encouraged isolation rather than community and has contributed to the ongoing ethnic conflict between the Hutu and the Tutsi. Nonetheless, Burundi is heavily populated, with one of the highest densities in Africa. Urban centres are rare, the exceptions including Gitega in the central part of the country, Muyinga and Ngozi in the north, and Bujumbura, the largest city, sprawled along the northern tip of Lake Tanganyika.
Civil unrest that began in the early to mid-1990s forced thousands of Hutu to settle in refugee camps spread throughout the countryside and in neighbouring countries. Around the same time, Burundi received an influx of refugees from Rwanda, fleeing from the genocide and subsequent political strife in their country. Rwandans also sought refuge in Burundi in the early 21st century. A large portion of the refugee population consists of women and children.
Demographic trends: Burundi’s birth rate and growth rate are both well above the average for the world, while its death rate is only slightly above the world average. More than two-fifths of the population is under age 15. Life expectancy in Burundi, although low by world standards, is about average for Africa.
Agriculture is the economic mainstay of the country, with industrial activities accounting for less than one-fourth of the gross domestic product. Coffee, chiefly arabica, is the principal export crop and source of foreign exchange. Cash crops of lesser importance include cotton and tea. By the late 1990s, more than three-fifths of the country’s population were living in poverty—a result of civil strife and the ravages of war, the predominance of traditional subsistence agriculture, the persistence of low income levels, chronic deficits in the balance of trade, and heavy dependence on foreign aid. Western countries and surrounding African countries imposed economic sanctions against Burundi following a Tutsi-led military coup in 1996, which affected all of Burundi’s exports and its oil imports. Sanctions were eased beginning in 1997, a regional embargo was lifted in 1999, and much of the country’s foreign debt was forgiven in 2005, but the process of economic recovery has been slow.
Agriculture, forestry, and fishing: Approximately half of Burundi’s land area is considered cultivable, and about one-third is suitable for pasture. Staple food crops include beans, corn (maize), cassava (manioc), and sorghum. Arabica coffee traditionally has been a major commodity for Burundi. The production of coffee dropped by about half in the 1990s because of civil strife but has since rebounded. Tea and sugar are also major export crops. Large areas of cotton are cultivated, mainly in the Imbo valley; however, cotton output has decreased to less than half the production levels of the early 1990s. Although the density of livestock results in overgrazing, the commercial value of livestock production is virtually nil. By the early 21st century, Burundi’s forested area had shrunk to less than 3 percent of the total land area in spite of reforestation efforts. Lake Tanganyika and the smaller lakes and rivers of the interior are rich sources of tilapia and other fish.
Resources and power: Unexploited mineral resources include considerable nickel deposits in the eastern part of the country, as well as significant reserves of vanadium, uranium, and phosphates. Geologic assessments also indicate possible major petroleum reserves beneath Lake Tanganyika and in the Rusizi valley. Mineral production, however, is generally limited and includes niobium, tantalum, gold, tin, and wolframite (a source of tungsten). Peat and firewood are the two major local sources of fuel. Electrical production is mostly hydro-generated, a portion of which is imported.
Manufacturing: Industrial activity is limited to small-scale processing and manufacturing plants, concentrated mostly in Bujumbura. Among the largest industrial enterprises are a brewery and a textile company. Agricultural products such as cotton, coffee, tea, and sugar are also processed in the country. Despite an environment long characterized by civil unrest, the government has remained committed to protecting the industrial sector.
Finance, trade, and services: The Banque de la République du Burundi is the country’s central bank; it issues the Burundi franc, the national currency, and regulates the operation of national and foreign banks. Beginning in the 1980s, Burundi experienced a growing trade deficit and increasingly heavy dependence on foreign aid that continued into the 21st century. In 2005, however, Burundi benefited from international debt forgiveness.
Burundi typically imports foodstuffs, capital goods, and petroleum products. The country’s main exports are coffee and tea. On average, export earnings are small (less than half the cost of imports), which reflects a steady growth of consumption and investment coupled with a sharp decline in the international price of coffee and rising import prices. Chief trading partners include China, India, Switzerland, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and other nearby African countries. Tourism in Burundi has great potential, but the country’s conflicts have severely limited visitors to the region.
 CULTURAL LIFE
Daily life, social customs, and the arts: Much of Burundi’s rich cultural heritage, most notably folk songs and dances, was intended to extol the virtues of kingship; however, since the fall of the monarchy in 1966 (and particularly after a massacre of Hutu in 1972), such cultural expression has waned. Burundian daily life has since been conditioned by the exigencies of survival in a time of civil strife and ethnic hatred, and many important social institutions, such as the family and the village council, have lost their force, weakened by political chaos and the wholesale displacement of populations. Once widely celebrated events include the annual sorghum festival (umuganuro), the occasion for a magnificent display of traditional dances by court dancers (intore). Also participating in the festival are drummers beating the Karyenda (“sacred drum”), an emblem of the monarchy—their performance is intended to give both musical and symbolic resonance to this festival and to other ceremonial occasions. Government efforts to promote interethnic harmony through displays of a shared cultural heritage have been sporadic and only modestly successful. Burundian museums that celebrate the country’s heritage include the National Museum in Gitega and the Living Museum in Bujumbura, which also includes botanical gardens and animal exhibits.
Throughout history, Burundians have enjoyed a tradition of expression in the visual arts. Decorated papyrus panels, which feature geometric patterns and often depict themes from Burundian legend, are prized by collectors of ethnic arts, as are Burundian-made swords and drums. Ceramic manufacture, introduced by Italian missionaries in the 1960s, has also been an important form of artistic expression, and Burundian potters have added indigenous elements to this imported medium. Other arts and crafts include basketry and beadwork. The dye usually used to colour Burundian handicrafts is derived from natural plant extracts.
Burundian conversations and social gatherings often feature recitations, singing, and the exchange of jokes, proverbs, and tall tales. Only a few books have been written to date in Rundi, most of them collections of contemporary poetry and folklore. The few writers to have emerged since independence—notably the novelists Séraphin Sésé, Louis Katamari, and Richard Ndayizigamiye, along with the memoirist Michel Kakoya—are little known outside the country. Founded in 1989, the National Library in Bujumbura is a repository for Burundian literature.
Traditional activities such as drumming and dancing contain aspects of both culture and competition: the Intore Dancers, a group that celebrates national folklore, has won numerous international folk dance competitions, and drummers compete with the traditional Karyenda drums. Burundi’s best-known cultural export is a troupe of traveling musicians called Les Maîtres-Tambours du Burundi (Drummers of Burundi). This group, made up of as many as 30 percussionists and dancers, produces an energetic, polyrhythmic sound organized around the inkiranya drum. The addition of the amashako drum, which provides a continuous beat, and the complimentary rhythm of the ibishikiso drum complete the impressive sound. The group has been widely influential and has made many recordings. Burundian singer Khadja Nin has also released several recordings, with lyrics in Swahili, Rundi, and French.
Sports and recreation: Since the 1990s Burundi has tried to use sports to bring together the country’s warring factions. Football (soccer) is popular, and Burundi has competed in several African Cup of Nations championships. Burundians have also excelled in athletics (track and field), none more than Vénuste Niyongabo, who won a gold medal (Burundi’s first medal) in the 5,000-metre race at the 1996 Olympic Games in Atlanta.
Media and publishing: Access to radio and television is limited. Although the 2005 constitution provides for freedom of the press, the government still imposes restrictions. In addition, journalists have engaged in self-censorship. Le Renouveau du Burundi, a daily newspaper published in French, is owned by the government. Other periodicals are published on a weekly basis or less frequently.