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There are so many challenges here and that is exciting - Notes from Burundi

Brian Menelet teaches law at the University of Ngozi (UNG) Our office spaces made us neighbors although he shared his 20 foot by 20 foot space with another law professor and I shared my space with the Spanish teacher. He was born in France, completed a Ph.D. in political science, taught a year in Tahiti, and found this three-year assignment in Burundi for minimum salary and free University housing. “I live simply and it is enough.”
He’s amazed at the capacity for forgiveness in this country. “My girlfriend’s mother was killed and sometime later her father hired the killer to do some work on their house. I was shocked. I couldn’t have done that. My girlfriend said that this guy was jobless, they knew him and the quality of his work in the past. My girlfriend’s father also worked next to a guy who had been one of the chief executioners for the security forces, directly responsible for maybe 2,000 deaths. ‘We had to work together, to collaborate,’ her father said.”
My discussion with Brian led us to the impending start of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in Burundi. “It should be useful for some,” Brian said, “but it’s late. However, it will be important for new generations to know about the past. They should focus on ‘why,” and not ‘who did what,’ I think.”
The issue of the role of ethnic identity will undoubtedly surface. “It’s complex,” Brian insisted. “That identity is passed on by the father. Yet the historic designation of Tutsi and Hutu also had much to do with social status and job classification. “Tutsis” were in leadership roles, often as royalty. Hutu were the underclass, the farmers, laborers and servants.”
After a long hike, we are having lunch at an upscale restaurant by Ngozi standards with a white marble feel to the inside and Greek inspired columns. We sit outside on a balcony with a panoramic view of a valley below, small farms below and on the opposite hillside with the brown dirt road to Getega cutting down and across. We can see bicycles in the distance barreling down the steep grade. The plumes of dust that rise mark every vehicle that is moving.
“Subsistence farming,” he notes. “Small plots and large families mean more pressure on the land to accommodate more people. The trees get cut and the land is eroding. You can see it on the highway to Bujumbura after a hard rain. The steep sides come sliding down onto the road. Rwanda, in contrast, has planted trees, grasses and bushes to stop the erosion.” I remember seeing large brick retaining walls built along that highway.
“Educating girls seems to be a key to controlling population growth. Of course, having large families is one way to cheat the average life expectancy which is 35 or half that in Europe and the U.S. More kids mean that more are likely to survive past 35. That also means more hands for tending their agricultural plots, goats and cattle.” In stark contrast to the youth oriented U.S. culture, “Burundian elders, in turn, are considered wise and fortunate to have been able to grow old.”
“Investment in education is complex, however. While primary school is now free there is still the cost of uniforms, pencils and paper. And half the medical doctors who graduate leave the country after graduation for better salaries in other parts of Africa or Europe.”
Consciousness is important. “A typical 10% tip for a meal of $BF16,000 (approx. $USD12) would be $BF1,600 ($USD1.20) or three times what a laborer makes in one day. The discrepancy would be destabilizing in the long run.”
“There are so many challenges here and that is exciting. Money is a problem for any project start-up but honesty is critical. Corruption is a problem.”


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