burundi in the news

A couple commodity issues are constantly in the news, making this an appropriate time for me to sketch out several aspects of life in Burundi.



First, I’ll talk about what I know: bananas. There are two words for bananas. There is igitoke, which are large green bananas that are used as a savory dish; they are delicious grilled and usually served with meat-on-sticks. Then there are imihwi, which are the yellow bananas that you and I know (but cannot survive on alone, apparently). There is the longer kind but also mini-bananas (‘lady-fingers’ or akamaramasenge) that I’m starting to like more. I’m not sure yet if igitoke ripens into imihwi, but that’s a safe bet.

Sugar is cherished here because Burundians drink their coffee and tea very sweet. My guards won’t drink tea without. The price of sugar has been rising ruthlessly and is now at around $1.50 USD for a kilogram. This has been a major blow to the national psyche.

Each week, one of the French-language newspapers here publishes a chart of the food prices, comparing the current prices with the previous week’s. There’s a listing for « Rice 1 ($1 USD/kg), » « Rice 2 ($0.84 USD/kg), » and « Rice 3 ($0.75 USD/kg). » There’s also something called « Viking Oil, » which you will be happy to know is holding steady at 3000 Bfr (about $2.50 USD) to the liter. Underneath the chart is a « Commentary » section that puts into words what the numbers already say. Translated roughly, it says, « Everything is more expensive. »

If I go to a food store instead of the central market, I can find some Western products like Kellogg’s Corn Flakes. One box costs about $20 USD. If I really want Peanut M & M’s, there are those, too, at $2 USD for a fun-size bag. Because of a quirk in the universe, I’m being paid a Burundian national’s salary, so I think I’ll stick with less opulent items. The real kicker is that if the stores are still selling the corn flakes, it’s because someone is actually buying it.

It does bring up an interesting question about what money means to me right now. With grad school and massive debt being a possibility in the next couple years, whether and how I spend my money doesn’t seem that important – there’s no way I can save enough, so why not use it? At the same time, I find myself needing fewer and fewer things, so I’m at a loss for what to spend money on, even if I wanted or had some to spend. I would welcome any suggestions.

Michaela Wrong, writing about the Congolese in In the Footsteps of Mr. Kurtz, references a George Orwell passage about the poor spending frivolously in order to feel more valuable, to transcend their misery. That makes a lot of sense to me – many of my expenditures are probably unnecessary, but I know intimately that feeling of wanting to « reward » myself with little things for working a lot.



Right before I saw the two articles linked below, I had a conversation with a Burundian friend and a taxi driver about gas prices in the U.S. It was shocking to them how little Americans pay for gas. Anyway, the articles are worth a look. Just for comparison, gas is around $4 a gallon in the U.S., and in Burundi, which is either last or second to last in 2007 GDP/PPP lists ($400 GDP per capita), gas will hit $8 a gallon soon.

It would be so tragic if Burundi falls apart because of commodity prices it has no control over just as it might finally be emerging from this long war through a peace process that was brokered by African nations.




Thursday, July 10, 2008.

It’s too hot today, and too bright. Something feels wrong. Too many speeding trucks loaded with soldiers gripping their guns too tightly. Why is the mounted machine gun manned? The trucks are moving forward and the gunner is facing the other way. They seem too ready.

Rumors: There is a rumor that the rebels are planning new attacks, supported by a radio announcement that they are in desperate need of food and will take to the hillsides to get it. A rumor that the peace process is breaking down (again) – supported by the rebels’ suspension of troop cantonment for demobilisation. The government rejects the rebel demand to transition into a political party. Ostensibly, a name thing*: the Hutu-led government rejects any mention of ethnicity, and the last rebel group’s name is PALIPEHUTU-FNL (that’s an abbreviation**). Neither side is yielding. What is the point of this manuevering? The rebels have few options left, and the government doesn’t want to take any risks, especially with elections in two years.

I walk home at around 7:30. It’s dark but usually there are more people on the streets. Vehicles are moving fast tonight. It’s too hot.

(Update 7/12/08: I hear that next week, things will move forward, one way or another.)


But this is too cool:

I’m going to plug a USB device for my laptop that I just purchased for $100 USD. While that is steep in Burundi, I can now access the internet whereever there is a cellphone signal. I can bypass the whole fixed-line installation issue and work anywhere. This brilliant little silver gadget made by a Chinese company called HuaWei lets me dial into the mobile network (admittedly shakey) and use the internet for only 1.6 cents a minute. The download speed is pretty good, too. Becuase I’m using a Mac, I don’t have the software loaded, but if I did, I would also have SMS and phone capabilities through the computer (like Skype). I asked if I could use it in other countries but was told that it’s configured for Burundi only (meaning it could be reconfigured?).


 * – This name issue shows up again with a popular journalist who is trying to register himself as an opposition political party. The government rejects his application because he includes the word « Securité » in the party’s name, which the government claims is solely their domain.

** – short for ‘Parti pour la Libération du Peuple Hutu-Forces Nationales pour la Libération’


All troubles aside, there is also progress: 

« U.S. Intelligence: Burundi May Be Developing Telephone »


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