Breaking Burundi: Pt 1

Play a thought exercise with me. Without thinking too much, what comes to mind when you think of “Burundi?”

Maybe: “That Starbucks coffee blend” or “What’s that?”

Now, what comes to mind when you think of “Rwanda?”

Maybe: “Hutus. Tutsis. Machetes. Genocide.”

So what does Burundi have to do with Rwanda? First: Burundi is a country that borders Rwanda to the south.

Second: the demographics of Burundi and Rwanda are similar. Both Rwanda and Burundi have majority Hutu (85%) and minority Tutsi (~15%) populations. Hutus and Tutsis are ethnic groups, a division that has led to unimaginably bloody warfare in East Africa throughout the 20th century.

A difference between the two countries is the degree of international attention that the Rwandan genocide has received. The movie Hotel Rwanda starring Don Cheadle is an example.  This awareness is why you associated Rwanda with violent and ethnic words above (if any), whereas Burundi only invoked an indeterminate locale for tasty coffee beans. However, Burundi is a weak state crippled by decades of corrupt and ineffective rule, and is currently dissolving into political - and therefore social - turmoil. A humanitarian disaster is unfolding. It’s time to pay attention.

East Africa: home to the deadliest conflicts since WWII

East Africa has seen ethnic tension erupt into massive slaughters. The 1972 genocide of Hutus by Tutsis in Burundi (80,000-210,000 killed). The 1994 genocide of Tutsis by Hutus in Rwanda (800,000-1,000,000 killed). The Congolese Civil Wars, ignited in part by refugees fleeing the Rwandan genocide, saw the death of over 5 million people, making this mammoth war the deadliest on earth since World War II.

The West’s difficulty in processing the scale of death and destruction stems from a lack of familiarity with East Africa, its people, and its history. This is understandable: it’s hard enough to understand the underlying causes of our own wars, let alone those in a part of the world where we have relatively little involvement, minimal economic or political interests, and almost no history of military intervention (unlike the Middle East). Terrifying, brutal images mixed with incomprehension has created a recurring narrative: “Those poor (black) people are always killing each other. What a mess. Refugee crises. Massacres. Who even knows why they’re killing this time? What a catastrophe.”

Understanding the violence

The problem with this narrative is that these conflicts are comprehensible. Like everything else we discuss on the Reconsider podcast, they just require context. Granted, these countries have deep, complicated histories with a high frequency of violent clashes due in part to a history of colonial repression. But we can do better than “Poor (black) people killing each other is really bad.”

Why is this worthwhile? Why should we seek understanding beyond compassion? Compassion does matter. But the only way to explain the deterioration of these societies - and hopefully prevent it in the future - is by understanding the political causes driving the violence.

Reconsider how you think about African conflicts by focusing on causes rather than suffering. In a series of posts, I’ll provide context that I hope will help you better grasp why 260,000 refugees have fled Burundi out of fear of genocide, how the crisis developed, and what the West (including you) can do to help.



Erik Fogg

We do politics, but we don't do the thinking for you.