Burundi has changed. And perhaps I’ve changed, now seeing this country and its people through different, older eyes. But perceptions aside, the people of Burundi now approach uncharted territory, collectively gathering their breath for a series of tests to the country’s democracy. And as the powers that be move and countermove in these weeks prior to national elections, I’m reminded of the proverb: When elephants fight, it is the grass that suffers.
From the air, Burundi is an undulating patchwork of greens and browns—that much hasn’t changed. On the ground, the changes are a bit more evident—and it feels different from six years ago. The capital city, Bujumbura, is still its tropical, charming self, but with even more cars, moto-taxis, bicycles, and people navigating the clogged, albeit newly paved, roads. Signs of increased commerce are everywhere, with more air conditioned restaurants and swanky cafes—not to mention internet speeds that no longer rob users of their youth and sanity. These mostly urban developments impact only a small percent of Burundians, but something deeper is taking place throughout the country.
When I lived in Burundi from 2008 – 2009, I spoke with many families just returning from refugee camps and other camps for internally displaced peoples. They were starting their lives again after Burundi’s long civil war, and while many expressed hope for the future despite their present reality, others feared for their survival without employment or land to cultivate. Today, traveling outside of Bujumbura with my HOPE Burundi coworkers, I’ve met some of the people—church partners, pastors, field coordinators, and participating groups and individuals—that are part of HOPE’s savings and credit association program. And I’m hearing a different, more hopeful narrative.
In a small community near the Rwandan border, I listened to Jean, the president of a 26-person savings group, tell how he had learned to make soap as a refugee in Tanzania. Once repatriated back to Burundi, he didn’t forget this skill. Earlier this year, he taught his savings group how to make soap, which they sell in the market and use at home. And the group’s goals don’t stop there! With the profits from their soap business, they hope to purchase a flour mill, filling a communal need and increasing the capital the group has available to make loans to one another. Members then use these loans for everything from businesses to seeds and school fees. Each member noted how they’ve found a deeper sense of community in their group and praised God for bringing them together. Driving back to Bujumbura on a newly paved road, with this group’s story in my mind, I couldn’t help but feel hopeful for the future of Burundi.
But the next morning, in the center of Bujumbura, demonstrations by opposition political party members were met by tear gas and mass arrests by police. With two months left until presidential elections, it is widely believed that the current president will soon announce his intention to run for a third term, which is not allowed under the constitution. Should he receive his party’s nomination for president again, opposition leaders have promised further demonstrations with the likelihood of violence.
As the elephants grow restless, I can’t help but think about the individual blades of grass underfoot. I think of people like Jean, who are finally back in their own country and just beginning to build homes, raise families, and regain livelihoods. Between HOPE Burundi and our local partner, Turame Community Finance, there are thousands of Burundians now investing in businesses, hiring employees, savings for the future, and living out the Gospel in their communities. There is so much hope in Burundi today, vibrant and tender shoots of grass springing up all over the hillside. I pray the elephants tread lightly as they seek common ground and peace.