Exploring Burundi’s Culture

burundi ceremony


Today’s guest post is by Shandee Chapman.

Burundi is not a place most people are able to locate on a map, let alone make it their summer’s vacation destination. But, my summer travels brought me to this beautiful, dynamic and fascinating nation.

When we first arrived in Burundi, we were the only plane on the tarmac at the country’s only international airport. In the distance was an Air Burundi plane, a decommissioned airline that was no longer functioning, out for display. We de-boarded on the tarmac, and made our way inside the small airport. We were met with a group of people who were family friends we had never met, but would be staying with for the duration of our trip.

Burundi is a small nation located in Eastern Africa, and is also the second poorest nation (in terms of GDP) in the world. When my fiancé and I decided to go to his home country for his cousin’s wedding, I had a number of thoughts racing through my mind. For one, it was a developing nation. Toilets were definitely a top concern. And also, there had been recent flares of violence in the nation, stemming from the President’s decision to run for a third term (and to change the constitution to allow him to do so). I had never traveled to any developing nation, let alone one that was still in the early stages of recovery from ongoing civil conflicts. Because of this, when we arrived in Burundi’s capital city Bujumbura, I was nothing short of terrified.

Initial Culture Shock in Burundi

The culture shock hit me as soon as we left the airport. The people were so kind immediately after stepping off the plane, but English is not widely spoken in Burundi. French, their local language Kirundi, and Swahili were extremely common. Unfortunately, my French is spotty at best, and I could barely explain my age, or hold a conversation. People were very kind and tried to speak as much English as they could, however it was an odd feeling to be unable to communicate as much as I was accustomed to.

As we drove away from the airport, I noticed one thing that stood out: guns. So many machine guns and other types of guns I couldn’t even guess their names being a Canadian from the Prairies. Guns were in the hands of police and the military, and they were everywhere. Standing on street corners, driving around in trucks with men packed in the back wielding their weapons. I began to regret my decision immediately, although my fiancé’s cousin kept reassuring me the guns were for “security.” The presence of the guns made some people feel safe, but coming from a nation where guns were rare, I felt the polar opposite of safe.

Farming was also extremely different from anything I had seen. People farmed on small chunks of land immediately beside the highway and other roads. They farm a wide variety of things in Burundi, ranging from rice, vegetables, and fruits to coffee. But, such farms are all clustered together a mere meter from the road. Being on the roads themselves was an interesting experience. The good roads were either covered with red dirt or paved with stones, and were relatively bump free. But the roads in residential areas were rough. Giant rocks covered nearly the entire roadway, and made me thankful for my seatbelt.

People also flooded the streets, carrying a number of different items in baskets perfectly balanced on top of their heads, or biking with pipes and other construction materials strapped to their backs. Traffic lights are not a thing in Bujumbura, and I gave up attempting to understand the traffic rules. There seemed to be some kind of understanding between drivers on who had the right of way in different situations, but the car rarely stopped for anything, certainly not for pedestrians.

Once we arrived to our destination, a family friend of my fiancés parents, my culture shock started to shift. Their place was enormous, close to mansion status. The house was surrounded by a 7 -8-foot tall wall, with barbed wire placed on top. This was common, and was for security purposes. If there was one thing I had learned from Burundi already, it was that Burundians were highly concerned about security. And, rightly so after decades of civil unrest and episodes of violence in the country. Thankfully, the washrooms were exactly the same as Western washrooms, so my concerns before arriving turned out to be for nothing. I felt relieved, and extremely jet lagged from our two-day journey, and went to sleep under our mosquito net.


Celebrating at a Burundi Wedding

The next day, the wedding festivities began. In Burundi, there are a number of ceremonies that take place. There is the dowry ceremony, which occurs a few months before the wedding, where the husband-to-be’s family agrees on a price with the bride’s family, and then pays the bride’s parents. Most people associate dowry with being paid by the women to the husband’s family, but Burundi has the opposite tradition. Next comes the civil ceremony, which occurs in a small, open room in a community centre. The couple legally becomes married at this point.

The following day, the couple has a ceremony at a church, followed by a reception. The receptions are different than in the West, as the entire community tends to show up, invited or not. Food is not served, and instead a small dinner invitation is extended to the couple’s family and friends. The reception we attended was extremely entertaining. Traditional Burundian drummers played, and you could feel the beat throughout your entire body. They didn’t simply drum; they danced at the same time. There were also traditional dancers, dressed in matching draped cloth, and men sporting lion-like beard pieces that looked to be made of some kind of straw. The celebration continued to include many speeches, from both sides of the family (and often more than one speech per family member).

The following afternoon, we celebrated the couple with another party. The street was blocked off, with a tent being pitched on top of the stone-ridden road. Chairs were placed on either end of the tent, with the bride’s family sitting across from the groom’s family, and the newly married couple sitting in the middle between the two. This is when the couple is presented with banana wine. Wine is served not in cups, but rather in a large basket. Each person is given an extremely long straw to drink wine from. People walk up together, lower themselves into a squat position, place the straw into the basket and everyone drinks at the same time. This continues for some time, accompanied with singing and dancing, followed by the groom being placed in the air while still seated within his chair.

burundi ceremony

Reverse Culture Shock

After four days in Bujumbura, my entire view of developing nations changed. For one, their society is not as underdeveloped as you may read about. Nearly all Burundians I saw had a cell phone – and not a simple (flip) phone – but the latest model of iPhone or Samsung. Their washrooms were similar to Western-style washrooms, but lacked in hot water, which was actually extremely refreshing in the heat. People do not live in huts, and people are also not so without agency, as it is portrayed in the media. Most people are pursuing higher education, and innovation is abundant within Burundi.

The thing that stuck out to me the most, was how happy people were. It seemed as a whole, Burundians did not place their happiness in their material possessions or accumulating wealth. They also had more gratitude then I had ever experienced before. Due to the ongoing turmoil, many Burundians are happy to wake up, go to work, and return home to have dinner with family and friends. Burundians’ resilience was inspiring, especially since they have not let circumstances dictate their happiness.
burundi-beachBurundi is not a tourist-centered nation, but I was pleasantly surprised with how much there was to see and do in Bujumbura. National parks, multiple markets, and a gorgeous beach with beach-front restaurants, Burundi is a beautiful country. I would highly recommend paying Burundi a visit, especially if you are considering visiting their much more tourist-centered neighbor Rwanda. I will never forget the vibrant colors, textiles, flowers, and the singing and life I saw.

Burundi is by far one of my favorite places, and I cannot wait to visit it again!

Shandee is a recent graduate who decided to travel to as many countries as possible following graduation. Her travels have taken her recently to Kenya, Burundi, Iceland, Scotland and Mexico. To follow along with her journeys, check out her blog solatesosoon.com, which is launching soon. 

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