POPULATION: More than 6 million

LANGUAGE: Kirundi, French, Swahili

RELIGION: Christianity, indigenous beliefs


Rwanda and Burundi are two African countries with long histories. Both were kingdoms centuries before Europeans arrived. It is believed that the Twa were the first people to inhabit the area. Hutus arrived between the seventh and fourteenth centuries. The Tutsi came into the region beginning in the fifteenth century.

European colonists ruled the Hutu and Tutsi kingdoms under one government. The Tutsi mwami (king) stood at the top of the social ladder, followed by the princes. At a lower level were the Tutsi and Hutu masses, whose members often married members of the other ethnic group. Hutu serfs, who were forced to work for the Tutsi upper class, were the lowest social class.

The Germans began to rule in 1899. During World War I (1914–18), The League of Nations gave the colony to the Belgians. The Belgians strengthened Tutsi political and economic power, using the Tutsi to rule for them.

Burundi became independent in 1962, Since then, Hutus have rebelled against their lower status and mistreatment. The Tutsi rulers have strongly resisted change in the balance of power. As a result, Burundi has had many episodes of violence between the groups on a massive scale; so has its neighbor, Rwanda. Since 1962, some 300,000 Burundians, mostly Hutus, have been killed. Nearly a million more have lost their homes.


Burundi is somewhat larger than the state of Maryland, but it has more than six million people. This makes it one of Africa's most densely populated countries, with 20.4 persons per square kilometer.

Most of the country is a high plateau. In the east, a mountain range rises to over 5,900 feet (1,800 meters). Lake Tanganyika and the Ruzizi river form a beautiful natural border with the Democratic Republic of the Congo.


Two official languages are spoken in Burundi: Kirundi and French. Many Burundians along the western shore of Lake Tanganyika also speak Swahili. It is the language of East African trade. A traditional greeting in Kirundi is Amashyo ("May you have herds [of cattle]"). The reply is Amashon-gore , meaning, "I wish you herds of females." The language is full of references to cattle. Wishing a person "herds" means wishing them health and good fortune.


The Burundian literary tradition is passed down to younger generations in spoken poetry, fables, legends, riddles, and proverbs. There are epic poems about peasants, kings, ancestors, and cattle. Oral stories may be told through "whispered singing." Men sing quietly, accompanied by traditional instruments. The inanga is somewhat like a zither (a flat instrument with a number of strings stretched across it). The idono resembles a stringed hunting bow.


Most Burundians are Christians. Over 60 percent of the population is Roman Catholic, and 5 percent is Protestant. The other 35 percent of the people follow traditional African religions.


The national holiday of Burundi is Independence Day, July 1. Sometimes, however, the government faction that has taken power by force most recently celebrates its own victory instead.

Burundians celebrate Christian and traditional holidays. The most important holiday is Christmas. It is an occasion for buying new clothes and wearing them to church. After church, people return home to spend the day with family and friends, enjoying a good meal.

The Burundian traditional day is umuco or akaranga. The traditional games that have been part of it are no longer played. But Burundians still enjoy dancing, drinking, and traditional foods on this day.


As in much of Africa, rites of passage are important markers in the life cycle. Six days after birth, babies are presented to the family in the ujusohor ceremony. The mother receives flowers for her hair, and gifts of money and beer are given. Christian parents and their families usually baptize their children one month after birth. When the child becomes a toddler, it receives a name in the kuvamukiriri ceremony.

Initiation rites were once extremely important in Burundian society. However, the practice was discouraged by European missionaries. Today few Burundian children are initiated, although most of their grandparents were. The church has replaced initiation with the Christian rite of first communion. After a long period of religious instruction, young people are taken into the church as adults.


Burundians are sociable people and visit each other without announcing it ahead of time. They typically greet each other by shaking hands with the right hand. Friends often greet by touching cheeks three times. Friends of the same sex give each other a firm hug, grasping each other's shoulders.

There is a set of gestures for pointing to people and calling people that is special to Central Africa. They point to someone by holding an arm out with the hand open and palm upward. Pointing at someone with the index finger is considered very rude. A person beckoning someone else extends an arm with the palm turned down and brings the fingers toward the wrist.


Traditional huts were made from reeds and canes. The tradition has given way in rural areas to houses of mud brick with thatched or tin roofs. Some are cylindrical in shape, and the mud walls may be whitewashed. In towns, houses built of hollow concrete blocks with galvanized iron or clay tile roofs are common.

Warfare has greatly affected living conditions in Burundi. People have been killed, homes have been burned, and cattle have been destroyed. Great numbers of people have become homeless. In 1994, the average number of years a person was expected to live was estimated at only about 40.3 years.


In Burundian society, the man is in charge of the home and makes the decisions. Women do the housework, raise the children, fetch water, collect firewood, cook the meals, and wash the clothes. Girls help with these chores and tend the younger children.

Some men have more than one wife, but this custom has been disappearing. Overcrowding and the cost of educating children have led to smaller families.

In Burundi, disciplining children is not just the parents' job. The extended family, friends, and acquaintances may correct another person's child. If they do not correct bad behavior, they may be accused of shirking their duty to the community.


Burundian traditional clothing consists of cloth wraparounds (pagnes). Women, girls, and elderly men still wear them in rural areas.

Male herders wear two pieces of cloth, which hang down to the knees, with a cord around the waist. Many people go barefoot in the villages.

In Bujumbura, the capital, fashionable men and women, known as sapeurs, wear the latest fashions. The men dress up in suits and ties, and the women wear Western dresses and shoes. Young people are fond of blue jeans and T-shirts.

12 • FOOD

The staple foods in Burundi are tubers, plantains (matoke), and beans. Burundians are most fond of sweet potatoes and cassava served with different types of beans, greens, and cabbage. They also enjoy cassava flour, boiled in water, and stirred to make a thick paste (ugali).

Villagers usually rise early and do not eat breakfast. They return home for a large meal at noon. At night, they may eat leftovers or have tea. In the cities, French bread is very popular. European beverages such as coffee and tea have become common.

Burundians produce their own traditional drinks, including banana beer (urwarwa) and sorghum beer.


From 1986 to 1992, most children dropped out of school after reaching grade five. High school enrollment was only 7 percent for boys and 4 percent for girls.

Half of Burundians age fifteen and older can read and write, according to an estimate made in 1990. Because of the preference given to boys, more of them (61 percent) can read and write than girls (40 percent).


Traditionally, Burundians played drums mainly for ceremonies. More and more, drumming has become a form of entertainment. As many as twenty-five men of all ages play huge drums carved from tree trunks. The drums are three feet tall. Men beat the drums with two sticks about eighteen inches long. They wear costumes of red and white cloth tied in the traditional way, one over each shoulder with a cord around the waist.

Burundian dancing is very athletic, with dancers leaping high into the air and spinning around. Sometimes dancers use wooden shields and spears and wear head-bands and armbands made of beads.

Burundians make several traditional instruments that they play during family get-togethers.


Burundi is one of the world's twenty-five poorest countries. Most Burundians work in subsistence farming (producing the basic foods necessary to keep a family alive) and cattle herding. Those without steady jobs manage as best they can. Some set up sidewalk repair stands, repairing anything from watches to shoes. Unfortunately, these jobs pay very little.


Burundians are soccer fanatics. They play soccer wherever and whenever they can. Any kind of ball will do. Homemade goals mark parking lots, fields, streets, and any other flat surface. Schools have introduced other sports such as basketball, volleyball, and European handball.


In the cities, where electricity is available, people enjoy watching television on evenings and weekends. Whenever someone has money, they invite their friends to go out to a neighborhood bar (buvette) for a round of drinks.

Bujumburans really enjoy nightlife and are fond of a variety of popular music.


Burundians produce many crafts of excellent quality. Among the best are mats and baskets. Papyrus roots, banana leaves, and bast (a strong, woody fiber) are the raw materials for the baskets. The Twa people are skilled in making pottery for their own use and for the tourist market. Wood carving has a long tradition. Carvers produce highly decorated drums for the tourist market.

Burundian craftsmen make fine instruments such as the thumb piano (ikembe). The ikembe is small and not like a Western piano. It has eleven metal bands for producing tones, and a sounding box. The indingiti is a traditional banjo or violin with a single string that is played with a bow. The inanga is an eight-stringed instrument with a large sounding board.


Burundi faces several serious environmental and health threats, including AIDS. However, making peace between the Hutu and Tutsi peoples is the most urgent problem. To have a stable nation, Burundians will have to deal with the inequalities in political power, land ownership, and wealth between these two ethnic groups.


Lemarchan, Rene. Burundi: Ethnocide as Discourse and Practice. New York: Woodrow Wilson Center Press and Cambridge University Press, 1994.

Nyankanzi, Edward L. Genocide: Rwanda and Burundi. Rochester, Vt.: Schenkman Books, 1997.

Wolbers, Marian F. Burundi. New York: Chelsea House Publishers, 1989.


Internet Africa Ltd. Burundi. [Online] Available http://www.africanet.com/africanet/country/burundi/ , 1998.

World Travel Guide. Burundi. [Online] Available http://www.wtgonline.com/country/bi/gen.html , 1998.

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