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World Portraits

Travel-inspired blog about people, spaces, and the details that make up their essence.

A different Burundi: Buja’s youths

Yaga members hosting a public debate on the topic of saving opportunities for young people. Bujumbura, 25 July 2019. Author photo.

Yaga members hosting a public debate on the topic of saving opportunities for young people. Bujumbura, 25 July 2019. Author photo.

After just a week in Bujumbura – or Buja, as locals call it – I feel I could easily move here. The city charms you without even trying, starting from delicious coffee that is famous across the region (though rarely exported beyond). Its days are brightened by the sub-Saharan sun, while its nights are surprisingly dark (street lamps never work because ‘imported Chinese stuff never lasts for very long,’ locals tell me). 

Burundi’s ex-capital and biggest city, Bujumbura blends grandeurfrom its colonial past (from the Belgian) with the feel of a beach village, with its beaches facing over lake Tanganyika, which is larger than Burundi itself. Driving across its often-unpaved roads, you can easily stumble upon sophisticated cousineand cultural events in French. But no matter where you go, you will have to zigzag between masses of bikers carrying the most unexpected things: egg boxes, ripe pineapples, piles of hay, and even bed frames (I swear).

I was here on my first work trip, in order to take part in a workshop about the difficult situation that young people face in the country. For three days, we talked about the strikingly high youth unemployment rate, which makes the search for jobs in the illegal sector (such as sex work or drug dealing) ever more popular among youths. But outside of the hotel room where the workshop took place there was bustling Bujumbura, and I could not help trying to explore the youth scene a bit more. What are young people in this city doing? What do they think? How are they trying to face this difficult situation? 

Our local partner Yaga, a youth-led organisation of young journalists and bloggers supported by the Dutch NGO RNW Media, was my partner in this exploration. In the politically sensitive context of contemporary Burundi, Yaga’s youths have learned how to talk about important issues in a critical way while staying safe. They don’t only write on their online platforms, but also organize popular public debates on issues affecting Burundian youths, and train other youths on how to become journalists. They are smart, articulate, full of hope and enthusiasm. 

‘We talk about what young people care about,’ Dacia, one of Yaga’s founders, tells me in their colorful office covered with giant portraits of African leaders, from Nelson Mandela to Bob Marley. ‘We were unexperienced at the beginning, and it was much riskier,’ she continues. ‘We even had to leave the country for a few months, when the situation became tensed. But we have learned a lot now about how be prudent while still having an impact. Through our articles, we have already brought about major changes.’

Another interesting conversation was the one I had with Valery. Valery is the courageous founder of BAPUD, an association of ex-drug addicts who try to help others to get out of addiction. They mainly work with very stigmatized groups like people living with HIV-AIDS, sex workers and people living in the street, because ‘they are those who suffer from addiction the most,’ Valery tells me. Drugs consumption has starkly increased in the country’s urban centres over the past few years, and Valery knows it well. He is not ashamed to share his difficult story. ‘I started consuming when I was 12. Marihuana first, then heroine, boost[1] and other stuff.’ One can see the traces of Valery’s painful story on his face – but they are easily forgotten when he smiles. One can see that BAPUD is his life – and even though he often receives threats for what he does, he never gives up.’ 

‘One day I just decided that I wanted to stop, and now I try to help others to do the same,’ he tells me. ‘It’s all a matter of approaching them in the right way. It’s about the subtle things, particular words you use, body language. They can see that you were also one of them and that you managed to get out, and that makes some of them believe that they can too. But it’s very difficult. I have many friends who have fallen back into it, even a few who have died, because there is nothing else to do for youth in Burundi.’

Dacia and Valery are different in so many ways – in their background, in their appearance and in the way they talk. But they are both examples of a Burundian youth that is trying – in small and constrained ways – to make a change for those around them. They are the most inspiring image of I could have left Burundi with. 

As I approach the airport and see the countryside that surrounds Bujumbura, I am only left with the desire to come back. There is too much to learn about this country stillespecially about l’interieur [the interior], as people refer to the countryside which I could only see from car and airplane windows. What do rural young people there think? What can they say and not say? In what ways big and small are they changing their context? I’m sure Burundi will surprise me a second time.

[Italian version here]


[1]The local name for heroin cut with anti-inflammatories or paracetamol.

View of the countryside surrounding Bujumbura, from the airplane window. Bujumbura, 27 July 2019. Author photo.

View of the countryside surrounding Bujumbura, from the airplane window. Bujumbura, 27 July 2019. Author photo.


Elena ButtiComment