Wednesday, 25 August 2010

Oui, ça Buj

I'm writing this from my computer* in my hotel in Bujumbura.

This is my second time in the Burundian capital. Last summer, my friend Chrissy and I made a one-night trip from Rwanda to Burundi on the grounds that neither of us was going to get another chance. "Who even goes to Burundi?"

But, never say never. I'm back.

The contrast between my two trips is, well, pretty big. Last time, I traveled in with Yahoo!** Trans, sat next to locals eating goat-meat kebabs, wore shorts and flip-flops, hung out with my friends and partied with members of East African rap ensemble Klear Kut. This time, I jetted in on the early-morning flight, sitting next to development workers, and have been sweating in a suit most of the day. My hotel this time has a pool (compare with the particularly low showerhead which was the distinctive feature of last summer's accommodations). All of the above seems like a positive trajectory in my life.

The purpose of my trip was to meet with some civil servants - specifically, the ones who are leading Burundi's efforts to integrate with the EAC common market.

It's tough going for Burundi: they are the poorest in the EAC, recently suffered major ethnic violence (more Hutu-Tutsi stuff, in 2000) and have extremely poor infrastructure. Over half of its exports come from coffee and it has very little manufacturing base. When it comes to building the common market, they're again the odd man out. Burundi speaks French and relies on civil law, whereas the other countries speak English and rely on common law or a blend of both systems. When Burundian officials get EAC policy memos, they have to translate them into French before doing anything else, because there so few English speakers here. Many senior Burundian officials recognize that their laws and Constitution are out of date and ineffective but they don't have the manpower to change it. It's a difficult and frustrating situation for those that want to push for genuine reform.

But undercutting any self-driven reform is the poverty that the country contends with. Burundi has an annual GDP of one billion USD. To put that in perspective, the smallest of the Fortune 1000 companies has an annual revenue far greater than that. Those numbers are not really comparable (for some technical reasons) but they give you a sense of how low-income a place Burundi is.

Of course, a partial explanation for such a low GDP figure is that such a large percent of economic activity goes unreported. This is true for all African countries, but it even more true in Burundi given what I would describe as the national sketch factor.

On my last visit here, I was astonished by the disposible income of, and lavish spending by, a small subset of the population. When rich Bujumburans go out, they go out hard. Such free spending is hard to reconcile with one of the lowest GDP per capita figures in the world. Of course, there's an explanation for this that doesn't show up in official growth figures.

Burundians benefit from two non-standard sources of income: remittances and informal/dirty business. Remittances from relatives abroad are a major source of income for most developing countries. The young (who are typically men) leave to go to Europe and carve out a living there. When they have surplus funds, they send them home to their families in the villages. For many countries, including wealthier ones like Armenia, remittances are a large chunk of national income (or GNI). And for some families, especially in impoverished places like Burundi, remittances are a lifeline***.

But remittances aren't the only means of earning off-the-books cash. Burundi's location next to Goma in the Congo means that it is the natural transit point for goods being shipped to and from the Eastern DRC. In fact, because central DRC is so dangerous and impassable, Burundi is one of the few countries that has a natural supply line to the lucrative mines and security forces of the Congo. Since the mines make money, and security forces makes money, there is ample opportunity for some Burundians to make profits on the side, even if illegal.

My discussion of Burundi so far has focused on the economic and legal aspects of the country, which aren't great. But there are positives. Whether suit-clad or flip-flop-wearing, I have been consistently impressed with how friendly Burundians are. Take today, for instance: my scooter driver got lost and ended up on a completely different side of town from where I wanted to be. I was late for my meeting so I waved down a couple of local guys and asked them if they knew the directions, hoping one of them could save me a few minutes. Before I knew it, one of them had jumped in next to me and helped the driver navigate. He didn't leave until I was already inside the front gate of the place where my meeting was held. And last time, as Chrissy and I were leaving Saga Beach, we met some very friendly locals on the matatu ride back into town. People here are a lot of fun and very open to meeting foreigners.

I suppose an improbable third trip to Buj wouldn't be too bad after all.

* On an unrelated note, my computer is dying and my camera is somehow badly damaged and unable to take pictures. Something about me and electronics don't work. This means that you will get no pictures of Burundi, I'm afraid.

** A Kigali-based minibus company that adopted the internet company's name, exclamation point and logo for its branding. But given the age of the bus, I think Altavista Trans would have been more fitting.

*** Despite the horrific cut that wire transfer services like Western Union take on each payment (up to 15% for small transfers). I checked this very morning in the Interbank Office.

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