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Burundi Diaspora celebrates its culture to bridge ethnic divide

Burundian in France celebrate Burundi Cultural Day on 2 July, 2016.
Burundian in France celebrate Burundi Cultural Day on 2 July, 2016. Christina Okello/RFI

Burundians in France gathered this weekend to mark the 55th anniversary of their Independence. Celebrations were marked by traditional songs and dances, together with culinary delights from back home.


This festive atmosphere belies the political instability in Burundi, which is threatening to roll back democratic gains.

The scene is simple. Newly wed couples pour out of a Haussmannian style town hall in northern Paris' Gambetta district, while inside mature couples celebrate their milestone anniversary.

This common occurence would perhaps be insignificant if it wasn't for the fact that it's also the backdrop for the Burundian Diaspora's Cultural Day.

Every year, members of France's 4,000-large community, gather to exchange and  renew their ties.

"Our aim is to show the world what is ourBurundian culture, our songs, our dances, our drums," says Grégoire Birihanyuma boastfully, in reference to UNESCO's recognition of Burundi drums as a world cultural heritage.

But the Former Chairman of the Burundi Diaspora Association of France--behind Saturday's event--says it's also a special day to initiate youngsters.

"Some young kids have never been to Burundi so they don’t know much about our culture."

Birihanyuma is keen to move the discourse on Burundi away from usual ethnic cleavages juxtaposing Hutus and Tutsis.

And performances by Rwandan dancers in bleach blonde hair with spears, brought in especially for the occasion, may substantiate his point. Like Rwanda, Burundi has also seen bitter, genocidal wars between Hutu and Tutsi.

Yet in this brightly lit concert room, where the music of cymbals throngs the high-ceilings, the past is tossed aside with a shake of the head. But not its legacy.

Independence Lost

"There were some people who sent me a message wishing me Happy Independence Day," says Nestor Bidadanure, a specialist in conflict resolution.

"I told them they should help us to search our independence, because we took it, and then I don’t know what happened, it looked like we went to sleep and when we woke up, we didn’t know where was our independence."

Bidadanure is referring to the current political crisis engulfing Burundi, that threatens to blight its struggle for freedom.

"Those who fought for our freedom, I mean the people like [Prince Louis] Rwagasore who really was engaged for Independence, I think they did a good job and they showed us a good example. Unfortunately, I think we can say today that in Burundi, that dream of freedom, more development, somehow has been broken by different dictatorships we experience in our history.”

The crisis triggered by president Pierre Nkurinziza's third term bid, has forced over a quarter of a million people to flee their homes. Survivors warn that, as the violence spirals, the government is resorting to the poisonous ethnic propaganda that fuelled the country’s past wars and the genocide in neighbouring Rwanda.

"Like in many other African countries, we’re facing what we call PIR or populisme identitaire radical in French [a form of populism insisting on ethnic difference]. Like those of our African leaders who were fighting yesterday for independence, the Burundian people's struggle today is now against ethnic propagabda," continues Bidadanure.

Ethnicity card

"Burundi was a very fine, very beautiful country, and the people there were very quiet, and they were living together. There was no clash between the two main ethnic groups," argues former diplomat Augustin Nsengimana.

"Unfortunately this ethnic situation was exploited by politicians of yesterday and politicians of nowadays."

Burundi gained independence from Belgium in 1962, one of several African nations to do so. Through indirect rule, Belgium encouraged the reigning Tutsi tribe to dominate relations in the region, leaving the Hutu tribes with little.

"Before colonialism, we were not divided into tribes, being a Hutu or Tutsu didn't matter," says Nestor Bidadanure.

"But at the same time we don’t have the right to say to our children 55 years after the Independence, that you know our problem started with colonialism. Now we should start analyzing responsibility for post-colonial/post-apartheid elites and we have to face our responsibility."

Nsengimana for his part remains confident in the resistance of the Burundian people to any forms of fascism or extremism.

"Our countrymen, they don’t follow politicians, they don't trust them, and that’s the chance we have."

Convinced of the "genius" of the Burundian people, Grégoire Birihanyuma reckons they'll find a way somehow of finding a solution to the current political crisis.

"Burundi is one of the few African countries which refused to be invaded by slave traders at the start of this century, thanks to our King [Mwezi Gisabo], so I think we will be able to safeguard our freedom again."

For that to happen, he urges unity and for the true nature of Burundi culture such as "dialogue and exchange", to shine through.

Burundi culture, remains alive and well, was the message of the organizers, even if on the ground the political situation remains dire.

"The cultural side I think is the best side we can leave because with culture, there’s no hate," says Augustin Nsengimana.

"People are celebrating together, you can see even the physiognomy of people here, everybody is there, everybody is laughing, there is no hate, there is no ethnic distinction," he said.

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