08/05/2012 – Every small town in the countryside of Burundi is teeming with activity. Each day, men and women stream into the roadside market centres most balancing loads on their heads, some pushing bicycles heaving with fresh produce.
Green banana, orange-flesh sweet potatoes, leafy traditional vegetables, tomatoes, and sugarcane, are just some of the produce that are constantly ferried to the markets. Buyers are not in short supply either.
Burundians are forging ahead, casting a dark past aside and avidly working to earn a living.
This country of eight million people has a conflict-ridden past. A big part of the population has lived in displacement more than once. Many have at one point lived as refugees in the neighbouring countries of Tanzania, Democratic Republic of Congo, Rwanda, Uganda and Kenya.
The last bout of ethnic violence erupted in 1993 and lasted for 13 odd years. Almost ten years after the end of the civil war, many Burundians have returned home, but not all have settled.
Mbazumtima Juma has been a refugee in Tanzania and twice in Rwanda and now lives as an internally displaced person in Lusubiji village, Kirundo province. He is in his late 70s and earns a living repairing wrist watches.
“I fled to Tanzania in 1972 and stayed in Mwanza until 1985 when my family and I decided to return home. But in 1988, conflict erupted again forcing us to flee to Rwanda. We came back in 1993 but in the same year, civil war broke out. We ran to Rwanda again but in 1994, the Rwandan genocide began forcing us back to Burundi which was still at war.”
Since 1994, Mbazumtima has unsuccessfully tried to reclaim his ancestral piece of land. “I gave up the fight for my father’s land and sought shelter in this mosque. I own nothing.”
The European Commission’s Humanitarian Aid department (ECHO)through the UN Agency for Refugees (UNHCR) and international non-governmental organisations has provided some help to people such as Mbazumtima and to the villages accommodating the displaced.
“When I settled here, I received iron sheets, nails and beams, which enabled me to construct this house. But I’d wish to have more. I’d wish to have a farm so that I can produce crops and rear animals to feed my family.”
The emergency phase is now over, and the European Commission will no longer support emergency programmes.
The European Union ambassador in Burundi, Stephane De Loecker, notes that while humanitarian assistance is no longer required, the country still remains very fragile.
“Burundi still faces significant economic, political and development problems, and we, the European Union, and international actors must remain engaged in these fields. This is important for the population which is still very poor and in a very difficult situation regarding health and food security in particular.”
The European Union is taking over the programmes implemented under humanitarian funding to ensure continuity in the recovery phase.
“We have a major programme in the health sector that has just taken over from the humanitarian aid department’s work,” says Ambassador De Loecker.
Ninety per cent of the population in Burundi relies on small-scale agriculture for a living. Coupled with a burgeoning population, arable land is so scarce that farmers grow crops inches away from tarred roads. Farmers do not produce enough food.
While most of the basic needs of the vulnerable population – children under five, pregnant women, refugees, returnees and the internally displaced people – have been met, widespread poverty remains a concern.
“At one time, everybody’s livelihood was destroyed; the emergency assistance has been very instrumental in rebuilding the lives of Burundians,” says Alexis Mangona, an outgoing worker with ECHO “We are convinced that it is time now for development actors to take over and implement more long term programs.”
This is needed to cushion Burundians such as Mbazumtima for whom life remains a day to day struggle and with little or no source of regular income.
By Martin Karimi