Burundi – culture and customs
The main languages spoken in the Burundian republic are Kirundi, French (both official) and Swahili. It is the second most densely populated country on the African mainland (after Rwanda). The vast majority of people are Christians (75%), around 20% Burundians follow African religions with a few percent of people being Muslim. The major ethnic groups are Hutu (84%), Tutsi (14%) and Twa (1%). Burundi is one of the world’s 25 poorest countries, the vast majority of people work in subsistence agriculture and cattle herding.
Burundi and Rwanda had centuries-old kingdoms before European colonialism. Colonial rule (first Germany, later Belgium) brought these separate and competing kingdoms for a period of time under a central government. Before the colonial era a minority Tutsi elite had controlled the region for hundreds of years. Belgium reinforced the growing political and economic domination of Tutsi people by ruling indirectly through them. Since Burundi’s independence in 1962, Hutus have rebelled against their exploitation whilst the Tutsi elite have strongly resisted change in the balance of power. As a result the country has experienced recurring ethnic violence on a horrendous scale. Since 1962 around 300,000 Burundians (mostly Hutu) have been killed and nearly 1 million more have been displaced.
Burundi faces today several environmental and health threats, amongst them HIV/Aids. The civil war has impacted living conditions dramatically. After years of conflict between the two major ethnic groups creating peace between the Hutu and Tutsi is the most urgent matter.
When greeting someone you shake hands with the right hand. Friends often touch each other’s cheeks 3 times or offer a hug by grasping the other person’s shoulder. To show respect of social status people hold their right forearm with their left hand while shaking hands. Holding hands between people of the same sex is a sign of friendship. When a man is greeting a woman it is best to wait for the woman to extend her hand.
Eye contact might be more indirect during a conversation; women and children might look down or away to show respect. It is best to avoid asking about someone’s ethnicity or making referrals to conflicts. Many have lost loved ones. Good topics of conversation include food, sport (soccer), Burundian landscape, Australia, etc. Burundians love a good joke but avoid sarcasm as it might not translate. Burundians are gregarious people and will visit each other without announcing it ahead of time. In many situations people are flexible with appointed times, they don’t tend to be overly punctual. This is different in business situations where punctuality is valued.
Burundian people have a set of gestures for pointing to and calling people. If you want to point to someone hold out the arm with the palm open and upward. It is considered very rude to point at a person with your index finger. Calling someone to come over is done by extending the arm with the palm turned down and bringing in the fingers towards you, like a scratching motion. Burundians also have proper ways to give or receive things. Children learn to offer both hands when receiving an object, especially from an adult, which shows respect.
Family life includes not just the nuclear family but the extended one. The country is going through a transition in gender roles but is still a male dominated society. The man is the household’s authority. Women do housework, raise children and tend the gardens. Girls help with domestic chores and tend their younger siblings; schooling preference is given to boys. In urban settings, it is more likely to find women with careers. Raising and educating children is not only the responsibility of the parents but a communal duty for the extended family, friends and acquaintances.
People place great importance on looking their best. Even on low budgets they keep their clothing and shoes in good condition. The traditional clothing is a cloth wraparound called a pagne. In rural areas women, girls and elderly men still wear them over dresses, blouses or shirts. Women also wear scarves over their heads. Men always wear long pants as shorts are just worn by young children and schoolboys.
Staple foods in Burundi are various potatoes, bananas and beans (sometimes fish). Meat gets eaten just occasionally and through their reverence for cattle (status, wellbeing, security) it should not be their own and not a cow. In some regions it is taboo to heat or boil milk because people believe this might interfere with their cow’s dairy production. The health and fertility of the animals are thought to reflect on their owners’. Children eat porridge for breakfast and drink milk. French bread, tea and coffee are popular for breakfast. Whenever someone has money they invite their friends to go out and have some beer. If you are invited you do not pay – not even one round. But if you invite you pay for all the rounds – till your pockets are empty! Keep in mind that it might be unacceptable for some women to drink alcohol.