The political situation in Burundi seems better than it was when I was there, and certainly much improved from those days in 1997 when The Violets of Usambara takes place. According to the IRIN, the UN’s humanitarian news and analysis group, until recently Burundi was experiencing a “period of relative calm after more than a decade of political conflict and civil war.” The country held its first successful post-war democratic elections in August 2005. A ceasefire with rebel groups was signed 18 months ago. One group, the Front national de libération (FNL,) continued to hold out, but violence dropped substantially.
In late April 2008, though, things suddenly got worse. FNL forces shelled a university and the Vatican’s compound, stirring up memories of the murder of Archbishop Michael Courtney in 2003. Courtney had been Apostolic Nuncio—the Pope’s special envoy—and since then the FNL has been charged with masterminding the ambush.
Let us hope that this is only a blip in the peace process and that greater troubles are avoided in the future.
One thing sure, however, what is happening in Burundi is unlikely to make headlines here unless something truly horrific happens. The country is not on the radar in North America, nor is Tanzania, the other country I visited. As I continue to mull over what I saw there and what I’ve been able to learn since, I begin to think that lack of attention is probably a good thing.
In 1997 when Violets takes place, African countries were embargoing trade to Burundi with the hopes of pressuring the various sides to come to the bargaining table. Nelson Mandela, the great statesman of sub-Sahara Africa, was deeply involved. It took several years, but a plan to share power was worked out. Its implementation is not complete—the breaches in the cease-fire agreement make that clear—but it is an excellent example of Africans solving their own problems. The talk now in the region is of more regional economic sanctions, and perhaps they would will help again.
In the meantime, Burundi is going to need help over the long haul. The IRIN warns that “the cumulative impact of extremely low living standards and a continuous deterioration in social and economic conditions means at least half the estimated 7.5 million inhabitants live on less than US$1 a day."