Burundi-based aid worker pushes back further on Burundi stereotype

Dear Professor Easterly, A former colleague from Wellesley forwarded me your WSJ review of Tracy Kidder's Strength in What Remains.

I live in rural Burundi, and wanted to thank you for challenging the apparent depiction of this beautiful and complex nation as "a place of unrelieved poverty, violence, disease and human degradation." Burundi is certainly very poor, and I am working with the landless Batwa, by far the poorest of the poor. But I am more struck by affirmations of human dignity than I am by human degradation, and I live quite safely here as a single woman. Public health in Burundi is what one might expect in a nation still emerging from a long civil war, but even in healthcare, there are bright spots; e.g., a well-functioning national tuberculosis plan. As it happens, I was at the Village Healthworks clinic in Kigutu on Thursday for the funeral of Déo's father (I know one of his brothers), and was impressed with its facilities and programs.

I was struck by your question about whether anyone would ever write a book about the Ghanaian economist who uses his well-earned success in the west to contribute to a peaceful democracy at home. Will anyone ever write a book about Déo's classmate Jeanne-Odette Niyongere, who completed advanced training in France and is now a gynecologist on the Faculty of Medicine at the University of Burundi and married to an economist in the Ministry of Finance, with whom she is raising four children in a comfortable home in Bujumbura? Or about my Mutwa colleague Béatrice Munezero, who during the civil war founded a school for Batwa and other children at risk that has now reached the 8th Grade?

You refer to Déo's escape from the Hutu slaughter of Tutsis during the genocidal year of 1994. This gives the impression that Burundi's situation was much the same as Rwanda's at that time. Burundi and Rwanda are aptly described as "faux jumeaux" -- fraternal rather than identical twins in a strict translation of the phrase, but also siblings whose comparison tends to play one or the other false. Burundian Hutus did rise up and slaughter Tutsis in late 2003 after the assassination of the first democratically elected president, Melchior Ndadaye. Ndadaye, who was also the first Hutu president, was apparently tortured to death by members of the Tutsi-dominated army. This was the same army that in 1993 killed 300,000 Hutus in response to a suspected plan to topple the Tutsi-controlled government. Once it secured Bujumbura in late 1993, the army moved into Burundi's interior, where the killings of Tutsis had started, and began the indiscrimate slaughter of Hutus. One of my colleagues described late 1993 to me as follows: "When President Ndadaye was murdered, Hutus began killing Tutsis with clubs and machetes. A few weeks later, the army arrived with machine guns and grenades and began hunting men like beasts."

All this is to say that the situation in Burundi was and is very complex, and that Burundians know this and are free to talk about it. You may also be aware of this. I am grateful to Tracy Kidder for having written a book to put Burundi on the map for westerners, and to you for having so thoughtfully reviewed it. In the forest of books on Rwanda (of which there seems to be at least one for each of the thousand hills that usually figure in their titles), it's good to hear of a Burundian tree.


Jodi Mikalachki

Education and Community Development Worker

MCC Burundi