I’ve been thinking a lot lately about how people — particularly visitors — present Burundi to the rest of the world. A quick succession of rather ridiculous blog posts have popped up in my Google Reader lately. They’re usually authored from people quickly passing through the country, on some sort of “African adventure.” (Really, this is usually what their “About me” section reads.) Their musings also usually involve gross generalizations (“Africans are so carefree!” “They have such a good attitude about life!” “Life is so slow here!”), while simultaneously lamenting the country’s woes (poverty, disease, corruption, violence).
The thing is, some of those things are true. (I’m not talking about the gross generalizations about an entire continent’s citizens — those will never cease to irk me.) But it’s true. Poverty, disease, corruption, violence — they are all big problems here.
But that’s only part of the story.
This weekend, for me, was dominated by the other parts of Burundi’s story. The parts that lots of people never talk about, and the parts that CNN certainly won’t ever put as a headline.
The first photo is of Blue Bay, about an hour south of Bujumbura. It is absolutely, breathtakingly beautiful. The type of beauty that makes you sit back and think, “Dear God, this country is spectacular.” (It also made me think — for my Rwandan co-fellows: “Rwanda’s got nothin’ on this place.”) It’s not trash-filled, chaotic, scarred by poverty and violence (although I have to admit, we did have to leave before nightfall as it’s known to be located within rebel territory).
The second photo is of a few members from the Consolation English Club in Kamenge. They were winners of this weekend’s “60 Second Pitch” competition, which I was lucky enough to help judge. The event was hosted by the local radio show Imagine Burundi. The event required contestants to identify one local problem, and propose a solution — in English. Now, for all of these contestants English is at least their third language, sometimes fourth. A few contestants really struggled. A few stopped and gave up. But everyone who didn’t complete their first presentation went up on stage again and tried for a second time.
I was impressed by the creativity of the ideas presented: suggestions to prepare Burundi’s markets against the threat of fires, child care training facilities for babysitters, plans to scale up the poultry industry, promoting youth journalism to address social problems, music schools, ideas to solve Burundi’s electricity woes. Quite simply: it was a really effing cool thing to be a part of.
So. If this blog post ends up on anyone’s Google Reader whose searching for Burundi … know this: it’s a complex story. You can’t sum it up in a few generalizations, and there are some remarkably cool (and beautiful) things happening here. You just have to look for them.