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Africa Files: Burundi

Wednesday, February 26, 2020 10:36 AM | Jennifer Wisniewski (Administrator)

At a glance

Population:  11,865,821 (July 2020)

Political Capital:  Gitega

Commercial Capital:  Bujumbura

Ethnic Groups: Hutu, Tutsi, Twa (Pygmy)

Official languages:  Kirundi, French, English

Religions: Roman Catholic (62.1%), Protestant (23.9%), Muslim (2.5%)

Fertility rate: 5.28 children per woman

Life expectancy:  66.7 years

Literacy rate:  68.4%

Natural resources:  nickel, uranium, cobalt, copper, platinum, gold, limestone, hydropower

Currency:  Burundi francs

GDP per capita:  $700 (2017)

Form of government:  Presidential Democratic Republic

Image Source:


Image source:  Encyclopedia Britannica

Burundi is a landlocked country that shares an eastern border with Tanzania, a northern border with Rwanda and a western border with the Democratic Republic of Congo. The southwestern corner of the country also borders Lake Tanganyika. The country is slightly smaller than the state of Maryland but also one of the most densely populated countries on the African continent. Most of the population is concentrated in the north and on the northern shore of Lake Tanganyika. (1)

Photo Credit:  Matthew Spiteri / Unsplash

Most of Burundi’s landscape is hilly and mountainous. The country is located just over 200 miles south of the equator but has an average altitude of 1,700 meters; therefore, the climate is generally moderate. 


The Hutus were the first people to settle the area now known as Burundi, arriving prior to the 1300s. Later, the Tutsi settlers arrived. While the majority of Hutus were agriculturalists, the minority Tutsis raised cattle and became the aristocratic class. Still, it is believed that the two groups lived peaceably prior to the arrival of the Europeans in the nineteenth century.

The Germans arrived first, in 1894, claiming both Rwanda and Burundi and calling it Ruanda-Urundi. When the Germans invaded Belgium at the beginning of World War I, Belgium retaliated by moving troops east from Belgian Congo into present-day Burundi and occupied the area. Though Belgium ruled the area until 1962, they handed administrative power over to the minority Tutsis, exploiting the uneven status of the two groups. Antagonism between the groups grew with the Hutus at times being subjected to forced labor. Other stigmatizing political actions were taken including a law requiring everyone to carry a race card. (3)

When Ruanda-Urundi gained independence in 1962, the two regions separated, becoming the Kingdom of Burundi and the Republic of Rwanda. ( 3) It wasn’t long before ethnic conflicts erupted. By 1963 thousands of Hutus fled the region. In 1966, the Burundi monarch was overthrown, and the Republic of Burundi was established. The next several decades were marked by instability and violence. In 1972, a reported 120,000 Hutus were massacred in the South. In 1993, the president of Burundi was assassinated which triggered a full-out ethnic war in which 300,000 died. The following year a plane carrying the next Burundi president and his Rwandan counterpart was shot down in Rwanda triggering an ethnic genocide in that country. The Burundi Civil War that began in 1993 persisted through 2006. (2)

As recently as 2015, violence was sparked anew when President Pierre Nkurunziza declared that he would run for a controversial third term. Hundreds were killed and half a million people fled, many of them to Tanzania.


In Burundi, the cow is considered sacred. Traditionally, people named their cows giving them monikers describing their beauty or character. Specifically, Ankole cattle are considered the embodiment of beauty. The Burundi people revere their cattle to such a great extent that they recite poetry to them as they lead them to water or out to pasture. (4)

Photo Credit:  Mike Suarez / Unsplash

Not surprisingly, beef is not eaten in Burundi. Goat and sheep meat, on the other hand, is commonly eaten. Other staples include beans, sweet potatoes, plantains, peas, cassava, maize and fruits. A popular snack in Burundi is the profiterole - a French filled pastry. 

Oral literature is an important part of Burundi culture. With a low literacy rate and the turbulence of civil war, written literary works are difficult to find.  Storytelling, however, relays Burundi values. Many of the stories revolve around cattle. 

Singing is also an intrinsic part of the culture. Imvyino, songs with a strong beat and short refrain, are sung during family gatherings. In addition, men sing Kwishongora, rhythmic songs with trills and shouts while women sing bilitos, softer songs. 

Craftmaking can be found in Burundi, too. The Tutsis are known for their basket weaving while the Twa are known for their pottery. 

In the world of sports, the Burundi people love football. In fact, the country even has a national team. (5)


Burundi faces several complex challenges ahead. The flow of refugees into and out of the country is one that impacts everything from education to infrastructure to healthcare. With the renewed violence in 2015, many were forced to flee, and now the densely populated country with limited resources is working to reintegrate the refugees. Over the past decade, over 500,000 Burundi people have returned home. At the same time, Burundi hosts other refugees fleeing Rwanda and the Democratic Republic of Congo.

In addition, environmental challenges abound. Deforestation and soil erosion has resulted from overgrazing. In fact, little forested land remains in the country. With 90% of the population relying on subsistence farming, this environmental degradation impacts the ability of the country’s inhabitants to feed themselves.  Finally, destruction of habitat threatens the wildlife population. 

A third challenge for the country is human trafficking. Following decades of unrest and with high rates of illiteracy and poverty, Burundi’s population is vulnerable, children and women the most vulnerable among them. Unfortunately, trafficking for labor and sex are another destabilizing problem in the country. (1)   







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