Visiting the collines

I’m settling into life in Gitega and the daily chorus of “mzungu! mzungu!” as I walk to work is becoming normal.  Day-to-day life here is calm and people are friendly, especially if you greet them in Kirundi.  I began my fieldwork last week by visiting several ‘collines’ (villages) and conducting focus groups and interviews with people there.  The collines consist of small houses, mostly made of mud, which are nestled into the hillsides amongst the small holdings.  There are a few central buildings in each colline, such as a school and there are unmade roads connecting the collines together.

I was struck by how isolated people are from the main towns.  The distances between the collines and the towns are not that great but there are only public buses on the main roads and most people live from their own small holding, only selling their crops if the harvest is good.  This means that the ‘commune’ (district) administration, never mind national government, seems very distant to most people and so it’s local governance which matters to them most.  For this reason, researching local governance structures in Burundi is important for finding ways for small communities to better manage their basic public services.

Each colline has an elected council which raises local problems with the commune council and oversees local development activities such as planting trees and protecting water sources.  Local communities are largely expected to develop their villages themselves through ‘community works’.  For example, if the school needs a new classroom, the colline inhabitants must come together to buy the building materials and construct the classroom and then the district council may provide the roof.  While this means that people take responsibility for public services in their village, it also means that those who cannot contribute, such as handicapped people and the very poor, may not be valued by the rest of the community.  Even though it is the very poor who need the most support from their community and local leaders, their inability to participate in community works means they are often marginalised, with no-one to advocate for their needs.  This is why I am researching how NGO projects can ensure that the most vulnerable people can participate in local governance and have their needs recognised by the rest of the community.

No easy answers yet though so here are some more photos instead.

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Bonjour Burundi

It’s been more than a week since I flew into Bujumbura, the capital of Burundi, gazing down at the expanse of green hills and mountains below. Most of my first week was spent in Bujumbura, meeting people and getting to know the city. It’s a quiet place, not as you might imagine a capital city, very green and quite tidy and clean. Bujumbura is on the edge of Lake Tanganyika which is home to freshwater crocodiles and hippos. At the weekend, a colleague took me to a bbq by the lake which was organised by the Bujumbura boat club. As we were eating and chatting, a group of five hippos swam over to have a look. Amazing as it was to see the hippos, I was glad they kept their distance.

After a lovely weekend taking in expat life in Bujumbura, I travelled to Gitega, the second town of Burundi, where I will spend the next three months. Despite being the second largest town in the country, Gitega is more like a village. It’s right in the centre of the country, surrounded by rolling green hills and with a beautiful climate. It also has the only museum in the country so that will be something to visit next weekend! This weekend a Burundian colleague kindly took me to the market to help me buy some sports clothes. The market was nothing like the Latin American markets I love which are full of life and entertainment. The market here doesn’t have food or juice stalls, people were all selling the same few vegetables and the clothes were a strange assortment of items, many which looked like free promotional t-shirts made in Europe. As a result, I now have a nice t-shirt saying “Do you football?”. I am, however, genuinely pleased with my new clothes as they meant I could join a Sunday morning running club. It was really fun to head out on the roads around Gitega with a large group of Burundians, all singing and clapping constantly as we jogged!

So, apart from discovering life in Burundi, the reason I’m here is to study some of the projects which two international non-governmental organisations are implementing in the Gitega province. A lot of effort is being put into strengthening local-level community organisations so that they can work with local authorities to improve basic public services. I’ll be researching the local governance and community structures to try to understand how different community organisations can influence service provision and highlight the needs of the poorest members of the community. I’ll write more on this later as my research gets going but for now, here are a few photos from the “field”:

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