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.