Mwaramutse! This weekend found us in Burundi, a small landlocked country in East Africa, just south of Rwanda. Like our last country, Syria, Burundi is currently in a state of great turmoil. Earlier this year, there was a failed coup to overthrow the country’s president, Pierre Nkurunziza, after he decided to run for a third term in office (the country’s constitution limits presidents to two terms). Like in Rwanda, there’s also been long-running tension between the two primary ethnic groups, the Hutus and the Tutsis ever since Burundi gained its independence from Belgium in 1962.
Burundi is one of the world’s poorest countries, and approximately seven out of ten Burundians live below the poverty line. Many families eat meat only a few times a month. It’s a bit sobering to realize that this is why it was pretty easy to find vegetarian-friendly Burundian recipes with little to no modification needed. I can be an ethical vegetarian because we’re relatively well-off according to global standards, whereas going meatless most of the time isn’t a choice for many Burundians, but a necessity.
To start our Burundian weekend, I made us plantains and beans, and a stiff porridge made from corn flour (similar to what we’ve had in other African/Caribbean countries, like the fungi in Antigua and Barbuda).
While the current political and economic situation in Burundi seems rather grim, we also wanted to see the country in a positive light. The following tourism video shows some of the natural beauty the country has to offer, and gives a glimpse into the country’s rich culture, including drumming, dancing and handicrafts.
For lunch, Derek modified a fish with tomatoes and red palm oil recipe by swapping tofu for the sliced fish. While Burundi is technically landlocked, Lake Tanganyika is adjacent to much of the southwestern part of the country. The tomato broth was pretty spicy, so the tofu didn’t seem as bland as it might have seemed otherwise.
In the afternoon, we went to a family party, and had hoped to bring something at least vaguely Burundian (like the watermelon we had brought to another family party that coincided with our weekend in Botswana), but none of the recipes we found seemed like party foods. This isn’t to criticize Burundian cuisine, of course, but fried beans or braised amaranth greens might have been rather odd on a buffet spread next to cheese and crackers and pumpkin bread.
We resumed our travels in Burundi the next morning, with more plantains and beans, and corn porridge for breakfast. As we ate, we also watched a YouTube video that took us on a drive through Burundi’s capital and largest city, Bujumbura. It was interesting to notice familiar things in a city we’ve never been to, like a Toyota dealership, and a sign for Amstel, the Dutch beer company.
After breakfast, we watched an eight-episode video series produced by Vice News, which covered the political crisis in the days before and after Burundi’s controversial presidential election, which took place this July. President Nkurunziza was re-elected, but much of the international community has denounced this election as unfair. Many individuals who have opposed the ruling party have been killed, and many more have fled the country.
For lunch, we had more tofu with tomatoes and red palm oil, and then went for a walk into Boston in the afternoon. If we picked up our pace, we could have partaken in a common Burundian pastime, jogging–though group jogging is now illegal in Bujumbura except in designated places, because President Nkurunziza believes his opposition could use jogging as a cover while plotting subversive acts against him. I’ve never thought that being able to walk, jog or run with someone else wherever I wanted could be a privilege, until learning about the recent ban in Bujumbura.
Back at home, Derek made us a bean soup for dinner (minus the peanuts/peanut butter). Cooking the beans and vegetables for a long time made the soup thick and almost creamy, a perfect comfort food for a rainy November evening in New England.
Maybe it’s because Thanksgiving is right around the corner, but this weekend in Burundi has made me more aware of how fortunate we are in the United States. We have plenty–perhaps too much–to eat. We’re allowed to have different political views. While we don’t always agree with our government representatives, and while they don’t often agree with one another (ahem, Congress), our government is still pretty stable. What the future holds for Burundi is unclear, but we hope that Burundians will be able to enjoy these privileges someday, too.