By Lidewyde Berckmoes Two weeks ago I was invited to give a talk in a colloquium organised in Brussels in light of the 50 years of Independence of Belgium’s former colony. The colloquium, with the title ‘at the cross-roads,’ was organised in the beautiful Palais d’Egmont, giving the meeting a very formal but also celebratory aura. Speakers and guests invited were mostly prominent Belgian and Burundian diplomats, scholars, and civil society representatives: for instance, two former presidents, the ambassador, and a professor who has been publishing about Burundi since the 1960s. I was well aware of my somewhat different standing, but felt honoured to be one of the speakers. Finally, I thought, I could share my research findings on the predicaments of youth with people who may actually have some influence in Burundi!
Excited about my upcoming adventure in Brussels, I was chatting about it with a few of my youth interlocutors over the internet. One of them, a very talented young student, answered to my question on what I should not forget to say in my presentation: “I hate the idea that people in Europe think that Burundian youth do not like to work. If some of us steal or kill, it is to survive! It is hard to find a job in Buja (Bujumbura)!”
My young friend was quite right about the negative reputation of Burundian youth, which can be extended to African youth more generally. However, this reputation does not exist only amongst people in Europe. In Burundi also I encountered time and again bleak images of youth, which portrayed them above all as a potentially disruptive and violent force in the political domain. This image can linked to the past violent roles of formal and informal youth organisations in political upheaval since Independence; since 50 years! On multiple occasions youth organisations collaborated extensively with the government, army and rebel groups in the execution of violence – also in the recent civil war that started in 1993 and ‘officially’ ended in 2005. Nevertheless, this negative image of youth tends to obscure the efforts of many young people who try to make a positive difference, and their everyday struggles to make a living and prepare for their deeply desired ‘adult status,’ in which responsibility, truthfulness and the ability to take care of one’s family are highly valued.
At the colloquium, my talk about youth concerned these everyday struggles, especially those geared at finding a job – or more aptly described, in local parlance, their activities of chercher la vie. I gave the example of four different young people, who, with different success, tried to balance expectations of them as young women and men, daughters and sons, neighbours, and citizens, with their pursuit of ambitions of employment and independence. My message, above all was that the young people I encountered generally work hard, are very ambitious, and seem to continue struggling despite the numerous setbacks. Although sadly most of them, too often, fail – not for lack of trying but due to more structural problems in society.
After my presentation, no questions on the topic were asked. The discussion returned to what appeared the main objective of many participants at the cross-roads colloquium: to urge the Belgium government to stay involved in Burundi with investments and to exert more pressure on the current government to stop Human Rights abuses, to stop repression of civil society and journalists, and to finally start addressing the issue of transitional justice. Indeed, since the democratic elections of 2010, when hope for a consolidation of peace were perhaps at a height, deeply disturbing events have taken place. Even some of my own interlocutors have been threatened or fled, and others lost loved ones in targeted violence.
But today, on the first of July 2012, Burundi will celebrate its Independence. Each year the country organises a défilé for the occasion: a parade in which soldiers, school children, and various clubs and organisations parade past the stadium where the president is seated. This years, because Burundi has been Independent for 50 years, the festivities are a bit out of the ordinary: some friends in Burundi even speak about a 1st of July frenzy.
Interestingly, the Chinese have a major task in the preparations for the three days of celebration. For instance, for months already, they have involved in training school children for the colourful parades. Furthermore, so I have been told, they have given military uniforms and even planes to the Burundian army. And recently, the president declared that China remains the most important Asian development partner of Burundi.
About fifty years ago, against the backdrop of the Cold War, official ties between Burundi and China were severed. Now these ties are increasingly gaining strength again. What to think of this, is a mystery for most: “Who knows what’s behind the Chinese mind…I think nobody knows..,” a Burundian friend confided in me. Another one, suspicious of the developments, added: “I know by now that nothing is for free.”
In the celebrations as well as in the colloquium, the priorities of youth easily become overruled. The importance of addressing youth issues is regularly acknowledged, but hardly taken up. About the celebrations, for instance, one my interlocutors stated: “The government is trying to make it look like a popular celebration but [they have] no idea what’s going on [in] the economy: the dollar is at 1500 Burundian Franc now, imagine!!” Young people urge for better governance, a prioritization of economic development, and employment opportunities for youth – In order to have a chance of finally finding one’s life: pour finalement trouver la vie.
Lidewyde Berckmoes is a PhD candidate at the VU University Amsterdam. She is currently finalising her thesis on youth in Bujumbura. Previously on Standplaatswereld, she published several blogs (in Dutch) about her experiences and research findings in Burundi.