Burundi, which formally joined the East African Community (EAC) in June 2007, is becoming a popular destination for Kenyans looking for jobs and business deals beyond their own borders.
After years of civil war, the landlocked nation of about nine million people is rebuilding almost every sector of its economy, creating new opportunities in trade, education, agriculture and many other fields.
As in Uganda and to some extent Rwanda, resilient Kenyans are discovering that it is still possible to strike some luck in nearby East African destinations. And they do not have to endure the rigorous rituals of visa application like those who aspire to go to America, Britain and other Western destinations.
With only Sh5,000, one can hop onto a Kasoo or Akamba bus for the two-day journey via Uganda. By air, it takes less than two hours. Kenya Airways now operates two daily flights to Bujumbura to meet the rising demand, especially since the cessation of hostilities in Burundi.
But even before the guns from the 16-year civil war fell silent in Burundi, many daring Kenyans – mostly small-scale traders and students – had travelled there to seize opportunities and even made it a second home.
Ten years ago, Bernard Wanjohi, tired that his business in Nairobi’s Karanja Road in Kibera was taking long to bear fruit, decided to leave for Burundi.
“I entered Burundi from Mulavia, 50 km north of Bujumbura, on December 31, 1999,” he said in a telephone interview from Bujumbura. The 43-year-old Kenyan who operates a busy nyama choma (roasted meat) joint in Bukarama suburb of Bujumbura, says he has not heard a gunshot in the last two-and-a-half years.
When the civil war between majority Hutus and minority Tutsis raged on, it was the peasant farmers in the countryside who suffered the most. The residents of Bujumbura and its environs were fairly safe. Mr Wanjohi is full of praise for his new home. “It is peaceful. The people are friendly despite their culture of being very secretive and suspicious. The police have never harassed me here. There are no carjackings.”
Kenyans are also increasingly attracted by the low cost of living in Bujumbura, the affordable university education and the fact that the French-speaking nation is now adopting English as well.
Article 137 of the Treaty for the Establishment of EAC states that “the official language of the Community shall be English and Kiswahili and shall be developed as the lingua franca of the Community”. Burundians therefore have no option but to adapt to the language of integration.
English is now being taught in high school, and Kenyans are drawn to Burundi by teaching opportunities. King’s School in the Kabondo area of Bujumbura, which was started by missionaries as a rescue centre for orphans in 1994, at one time had a staff of 12 Kenyans, among them the principal, Mrs Debbie Kimani, a Briton married to a Kenyan.
Most of the pupils at King’s School are children of diplomats and business people. Bujumbura has a business community of Asian origin whose children go to the elite school.
Criticism of France
Universities in Burundi have intensified the teaching of English, especially after the country joined EAC. Burundi cannot afford to stick to French as a national language; more so after neighbouring Rwanda switched to English in a move many believe is reinforced by President Kagame’s criticism of France for not doing enough to prevent the 1994 genocide.
Kenya has established an embassy at the PTA Bank building in downtown Bujumbura manned by a small staff.
Kenya Commercial Bank is headed there to open a branch. Oil giant Kobil was there last week saying it is establishing its presence there. There is also talk of a railway line being extended from Kampala to Bujumbura.
Benjamin Mweri, Kenya’s Ambassador to Burundi, says the country, like Southern Sudan, is an emerging market and Kenya has high stakes in rebuilding it because of the strategic position of Burundi and the countries’ long relationship.
Kenya and Burundi recently formed a joint commission to look into the various bilateral issues, among them the possibility of Kenya offering university education to Burundians at local rates and a reciprocal waiver of work permit fees for Kenyans working in Burundi.
Burundians seeking treatment in Kenyan hospitals will be allowed to pay at local rates. Other areas of cooperation include investment and trade, livestock, education, infrastructure, ICT, culture, police and prisons and probation services. There is already a big demand for dairy cattle breeds in Burundi.
It is certain that cooperation in the education sector is going to bloom. A number of students have sought accreditation to the Kenyan education system. Hope University, which started as a college in Karen, Nairobi, before relocating to Bujumbura, has the highest number of Kenyan students. Some, like Allan Muhati, who have been there for a longer period, also speak French and Kirundi.
Burundi will hold elections in 2010 and electoral bodies of EAC partner states plan to support it to come up with free and democratic elections. There is a reawakening among East African states that without strong institutions of democracy, there can never be progress on the economic front.
Under the protocols on good governance, the EAC member states are making their contributions. Uganda may give some technical advice, Tanzania some vehicles, Rwanda has a printing facility for ballot papers and young Kenya’s Interim Independent Electoral Commission could carry the transparent ballot boxes it used in Shinyalu and Bomachoge by-elections.