Since arriving in Burundi two weeks ago I’ve struggled to find the best way to introduce this country to the Kiva world.  What personality traits offer the best glimpse into the character of a place most people have never heard of?  Can you really glean one’s character from a first impression?  Let’s try.  I hereby invite you to be completely judgmental.

Sunset over Bujumbura

  • Is it important to say, for example, that Burundi’s population is the poorest in the world?   Depending which of two calculations the World Bank uses, it is either the poorest or the third-poorest.*
  • Does it help to hear that the main export of the country is coffee, but that the 2009-10 season is expecting a drop in coffee production from 24,000 to 11,000 tons?  (And in a good year, Burundi only exports 22% of what it imports anyway?)
  • Should you know that Burundi’s sister to the north, Rwanda (same age, size, colonial past, and population demographics) brought in $815 million in combined investments and aid flow last year, but Burundi barely got half of that?  (Meanwhile to the east, Tanzania was cashing in $3.5 billion.)
  • Speaking of Rwanda, do you know already that Burundi experienced multiple genocides, but that they unfolded over decades instead of months, with periods of elusive calm in between wars?
  • Or that 93% of the labor force is agricultural and 70% of the population is Christian (which will prove particularly pertinent to Kiva’s client base)?
  • Or that the smallest bank note is worth about 1 hundredth of 1 cent?
  • Or that campaigning has begun for contentious elections this year?
  • Or that thanks to the Belgian legacy, in any restaurant, from downtown dive to lakefront luxury, you can find fantastic beer and French fries?

    I cede total guilt for exploiting oversimplified statistics that hide all nuance and uniqueness of the people and place they describe.  The real question is – what does life look like behind the numbers?  That’s where you find the human intrigue; that is the reason Kiva’s mission starts with “Connecting people;” that’s why profiles and journals of real people inspire the generosity of Kiva lenders.

    But if the bird’s eye view is off-putting, even trite, it is also integral to the nature of this country.  Through this blog and the work of the local MFI staff, we’ll unpack the statistics with touching testimonies, in time.**  But just appreciate for a moment the intensity of those stats.  Your $25 Kiva loan here could easily amount to an entire month’s profit for one borrower supporting a family of six.  And your average Kiva borrower is a lot better off than a lot of people in this country.

    The macro context helps you better understand the people and the state of microfinance in a country – it helps explain the unique impact you make by lending here.  It also supports an unspoken mantra in the Kiva connection, embraced by the person-to-person model: Know thy borrower.

    Your average Burundian borrower lives in hopeful destitution.  She has likely lost family members in a war caused by contrived ethnic differences, and she very possibly lost at least one child before he turned five.  She knows how to harvest a field though she doesn’t know how to read French, the national language.  She can keep up with tattered bills though she might not have a purse to keep them in.  She will leave you with a heartfelt handshake and a parting phrase: “Imana ibahezagire” – “God bless you.”  She works hard, both out of necessity and out of a core appreciation for the value of work.

    Maybe this sounds a lot like other borrowers.  I’d suggest one major difference though, revealed by the battery of bullet points: other borrowers receive far more support and attention than your average Burundian, from their own government and from outside lenders and donors.

    Why?  Lots of reasons.  But consider… the only compelling book (I’ve ever read) about Burundi was published last year.  The only movie made about the country is a super-cheesy exaggerated film about a killer crocodile.  No local singers or soccer players or peacemakers have yet found fame outside the country.  To meet these microfinance clients gives a small but telling glimpse into a country that’s been in the shadows for a long time.

    You can see that Kiva offers more than the power of its loans: it is a promising source of publicity for a tiny neglected nation.  You, Kiva lenders, are in a special position to help Burundi’s unknown entrepreneurs.  I look forward to introducing you to each other further.

    Karibu à Burundi!!

    *In US Dollars, Burundi’s 2008 per capita income was $140, making it the poorest in the world.  If you measure in terms of Purchasing Power Parity (PPP), a way to account for the value of a dollar in a country, the figure changes to $380.  In those terms, Liberians and Congolese (from Burundi’s neighbor, the Democratic Republic of Congo) are poorer.

    **Kiva’s pilot partner in Burundi has not yet posted its first borrower on the site, but the MFI staff is working hard to do so very soon!

    Taylor Steelman is serving in Bujumbura, Burundi with a soon-to-be-announced  Kiva Field Partner as a member of the Kiva Fellows 10th class.  Please make a loan on Kiva or donate today!


    Add Your Comments

    LendingOnKiva