When first meeting someone, it is best to mention neutral topics of conversation such as peace, health, family, work, and the state of production. You can also sympathize about the enduring socio-political crisis without going into details or taking sides. Subjects to be avoided include anything related to ethnicity, regionalism, sexuality, religion, or any criticism of government politics or authorities.
Ethnicity has divided Burundians for more than 37 years and the country has endured several ethnic and political crises. The Hutu and Tutsi ethnic groups both claim to be victims and vehemently accuse one another of being responsible for each other’s problems.
Burundians are very conservative morally and respectful of God. They are proud of what they do and criticism of actions or policies is not easily dissociated from criticism of individuals or people who may have some connection to the people with whom you are speaking. There is a rather strong team or group commitment and if you criticize someone, people may feel that you are passing judgment on them as well.
Humor is acceptable, but do not go too far as you will not be taken seriously and will be seen as being excited. However, humor is very acceptable in private.
You should always be reserved, but Burundians also appreciate human kindness and warmth and these characteristics will win you their trust.
Display of Emotion.
Burundians are very private and consider shows of strong emotions in public out of place. They do not tolerate contempt or humiliation in public and they keep a calm character and their good behavior.
Dress, Punctuality & Formality
Dress well and in line with your rank. High-level administrators or representatives should wear suits (jackets) and a tie and dress shoes, or at the very least long-sleeved shirts with a tie. Lighter outfits often replace suits and it is best to wear dark or neutral colors. Lower-ranking employees can get away without a jacket or tie. Jeans, t- shirts, and running shoes are considered to be very casual and are only acceptable for outdoor activities and on the weekend.
Ms followed by their first name since Burundian names are not always familiar to foreigners.
People who respect time or deadlines are well liked and respected, but a certain amount of lateness is tolerated. This means that people are not always keeping track of the minute in social spheres tomorrow may sometimes really mean the day after tomorrow although this does not hold true for professional relations.
Hierarchy and Decision-making
Often, decisions are made directly by those at the top of the hierarchy and the final decision is the responsibility of the person with the highest level of authority. Decisions may be prepared by junior employees, but they are actually made by the person at the top.
Religion, Class, Ethnicity, & Gender
Gender: Gender equality is mandated by law, but in society the tendency is for men to be given priority over women. Positions are not necessarily fixed because the important roles traditionally reserved for men are being transformed into public roles awarded according to level of education, wealth and community leadership. Burundians are now taking these kinds of things into consideration and there are spaces for promoting gender equality
Religion: Burundians respect Christianity, but also tolerate other religions and sects. They are not zealots. Religious practice does not mix with the workplace.
Class: It is like there is no class system in Burundi since ethnic groups are not related to social class. There may be rich and the poor and abrupt movement from one to the other occurs frequently, in both directions, depending on the status of one’s position at the time. Wealth is respected, but there is an appreciation for people who act with dignity and respect for others.
Ethnicity: The question of ethnic origin is very controversial and divides people; however, generally citizens respect one another outside of partisan politics and ethno-political spheres.
Food and Economy
Food in Daily Life. The most common foods are beans, corn, peas, millet, sorghum, cassava, sweet potatoes, and bananas. The diet consists mainly of carbohydrates; vitamins and minerals are provided by fruits, vegetables, and combinations of grains, but little fat and protein is available. Meat accounts for 2 percent or less of the average food intake. As a result, kwashiorkor, a disease caused by protein deficiency, is common. Fish is consumed in the areas around Lake Tanganyika. Meat production is labor-intensive. The cassava root is washed, pounded, and strained, and sorghum is ground into flour for pancakes or porridge. The porridge is rolled into a ball with one hand and dipped in gravy or sauce.
Food Customs at Ceremonial Occasions. Beer is an important part of social interactions and is consumed at all important occasions, such as the marriage negotiations between two families. It is drunk through straws. A number of food customs revolve around the treatment of cows, which are considered sacred. For example, milk cannot be heated or boiled or drunk on the same day that peas or peanuts are consumed. When a cow dies, the family eats its meat and then plants its horns in the soil near the house to bring good luck.
Land Tenure and Property. In the system imposed by the Tutsi in the fifteenth century, Hutu worked as serfs for Tutsi landholders. This system, which is called cattle clientage, meant that the Hutu cared for the land and the cattle but did not own it. In fact, they were in effect possessions of the Tutsi. This contract was called ubugabire. After independence, the Tutsi did not want to relinquish their land and managed to keep the ubugabire system in place until 1977. The legacy of this system remains, as much of the land is still owned by the Tutsi minority.
Commercial Activities. Farmers cultivate a large number of crops for domestic consumption, including bananas, dry beans, corn, sugarcane, and sorghum. They also raise goats, cattle, and sheep. These products are transported to local markets and to the capital. Bartering is still common, particularly the use of cattle as currency.
Major Industries. There is little industry and development is slow because of a lack of trained workers and little investment or aid from foreign countries. It is difficult to develop industry in a country in which most people cannot afford to purchase the goods industry would produce. Currently, the country is involved mainly in processing food (primarily coffee), brewing beer, and bottling soft drinks. There is some production of light consumer goods, including blankets, shoes, and soap. The country also engages in the assembly of imported components and public works construction.
Division of Labor. The Hutu have a long tradition of working the land. The Tutsi were originally cattle herders, although much of the labor of caring for their cattle was done by the Hutu. This class division is still evident, as most of the few prestigious jobs are held by the Tutsi, who dominate both the government and the military. A few Hutu have attained positions in business and government, but the majority are farmers.
Classes and Castes. Since the Tutsi came to power in the fourteenth or fifteenth century, they have occupied a higher social position than the Hutu. Agricultural Hutu were forced to become caretakers for the large Tutsi cattle herds. The ruling class was composed entirely of Tutsi. It was possible, although rare, for Hutu (or even occasionally Twa) to join the Tutsi class through acts of unusual bravery or honor, and Tutsi could fall into the Hutu class by committing a dishonorable act. The Tutsi still are represented disproportionately in the government and among the wealthy. This discrepancy has been exaggerated by Tutsi violence specifically targeting Hutu with professional jobs and training. Thus, the Hutu as a whole have been left even more disproportionately illiterate and poor.
Symbols of Social Stratification. The possession of a large number of cattle is traditionally the sign of a wealthy person. Even today, especially among rural people, cattle are a visible token of prosperity, and people are reluctant to slaughter them even when the sale of the meat could bring money to the family. Other traditional status symbols include the spear, which is carried on ceremonial occasions, anddrums. The ultimate symbol of power traditionally was the drum of the mwami, or king. Being selected to play this drum was considered one of the highest achievements a young man could attain. Traditional attire consists of brightly colored wraps for women and white clothing for men. Today, especially in the cities and among the wealthier classes, Western-style clothes are common.
Marriage, Family and Kinship
Marriage. Polygamy was practiced traditionally. Despite being forbidden by both civil law and the Christian churches, it still exists. Traditionally, it was the duty of the father to find a first wife for his son. It is still common practice for the parents of a young man to meet with his potential bride and her parents and discuss issues such as the bride-wealth. This is the equivalent of a dowry, but it is given by the groom’s family to the bride’s. Traditionally, it consisted of cattle, goats, and hoes, but today it can include cash, clothing, and furniture. The bride-wealth is delivered on the wedding day, when the bride leaves her parents (who do not attend the wedding ceremony) to participate in the festivities at the husband’s home.
Domestic Unit. Each family generally has its own house, and these houses are grouped together in compounds that include the homes of extended family members. Upon marriage, a woman becomes part of her husband’s family. In Tutsi tradition, wives and husbands live separately, but in Hutu practice, they share a house.
Inheritance. Inheritance passes from the male head of the family to his oldest son after the father’s death. This is symbolized by the bequest of the ceremonial spear.
Kin Groups. Family ties are very powerful, and extended families live in close proximity as a clan. Particularly in the countryside, the extended family is the primary social unit, as kin groups live together in relative isolation from other groups. The Tutsi divide themselves into four ganwa (royal) clans—the Batare, Bezi, Bataga, and Bambutsu— descendants of the four dynasties that once ruled the country.
Infant Care. Birth usually occurs at home, assisted by midwives and other women. Six days after a baby is born, a ceremony called ujusohor is observed in which he or she is presented to the family. The mother receives a crown of flowers and gifts of beer and money. Children are named in the kuvamukiriri ceremony. The paternal grandfather bestows on the child a proper name, a clan name, and one or two nicknames. If the family is Christian, baptism occurs at the same time. This is not done until the child reaches the age of about one year, as infant mortality is high.
Child Rearing and Education. Children are highly valued. They are viewed partly as insurance for the future, as one proverb suggests: “The greatest sorrow is to have no children to mourn for you.” Traditionally, male Tutsi children are given extensive training in public speaking, storytelling, traditional dances, and military skills. In the agricultural Hutu culture, the work ethic is inculcated early; both boys and girls begin to be assigned chores at around the age of five. They also are schooled in proper behavior and in communal and family values. Those values include treating elders with supreme respect and responding promptly and willingly to their commands.
Exchanges often include literal or figurative references to cattle. A typical greeting involves both parties wishing each other large herds. Handshakes are important, and the type varies by location. One version involves touching one’s left hand to the other person’s elbow. People stand close together in conversation and often continue holding hands for several minutes after shaking. Social gatherings, whether large or small, formal or informal, often include food and drink, especially beer. It is considered rude to turn down food or drink when it is offered.
Religious Beliefs. Sixty-seven percent of the population is Christian (62 percent Roman Catholic and 5 percent Protestant); 23 percent of the people follow exclusively traditional beliefs, and the remaining 10 percent are Muslim. The first Roman Catholic mission was set up in 1898, and the Protestants arrived in 1926. In addition to converting a large percentage of the population, they established schools and hospitals. Although the majority of the people today profess to be Christian, many retain some animist beliefs and practices.
Traditional beliefs place a strong emphasis on fate as opposed to free will. Everything is in the hands of Imaana, the source of all life and goodness. The traditional religion is a form of animism in which physical objects are believed to have spirits. There is great respect for dead ancestors. In the Hutu tradition, these spirits often visit with evil intent, whereas in Tutsi belief, the ancestors’ influence is more kind. Cattle are invested with a special spiritual force. They are cared for according to specific customs dictated by the religion and are objects of prayer and worship.
Religious Practitioners. Diviners, or fortune-tellers, are believed to have a special connection with the spirit world and can be called upon as go-betweens. The Hutu sometimes use their services to appease the spirits of their ancestors. When Burundi was a Tutsi kingdom, the mwami, or king, played an important role in some religious ceremonies.
Rituals and Holy Places. Kubandwa is one of the most important religious festivals. It celebrates the grain harvest and pays homage to Kiranga, a spirit who is the leader of all the dead ancestors. At this ceremony, young men decorate their bodies and engage in traditional chants and dances; one of them dresses as Kiranga. At the end of the festival, people bathe in a stream in a cleansing ritual. Another central ritual is a fertility ceremony called umuganuro, in which a sacred drum is played and a virgin plants the first sorghum seeds to assure a good harvest.
Death and the Afterlife. Departed ancestors are considered an essential part of the culture. There are various practices and ceremonies to exalt and appease their spirits, which are seen as powerful influences in the world of the living.