Democracy in Burundi

Hip hop artists from Senegal, to Morocco, to Angola, to the United States perform for Burundian political activist, Alexis Sinduhije.

The cover art of the mixtape.

In Fall 1998, I was awarded a fellowship at Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts.  If I wasn’t reading in the library or researching and writing a paper on postapartheid South African journalism, I would introduce myself to anyone who was around. Alexis Sinduhije, a Burundian journalist, had been on the fellowship program the year before. He had decided to stay in the United States, travel to the American south so he could interview African Americans about their attitudes about Africa and their distances to Africans on the continent and African immigrants in the U.S. He eventually published his findings. In short, he concluded that “both groups have a common ground in oppression and colonialization – yet their knowledge of each other is limited, and impressions of the other group can sometimes be negative.”

Sinduhije came across as a jovial, but tough guy with strong views. His earlier struggles may have had something to do with it. As he wrote in that paper, “… During the 1990s, as a reporter, I saw intimately the murderous consequences of my country’s passions, and the cost in lost lives – hundreds of thousands of lost lives, lives of men, women, and children that included dozens of my own relatives. I am a Tutsi, and in covering my country’s civil war, I saw before my own eyes the wholesale murder of Tutsi and Hutus alike, both sides hypnotized by the passions our shared – and tortured – history inspired. In 1994, in the midst of our civil war, along with other Burundian journalists, some Tutsi, some Hutu, I created Studio Ijambo, an independent radio network that sought to present news to the region in ways that promoted peace, and an end to our nightmare. I came to work with Americans, and through them, was eventually encouraged to come to the United States for a time, to see and learn more about journalism, to deepen my understanding of my own profession and its possible role ultimately not merely in reporting the news, but in creating a viable civil society in my country.”

In any case, I am not surprised to find out that when he left Cambridge to return to Burundi, he went back into journalism and then into politics.

In 2001, Alexis started a private radio station in Burundi to foster peace between Tutsis and Hutus. In 2008, Alexis was nominated as one of Time Magazine’s 100 most influential people.

As the CNN journalist, Christiane Amampour, wrote about Alexis in Time Magazine: “… Now in his early 40s, Sinduhije has braved arrest, beatings and even an attempt on his life to keep the station going. In 2003 the government slapped a ban on RPA for airing an interview with a rebel spokesman. Other private radio stations showed solidarity, refusing to broadcast any government news until the ban was lifted. The government gave in three days later. Sinduhije recently put his journalism career on hold. In December he founded a new political party and soon announced his candidacy for Burundi’s 2010 presidential election.”

Which is where we find ourselves. Not everybody is happy about him running for president. (Among others, the incumbent wants to stay on forever.) Since the announcement, he has been harassed, imprisoned and his life threatened. However, Sinduhije is still running. (Here, here and here are some background links about his electoral struggles.)

It’s that persistence and courage that may be why a group of hip hop artists–among them, Alfaress, Infinite, Yardsteppa, Baay Musa and Diamondog–have made a mixtape about him. You can hear snippets of Alexis talking in-between songs.

Listen here.

Further Reading

Goodbye, Piassa

The demolition of an historic district in Addis Ababa shows a central contradiction of modernization: the desire to improve the country while devaluing its people and culture.