Burundi’s colonial background was similar to Rwanda’s, but the immediate path to independence differed widely. King Mwambursa IV established substantial cooperation between Tutsis and Hutus. His son, Louis Rwagasore, founded a political party enshrining the unitive endeavors of his father. When Rwagasore was assassinated, the Tutsi’s, fearful of the ethnic massacres that had occurred in its neighbor Rwanda just a year or two before, expelled many Hutus from the party ensuring a Tutsi majority. And so a Tutsi dominated Burundi came to independence.1
Imagine, if, before South Africa was changed, Mandella had been assassinated. Imagine if Kennedy had not been assassinated, and America had been changed. Imagine if Burundi and Rwanda had changed in the 1960s, and the genocide of the 1970s and 1980s and 1990s did not happen. Imagine Prince Rwagasore not assassinated at the moment of Burundi’s independence …
But, they killed Rwagasore; and millions perished with him.
“I felt a great disturbance in the Force, as if millions of voices suddenly cried out in terror and were suddenly silenced.“
He was the oldest son of the King, heir-apparent to the kingdom stretching back 4 centuries. Briefly under colonial Germany and then for the latest 2 generations under colonial Belgium, Louis Rwagasore saw independence in his beloved country’s future. For that future, he prepared, both himself, and his nation.
He’d been educated in elite secondary schools of Rwanda by the Brothers of Charity, and in European Universities in Antwerp and Louvain. He’d prepared to forsake the throne of his fathers, and to advocate for a constitutional monarchy instead. He, an ethnic Tutsi, married an ethnic Hutu woman, to promote the cessation of ethnic rivalries.
In the 1950s he urged the Belgian vice-governor to institute a new constitution in preparation for Burundi independence. He founded a series of economic cooperatives to foster independence, but these were banned by Belgium in 1958 when they realized they threatened their colonial power. He then founded UPRONA, the Union for National Progress, Burundi’s first indigenous political party. In 1960, as head of UPRONA, he advocated for full independence from Belgium and called for civil disobedience through the boycott of Belgian stores and government taxes, for which he was placed under house arrest. But his ideas were wildly popular with the people, and, when independence came in 1962, Rwagasore was elected by a huge majority to lead his people into the future.
Rwagasroe had become the change he foresaw for his people. He became educated. He abandoned the royal life for life as the citizen of a republic. He, a tutsi, married a hutu women, to bring forth children of Burundi.
Shortly before he would enter into office, he was killed. It is thought that the murder was a conspiracy between the Belgians and the opposition party.
Although he never said it in such words that we know of, Rwagasore, we are confident to say, had been to the mountain top. There he looked out, over the Jordan, into the land of promise, the land of the future, the good land, the right land. And what did he see? We know what he saw by the man he became. He let what he saw transform him into the same image. He became husband of a Burundi woman; he became father of Burundian children, he became a citizen of the Republic of Burundi, he became a leader in Burundi, and, indeed, a leader for all humankind.
For further readings regarding this remarkable man, see here.
For more stories from the African Great Lakes Region in this website, click here.
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It was October 21, 1993 when President Melchior Ndadaye was assassinated. That morning the sun arose on the first democratically elected president of Burundi. That evening the darkness arose for another year of genocide. In the words of the American ambassador to Burundi:
“The bayonets thrust into President Melchior Ndadaye’s thorax, and the bullets that felled his vice president and cabinet members, critically injured the world’s newest democracy, born only 102 days before. Six million people, more than the population of Denmark mark or Ireland, and equal to the population of Israel, were suddenly thrust back into a miasma of misrule and uncertainty after a brief season of hope while the outside world took only temporary measures to stanch the bleeding.”
Ambassador Robert Krueger. From Bloodshed to Hope in Burundi: Our Embassy Years during Genocide (Focus on American History Series) (Kindle Locations 489-491). Kindle Edition.”
Reverse side features Banque de la République du Burundi (Ibanki ya Republika y’Uburundi;
The light background surrounding the shield is the map of Burundi. Its shape itself is shield-like. Burundi lies immediately south of, and borders, Rwanda. Within the map is the emblem, the Coat of Arms, of Burundi. The Coat of Arms was adopted in 1966, shortly following independence. It is a shield and banner, backed by three traditional African spears. The shield presents the face of the lion. The banner presents the Motto of the Nation.
From the Constitution of Burundi:
Article 9. Motto of Burundi is: Unity, Work, Progress. The emblem of the Republic is a shield charged with the lion head and three spears, the whole being surrounded by the national motto.
The three word motto is presented in French and Kirundi; the French words readily discernible to English speaking peoples, but, perhaps, with unanticipated irony. The middle word of the motto, travail, in the French, is the word common for work in English; that is “labor” in the unadorned common sense. Whereas, travail to English speaking minds is freighted with tones of suffering and even sorrow, and is sometimes used in to describe the work of a woman bringing a child to birth. I am shaking my head slowly with sadness and care as I write this, it feeling so apropos to poor Burundi.
The Intore Warrior Dancer is presented on the front of our banknote. The warriors defended the King and paraded in dance before the delighted people when returning from victory. The dancer wears the skin of a leopard and an elaborate headdress, bells on their ankles and necklace of ivory. In his right hand is a spear and in his left a representation of a shield. For a photograph and link to a fuller article, see below.
The Burundi Coat of Arms adorns the back of our banknote. The face of a lion is on the shield backed by three spears. The National Motto is presented in French on the banner and encircling Kirundi, two of the three national languages of Burundi, the other being English.
This photo is taken from the fuller article on Intore dancers here.