Burundi cultural insights
The following cultural insights are intended to provide snapshots of the overall social and cultural norms as well as the workplace environment that a Canadian might face working in a specific country. The content in no way reflects official policy or opinions of the Government of Canada, Global Affairs Canada or the Centre for Intercultural Learning.
On this page
Local and Canadian perspectives for the following subjects:
- Communication styles
- Display of emotion
- Dress, punctuality & formality
- Preferred managerial qualities
- Hierarchy and decision-making
- Religion, class, ethnicity, & gender
- Privileges and favouritism
- Conflicts in the workplace
- Motivating local colleagues
- Recommended books, films & foods
- In-country activities
- National heroes
- Shared historical events with Canada
- About the cultural interpreters
When first meeting someone, it is best to broach 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. This means not taking sides on sensitive subjects and being polite and respecting, or not judging, moral stands.
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. Regionalism is a problem since administrative and political control in the country has for many years been under the influence of people from particular regions.
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 judgement on them as well.
Humour is acceptable, but do not go overboard as you will not be taken seriously and will be seen as being giddy or frivolous. However, humour is very acceptable in private.
In Burundi, there are certain values that are tried and tested topics for discussing with your partners, including family (the essential role of children, in particular), one’s home village, health, friendship and solidarity, parental and institutional authority, place and type of education and work (if applicable), etc. When people first meet, discussing topics related to these values will help establish a positive contact. However, do not ask questions as though you were filling out a questionnaire; the people with whom you are speaking should also feel that they are the centre of attention and that the conversation is not just an opportunity to talk about yourself (only talk about yourself when asked and reply in a modest and honest manner). Also, never be "intrusive"—the fewer questions you ask, the more answers you will get.
You should also pay attention to the way you use humour. In a cultural context outside of Canada, it is best to observe before getting into that kind of thing. The way you use humour may insult others, particularly if they do not know you yet.
Your first days or weeks in the country will determine your credibility, which is why you should be cautious (but not to the point of stressing yourself out) and remember that "I am not at home, I am and I will keep on being a foreigner here." If you come onto the scene as "Joe Blow know- it-all" (the new-age colonialist) you will undoubtedly offend Burundians. In Burundi in particular, you should totally avoid asking questions about ethnic origins (Hutus and Tutsis), or even referring to them. As a foreigner, you should keep in mind that they are all Burundians. NEVER speak directly or indirectly about politics! It is not the expat’s/cooperants’ role to act as a mediator or go-between for this difficult issue.
Many things are similar to Canada. People stand close to one another, but not in an exaggerated manner. Personal space depends on the relative rank of people’s positions: the greater the gap in rank, the greater the distance maintained and it is up to the individual of higher rank to tell you to mover closer. People talking to one another are about 50 to 80 cm apart, or are separated by a desk. Eye contact is considered normal when greeting others, but when speaking do not hold the other person’s gaze, as this is considered to be impolite.
Touching someone shows that you know him/her well and is not advisable unless the individual indicates this is okay and is at the same level as you (for instance, he/she may pat you on the shoulder). People who know each other well and meet after being apart for a while will generally hug three times.
Gesturing a lot when speaking is an indication of lack of calmness and control of one’s emotions. Facial expressions, in particular, are not well received because it is felt that one should keep a neutral face and composed tone of voice.
Openness is an important quality that is often forgotten due to other interests or out of fear. However, do pay attention, as you should express yourself diplomatically and politely particularly when discussing realities that are disagreeable or difficult to accept.
In our Western society, making direct eye contact is a sign of sincerity and transparency in truthful conversation. In Africa, and particularly in Burundi where mistrust is almost a survival strategy, you need to be cautious in the way you approach others. I would say you will need to modify the way you look at others (when first meeting them), particularly when speaking to a woman. "I give the other person enough time to check me out!"
When it comes to touching others, you also need to let time take its course! In Burundi (as in most of Africa, I believe) people touch one another a lot more than in the West (particularly in North America as Europeans are a lot more open in this regard). Be wary and do not take things too quickly! With those who will become your "friends" there will be no problem, but be aware of the "cultural distance" between a boss or a female colleague (if you are male). Being over friendly too quickly will be poorly viewed by and among Africans.
Display of emotion
They are not tolerated. You should always be courteous and reserved, but Burundians also appreciate human kindness and warmth and these characteristics will win you their trust.
Only compassion is acceptable in public. 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 demeanour and their decorum. They are reserved and often introspective and often speak very privately.
This point is related to the preceding one, but what is important to remember is that you do not need to act a certain way—if you are tired or even angry, it is not worth it to try to look as though everything were okay or keep your emotions under wraps since your Burundian colleagues will take notice and prefer that you be truthful. Otherwise you risk coming across as false. Naturally, keep your displeasure in check or "manage" your lack of energy (take measures to be more fit). You should also know that Africans will be simultaneously surprised, disappointed, and fearful of an angry white cooperant/expatriat. It may take a lot of time to have sincere and friendly relations with them again.
Dress, punctuality & formality
The way you dress is important as "the clothes make the man" and it is an indication of your social position and importance. Dress well and in line with your rank. For example, 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 colours. 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. You should address people formally, as Burundians do not tolerate contempt or indiscreet language. It is best to use family names when addressing people, but it is also acceptable to call someone by Mr., Mrs., or Ms followed by their first name since Burundian names are not always familiar to expatriates.
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. You should be very persistent and precise in anything that relates to time. In more professional spheres, it is essential to respect issues of timing.
Absenteeism is not tolerated except in exceptional circumstances (death of a friend or parent, etc). Productivity depends on management as well as general working conditions (such as the salary and working environment).
You should dress appropriately. In Burundi cooperants/expats do not go to work in "beachwear". This is a question of respect (even if it is much hotter there). Even if it is permissible to dress casually, you should maintain a dignified air. When dealing with the local, regional, or national authorities, it is better to dress up than down! This is also a kind of non-verbal language that Burundians pay more attention to than do Canadians.
You also need to be very cautious about using people’s first names or using informal language. Never use the informal form of "you" ("tu" in French) when first meeting people. Start using this informal language little by little, since informal language may indicate to others that you do not respect them. In any case, never (apart from exceptional circumstances) address superiors or authorities using informal language or forms of address.
The notion of time is different than in Canada. For example, it seemed to me that Africans are less used to projecting toward the future and therefore planning ahead. The present moment is what counts. This being said, they feel and live intensely in the present moment and therefore make the most of everything that comes along. As Canadians, our hurriedness often prevents us from doing so. At the beginning of a formal or informal meeting, taking the time to greet all participants and asking how they are, can only serve you well. For Canadians this is often seen as a waste of time, but on the contrary, things will only progress faster. Taking the time to establish good contacts is the basis of a fruitful relationship in Burundi.
Preferred managerial qualities
The most highly regarded qualities include level of education, experience, leadership as well as diligence and a confident manner. Ideally, the supervisor is also wise, honest, and fair.
The main difference with expatriates is that something ’extra’ is expected of them if they are from more developed countries or if they work for an organization that is a bit more demanding in terms of expertise. It is expected that they will have a higher level of education and more experience, be more open-minded and impartial, and will make greater efforts to improve working conditions. People will also expect them to show respect and consideration toward locally engaged staff as well as providing straightforward and friendly customer service. The same kind of behaviour is expected in activities away from the office.
Establishing a communications system and network as well as regular exchanges with the staff sometimes in small or larger meetings are good ways to unite staff. Should your relations with your staff remain very cold, it is because you are poorly regarded. A good communications strategy can serve you well.
For Burundian managers, it seems to me that leadership is the most highly regarded quality. The way they clearly identify future objectives and get everyone (including themselves) to participate in obtaining them is respected. This leadership will also be seen in the way the leader is able to achieve group consensus after a discussion. These are the qualities of a mediator, a true African "boss." I think that this skill comes well before one’s education, although education certainly helps establishes credibility.
For expatriate managers, their skills will associated with their studies, but also with their experience in the field. I think that experience is the main quality that locals look for in managers. Naturally, they also look for the same attitudes that they want in a local manager; in other words, respect and openness toward the local culture. Expatriate managers will know if their staff are enthusiastic and genuinely interested in their work. They will also know that their team respects them if they are invited to their homes and asked to participate in village festivals.
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.
Consulting an immediate supervisor is acceptable; however, do not bother him/her too much. Try to find a way to engage the person in an exchange. Very often the system is "top-down" and the superiors who communicate best and who use participatory decision-making processes obtain the best results, high performance and they earn the trust of their staff.
Burundians expect their bosses to make the final decisions in a clear and decisive manner. However, decisions will not have a real long-term effect unless they have come out of group consensus (as previously mentioned). If the decision is clearly against the wishes of the group, the boss should expect a strong reaction.
If you have an immediate supervisor who is Burundian, it is acceptable to ask him for answers or feedback, but proceed with caution. You should not forget that, depending on your position, you are a considered an "expert" for the most part. I think that is it best to present your supervisor with well-developed proposals in order to show different avenues that could be taken and ask for his opinion about the hypotheses presented. This is one way of getting feedback without being the underdog or being perceived as one.
Religion, class, ethnicity, & gender
Gender equality is mandated by law, but in society the tendency is for men to be given precedence over women (for example, role played in family relations and inheriting financial property). Positions are not necessary 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. Women can hold all types of jobs without disturbing workplace relations.
Burundians respect Christianity, but also tolerate other religions and sects. They are not zealots although the many new sects are sometimes very controversial and disrupt established traditions and habits. Religious practice does not mix with the workplace.
It seems to me that 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 poise and respect for others. Your boss is your boss and you should obey him/her.
The question of ethnic origin is very controversial and divides people; however, generally citizens respect one another outside of partisan politics and ethnic political management. After so many ethnic crises, people are somewhat suspicious and questions about ethnic origins are extremely sensitive, delicate, and political.
In the workplace, the basic rule is not to play favourites and hire individuals on their merit. Pay a lot of attention to this when recruiting and promoting others so as not to be labelled pro-Hutu or pro-Tutsi and discriminatory. Therefore, there needs to be a lot of transparency and objectivity, which does not mean that ethnic numbers need to be equal. You must have methods of managing people without taking sides. Ethnic origins would be bothersome and affect the working environment if favouritism based on ethnic origins existed in the workplace. Otherwise, people work well together in conditions of mutual suspicion about each other’s political perspectives.
In this matter, you must be careful to not impose our Western model of gender equality. Even if the way Burundian men treat women can sometimes be shocking, you must show some empathy to Burundian culture before you negatively judge this behaviour. In my opinion, Burundian women are generally quite respected and have an important role, especially in the family, but also in society in general. They play an important role in the country’s socio- economic development, which is perhaps not as visible as that of men, but is nonetheless real. Moreover, with regard to community life and organization, it was in Burundi where I noticed the most dynamic non-governmental organizations (NGOs) were often women’s groups (I am thinking particularly about the women’s association that built houses; the Government of Burundi even appointed as a Minister the female president of this NGO!).
Gender does not influence work, although I was quite impressed by Burundian women’s energy for development projects.
I think that despite that fact that Burundians are very devout (most of them are Catholic), they now have a much more critical eye toward religion since the ethnic wars. Religion does not play a role in the workplace since most people are of the same faith.
Even though this is not particular to Burundi, there is a big difference between the (political and intellectual) elite and those who are not very well educated, as well as between the very rich (who are few and far between) and the poor (who are the majority). Personally, I worked with people from with all different social, economic, and intellectual backgrounds and I never noticed any difference from the way things are in Canada.
I mentioned this earlier; however, it is useful to remind future cooperants who will work in Burundi that they should never broach this issue. Moreover, never differentiate between Hutus and Tutsis (or Twas). This would be a terrible mistake as the subject is too complex for a "foreigner" to take on and it has cost the locals too many lives. Following my own rule, I will abstain from making any other comments about this!
It is very important to know the people with whom you are working or conduct business. Personal relations may bring more trust and without it being intimate, such a relationship allows for some flexibility in negotiations and allows you to avoid or see low blows coming.
To establish this kind of relationship, someone such as a common friend should introduce you at a business club or sporting event. Without such references, it is more difficult as people do not open up to strangers. The saying "your friends are my friends" is very true in Burundi.
Perhaps the most important point to help you integrate into society is to know how to establish personal relations with colleagues and others in general. First establish personal relations and business will follow. Take the time to become sincerely interested in your colleagues’ personal lives: their families, health, major areas of interests, etc. Mutual trust and appreciation of one another will be come as a personalized relationship is built and it is the best way to ensure real cooperation and mutual support.
Privileges and favouritism
Naturally, friends offer their services to friends, but they are conscious that professional life has its rules. However, on account of your association with someone, he/she might ask you to assist with a job application or recommend someone. In any case, this is only a request and the person will understand if hiring regulations in place do not allow this and will simply think you do not have enough power. When hiring, you may feel pressure from friends or colleagues since jobs are rare and well-paying positions are also very highly regarded. For less strategic positions in your workplace, you may agree to give a favour in order to maintain good relations.
Otherwise, try to stick to the rules as much as possible as they will protect you, others will respect you and you will not feel as much pressure.
Initially, I would say that colleagues or employees do not expect "to receive special privileges or considerations given personal relationships or friendship", provided that the relationship is based on empathetic listening. However, you should make a distinction between friendship and what you need to do to get your job done. Setting out clear "rules of thumb" for both your colleagues and yourself will only reinforce the teamwork and its ability to attain the set objectives.
Conflicts in the workplace
You may confront someone directly in private or by bringing in someone in a position of authority or another third party such as a colleague who is known to be wise. Be cautious, as people are sometimes touchy may take reproach as a hit to their egos. As a last resort, raise the issue during a meeting with the appropriate managers.
When someone is upset with you, he/she will avoid you at all costs or only address you out of politeness. He/she will avoid being in your company and will rarely speak to you. In order to set things straight, you should have a frank discussion with the individual.
Facing problems head on and not attacking the person involved is crucial to resolving a possible difficulty. You should also make a distinction between judgments and facts. This way, you will be able to resolve possible interpersonal conflicts while still maintaining good relations. Out of respect for the other person, any such encounter should be held in private.
Motivating local colleagues
A good salary and working conditions are the main sources of motivation. Next would be the extent of employees’ involvement with the company’s or project’s workings, as they want some sort of acknowledgement, professional training, loyalty, or workplace stability. I think having a good and overall supportive management in the company is a motivational factor.
First of all, Burundians are motivated to perform well at work if their personal and company goals are clear, realistic, and obtainable. They will also be motivated if they are fully dedicated to these goals (in order for this to be true, they must have contributed toward setting the goals). An additional motivational factor is feeling well supervised and supported in professional life (or work) and receiving recognition for their results (a true appreciation of their performance).
Recommended books, films & foods
Ancient as well as contemporary history books in Burundi including those by Mworoha and Jean-Chrétien Ekambo Dusenge, etc, or other sources include television series such as Ninde, in the official language are useful.
To learn more about the Burundian culture, you could consult the documents at your workplace, meet CIDA (Canadian International Development Agency) officers working in the Great Lakes division, contact NGOs that have worked or are working in these countries (i.e., consult the CIDA agreements or contracts), visit different sites and meet ex-cooperants who have worked in Burundi.
You can visit the living history museum in Bujumbura and the National Museum in Gitega. Contact the Bashingantahe National Council or the cultural research centre, which is linked to the Catholic Church.
Participate in cultural events (such as listening to the tambourine and other traditional music or watching folk dances), listen to radio and television shows, meet people from all backgrounds, attend walking or other sporting clubs for adults, go out to cafes with friends, visit the interior of the country if it is safe enough and see for yourself how Burundians live in the countryside.
It is best to eat fresh food as all tropical goods are very affordable. If you need more information, you can consult the National Food Technology Centre or someone on site who works in a restaurant. Go to Bujumbura’s main market and to the vegetable and food shops. Most of all, speak with people from different regions, as Burundi is society with an oral tradition.
Go through Burundian friends, if you have any. Get in contact with the station or the CECI (Centre canadien d’étude et de coopération international) project in Bujumbura and private or national radio journalists. You can also go to the French Cultural Centre and the United Nations Information Centre.
Meet CIDA representative in Bujumbura and participate in cultural activities (markets and historical sites, etc), visit villages and towns with your Burundi colleagues, check out what is happening at the Centre culturel Français (French Cultural Centre), read the national papers regularly, and listen daily to what is happening on television.
In our times, everyone knows Prince Louis Rwagasore as a hero who fought for Burundi’s political independence in 1962, but who was unfortunately assassinated on October 13, 1961.
Another historical hero is Ntara Rugamba, the King who, thanks to his conquests, established the current borders of the country. He was quite respected for his bravery. Currently, ethnic groups are looking for heroes and the Hutus are trying to make President Ndadaye a hero. He was democratically elected but three months after taking on his role he was assassinated, in October 1993. However, the Tutsi are not in favour of the FRODEBU (Front pour la Démocratie au Burundi) party’s declaration.
I don’t know! But once you are there (or by researching on the Internet) it will be easy enough to read up on it.
Shared historical events with Canada
No, not to my knowledge.
The fact that you are Canadian and not European (particularly French, Belgian, or German) works to your advantage since Canada never colonized any part of Africa, Asia, or South America. This gives us a lot of credibility from the outset, or at least makes Burundians less mistrustful. The wavering Canadian government policy regarding cooperation with Burundi as well as our close ties with our neighbour, the USA, could work against us. I would say though that, there are many advantages of being Canadian and even more so if you are Francophone.
There are none since Canadians are not very well known in Burundi and do not have a history of colonizing, and nor are they known for any commercial or political relations. Canada is known as an ardent defender of human rights.
Canadians often think that the country is always at war, corruption is rife and international development cooperation goes nowhere.
About the cultural interpreters
Your cultural interpreter, the sixth of seven children, was born in Burundi. He grew up in the city, but also worked in a rural area. He studied Economics in Bujumbura at the University of Burundi and in 1992, as part of his studies, he went abroad to do an internship in agro-marketing in Belgium. Subsequently, he worked on a UNDP (UN Development Programme) project in Burundi in an urban area and he worked with communities across the country. He also participated in a number of international and regional planning sessions in all parts of Africa including the lake, northern and southern regions. Since October 2002 he has lived in Ottawa. He is married and has one child.
Your cultural interpreter is Canadian by birth, but at a very young age he travelled and worked in Europe and Africa, particularly in the Great Lakes region. He completed a Ph.D. in Psychology and Masters in Business Administration with a concentration in human resource management and has worked for many years in Canadian international development cooperation. During the year he spent in Burundi he hosted Canadians and visited Rwandans who were fleeing the 1994 genocide while supporting Burundian human rights associations. He returned to the region in 2002 to undertake a study on child soldiers.
Intercultural Issues are intended to provide snapshots of the overall social and cultural norms as well as the workplace environment that a Canadian might face working in a specific country. For each country, two perspectives are provided: one by a Canadian and the other by a person born in the selected country. By comparing the "local point of view" with the "Canadian point of view", you will begin to form a picture of that country's culture. We encourage you to continue your research using a variety of other sources and to use Triangulation as an evaluation process. Although cultural informants were asked to draw on as broad a base of experience as possible in formulating their answers, these should be understood as one perspective that reflects the particular context and life experiences of that person; they are not intended to be a comment on any particular group or society.
You may disagree with or object to the content of some responses. This is to be expected given the complexity of the subject and the problems associated with speaking generally about an entire country and its people. We would encourage you to share your experiences; your contributions will help to make Country Insights a richer environment for learning.
The content of Country Insights in no way reflects official policy or opinions of the Government of Canada, Global Affairs Canada or the Centre for Intercultural Learning.