The Greeks of Burundi

There’s a Greek deli in central Bujumbura, the capital of Burundi.

It’s hard to overstate how odd this is. Burundi is one of the poorest countries in the world. Bujumbura, on the shores of Lake Tanganyika, is… basic. The roads are mostly unpaved. Much of it has no electricity; the parts that do, are subject to regular blackouts. Armed militia groups still lurk in the hills just a few miles from the city. Malaria and yellow fever are issues.

But, you know, Greek deli. Black and green olives floating in tanks. French wine; Greek wine. Good bread and rolls. Spinakopita. Salami. The feta cheese was pretty horrible, but I think that can be forgiven.

Bujumbura also has a Greek consulate. And right in the middle of town there’s a big, really big Greek Orthodox church.

Why?

Well, there used to be a lot of Greeks in Burundi.

History: the Greeks had been in Alexandria since forever. So, when the British came to build the Suez Canal and politely detach Egypt from the decaying Ottoman Empire, the Greeks were there to ease into place as translators, merchants, vendors and general facilitators to the new colonial overlords. And in the late 19th century, some of them followed the expanding British Empire across East Africa, down the Nile to Sudan and around the Horn of Africa to Kenya.

Now the 19th century British, being British, were of two minds about these Greeks. They were useful, but they were… well… Greek. Not quite the thing, you know.

But the Belgians — who ran the Congo and, after World War One, Rwanda and Burundi as well — were different. They were lazier than the British, and more corrupt, but they were less arrogant and much more willing to allow a hard-working Greek to make an honest franc as a factor, tax farmer, or overseer.

So in Rwanda and Burundi, the Greeks became junior partners to the Belgian colonial masters. In the interwar years, hundreds of them came from all over the Greek diaspora to settle here, trading in coffee and ivory and palm oil, taking jobs in the civil service. By World War Two there were a couple of thousand of them, and they were raising a second generation. They had their own district of the town. They built the big church, right in the middle of Bujumbura, just a little bit smaller than the Catholic cathedral that housed the Belgian bishop. They had settled down in a distant, quiet corner of the world and built a prosperous community. Things looked good.

Then: the long slow colonial withdrawal. Independence. Ethnic tension. A young government playing with the economy, experimenting with socialism, import substitution, export controls. Europeans pushed out of power, not only in politics, but in trade and business. A civil war in the 1970s; economic collapse. Dictatorship. The economy contracted to subsistence agriculture, coffee and tea exports. Another civil war in the 1990s; another collapse.

By the early 21st century most of the Greeks were gone. The community had shrunk from a couple of thousand to perhaps a hundred. Those who remained were second and third generation, and some of them were very prominent in the country’s business community — they owned export businesses, farms, urban land — and they’d managed, one way or another, to come to terms with successive Burundian governments. There aren’t enough to keep the community going much longer; their children are mostly going away to school, and not coming back. Another twenty or thirty years, and they’ll probably be just a memory, a very small footnote to colonial history.

But meanwhile there’s the Greek consulate. And the big Orthodox church, where the few remaining faithful can gather every Sunday morning. It’s closed the other six and a half days a week, but is still kept very clean. (It reminded me of the German churches of Transylvania.)

And the Greek deli. It’s the pet project of a local Greek businessman. It serves the small expat community. It may not turn a profit; I wouldn’t be surprised if it doesn’t, and I wouldn’t be surprised if he doesn’t care. While it lasts, it lasts.

So this evening, instead of fish and rice and the ubiquitous Amstel beer, I had crumbly bread and black olives and wine.

Stinygiasas, Greeks of Burundi.

This entry was posted in Minorities and integration and tagged , by Douglas Muir. Bookmark the permalink.

About Douglas Muir

American with an Irish passport. Does development work for a big international donor. Has been living in Eastern Europe for the last six years -- first Serbia, then Romania, and now Armenia. Calls himself a Burkean conservative, which would be a liberal in Germany but an unhappy ex-Republican turned Democrat in the US. Husband of Claudia. Parent of Alan, David, Jacob and Leah. Likes birds. Writes Halfway Down The Danube. Writes Halfway Down The Danube.

9 thoughts on “The Greeks of Burundi

  1. Yeah, they’re all over Central Africa.. Cameroon, the two Congos etc..

    A Greek entrepreneur for instance opened the first recording studio/pressing plant in Belgian Congo and can be credited for being at the origin of Congolese modern music. And really, only a Greek could have done in segregated Kinshasa. Belgians never set a foot outside the white area, while the Greeks shops were litterally at the border (but beyond the golf club.. that’s a story of its own).

  2. Well, those Greeks being in Alexandria must have been there since Hellenistic times. So surely they came there with Alexander the Great. And since that guy, as we read now, was a ‘Macedonian’ from Skopje, then these Greeks in Burundi are not Greeks at all. They are ‘Macedonians’. Gruevski should write a few letters to the UN about them. There….

    (sorry I couldn’t resist)

  3. Couldn’t resist either… My chauvinistic reaction : the Suez Canal was built by the French, not the British (who even opposed it, according to Wikipedia)!
    Apart from that, great article!

  4. In the 19th and early 20th-century — at a time when Egypt’s rulers and their fustanella-clad bodyguards were Albanians — there were indeed a lot of Greeks living in Alexandria, Cairo and elsewhere in Egypt.

    But few of them could boast of local roots going back to Hellenistic times. Like the prosperous Greek merchant community in the Black Sea port of Odessa (whose members financed the Greek war of independence), or the venturesome Greeks who went to Panama at the end of the 19th century to make their fortunes servicing the newly-built Panama Canal, most of the Greeks in booming 19th-century Egypt were recent arrivals — enterprising people who came there from the Aegean islands, Anatolia, Cyprus and elsewhere in the Levant.

    They were attracted to Egypt by the money to be made there in the 19th-century cotton boom and the Suez Canal, and their prosperity began and ended with the Albanian dynasty that ruled Egypt from the early 1800s until 1952.

    When Nasser overthrew Egypt’s monarchy, in the name of Arab socialism, among the first revolutionary measures of the new regime was to dispossess and expel the non-Arab business and mercantile class — the Greeks among them — beginning with the wealthy shipping magnates and the owners of breweries and cigarette factories and ending with the shopkeepers.

    In today’s Egypt, as in Burundi, Odessa, and too many other places, little now remains of once flourishing Greek communities, except memories, shuttered churches and schools… and (if we’re lucky) the last Greek deli.

  5. Huh. I knew a Botswanan lady in college who was of Greek descent; I never got around to asking her how her family got there.

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  7. I am doing some research about my brother who got married in Bujumbura in the late 50′s and served as a state doctor in a territory named Walikale.
    Your article was a godsend and so unexpected
    Thank you!

  8. Here is a poem about the Greek itinerant immigrants, inspired by a poem dedicated to my brother who got married in Bujumbura, Burundi (Where there is hopefully still a deli selling feta cheese and olives.)

    AFRICA TRADERS

    Here in Bujumbura,
    capital of Burundi, almost on the Equator,
    on the northeastern shore of Lake Tanganyika
    you married your sweetheart in
    this Greek Orthodox church.

    Years later, it’s up to me,
    your brother, the family historian,
    the archaeologist of intentions,
    to ask the “why there” question.
    The answer leads me

    to Greek Diaspora heroes
    who lost homes, jobs
    and businesses in Nasser’s 1952
    revolution and moved south
    into the continent’s unchartered

    territories to start again. Administrators
    or doctors (like you) in Belgian Congo. Traders
    of coffee, ivory, and palm oil in Burundi,
    who raised families, built a church, and even
    set up a consulate to safeguard their trades.

    Itinerant refugees in Burundi, where the
    once thriving community of 40
    keeps the Cathedral standing, the sidewalk clean
    until the last ones are buried here
    this graveyard of choice in the heart of Africa.

    And I picture these few survivors, over open buckets
    of oil and brine, buying olives and feta cheese
    from their co-parishioner who still keeps a Greek deli
    here in Bujumbura, Burundi,
    in Anno Domini 2008.

    © Basil Rouskas