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.
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.