Many times I see people complaining that there is very little news about Burundi compared to other East African countries.
Some even go ahead to blame this on the Burundians themselves without noticing how ignorant they sound.
Last Sunday Burundi did eventually eat up some news space in East Africa when the Bujumbura Central Market was engulfed by a huge fire that for hours devoured millions worth of merchandise.
The next day I checked regional dailies for the big story and none of them had it. My Google alerts could only pick it up from a Chinese news agency, Xinhua. And, that my friends, is why you rarely see Burundi appearing in your media space – the rest of East Africa ignores Bujumbura even when there is a huge fire.
Those who rarely see stories about Burundi in the EAC media outlets must also have missed the news that Burundi’s ex-president Pierre Buyoya was appointed by the African Union to head the International Support Mission to Mali (AFISMA). Did you see it in your local paper?
Anyway, back to the Sunday fire that left Bujumbura’s market just a pile of ashes. There was a twist to the story when the authorities failed to deal with the fire and sought help from the UN base and Kigali. Rwanda Defence Forces deployed helicopters to try and put out the fire.
The picture of the RDF helicopter hovering above the market with water soon went viral on the Twitter streets. As you know a picture is worth a thousand words and my first reading was that it captured what the whole rhetoric about East African integration should be about.
Burundi sacrificed soldiers to help deal with the mess in Somalia alongside Ugandan troops long before the Kenyans joined. It was therefore heart warming to see Rwanda coming in to help a neighbour during a time of need. We need to see more of such selfless inter-country efforts to help.
What seemed to leave a sour taste in my mouth were the attempts by some Rwandans to brag about the fact that Burundi was so helpless that it needed Rwandan choppers to deal with a fire.
Such lame conclusions just go to show how some of our people have lost touch with our great cultures and adopted Western ones. My former lecturer Dr. Atwaru often told us how it was funny that Westerners would brag about their magnanimity as exemplified by the ubiquitous but condescending writings you see on cars – “Donated by USAID.”
If you offer a hand to someone in need it is important to be modest about it for bragging makes it lose meaning. And to be honest the disaster in Bujumbura simply highlighted the disaster preparedness mess in the whole region. We are hardly ever ready to deal with such situations.
Those pointing fingers at Bujumbura may have forgotten the fires in their own backyard. Kigali has seen three of its top nightclubs burning down to ashes. In Tanzania an arms depot caught fire and many died as the ammunition exploded.
In Kenya a tall building caught fire on a floor that the fire brigade could not reach so they came and just watched. In the slums of Nairobi, an oil pipeline caught fire and killed scores of slum dwellers. Many shouted themselves hoarse but we have already forgotten and the shacks are back along the same pipeline.
In Uganda, fires no longer seem surprising considering that the country’s UNESCO heritage site, Owino Market (now St. Balikuddembe), several schools and regional markets as well as The Red Pepper newspaper offices have all seen fires in recent years.
Many of our people do not even know what to do in case of a fire. The other time there was a fire at a Nakumatt store in Kenya and the security guards rushed to shut the doors! Apparently because they wanted customers to pay for the goods – well some paid with their lives!
Some years back, a train rammed into a fuel tanker, sparking off a massive fire in the middle of Kampala. The fire brigade arrived and for hours battled the flames with no success until Mukwano Industries donated the appropriate fire extinguishing foam.
The Bujumbura market fire should simply serve as a lesson for us all to seriously think about disasters and prepare for them appropriately. Investors should be serious about insurance but also governments and the public in general ought to know what steps to take in case of such a situation.