BUJUMBURA – Family festivities are a central feature of life in Burundi. But they're also financially taxing, as families are expected to contribute to each and every gathering – even when they simply can't afford it.

"I have a list of more than 150 people who contributed at my mother's burial. And so I have to spend money every time I  receive one of their invitations," says a determined yet discouraged civil servant in the Gihosha district of Bujumbura, the capital of the central African nation. This family head earns less than $200 per month. More than 30% of that money goes to funding family festivities. The man makes those contributions reluctantly, but with one single conviction: that they are central to the traditional culture of encounters and solidarity in Burundi.

There are many festivities that make up the day-to-day life of every Burundian. Among the most observed are dowries, pre-dowries, weddings, visiting and receiving in-laws, baptisms, birthdays and burial ceremonies.

Burundians are not formally obligated to make financial contributions to such events, yet most do – out of fear that they'll be marginalized by family members or neighbors who are quietly keeping track of who gave what when. Contributions vary, but typically a family might offer a case of beer or lemonade, which can cost anywhere from $8 to $15.

Some people, however, are starting to balk at paying. In the Kamenge district of Bujumbura, one man is currently in an argument with his wife and his brothers over his recent decision to stop paying for parties. After contributing money for a colleague's wedding, the man ended up having to go into debt in order to buy rice and beans for his family.

Calls for fewer festivities

Given the financial burden such festivities can place on families, civil society organizations like PARCEM, a local NGO, are calling on the government to simply abolish certain festivities.  "One way to reduce spending would be to decrease the number of festivities important for Burundians," says PARCEM representative Faustin Ndikumana.

The government did just that in the 1980s, when Burundians – as they are doing once again – overspent on festivities and in some cases dedicated more time to preparing parties than working. "Why wouldn't we do it today?" says Mpitabakana Philippe, an 80s-era congressman.

The country's president, Pierre Nkurunziza, took a first step in a speech to the nation given on May 1. "We are asking Burundians to change their mentalities by giving up wasting on festivities," he said.

Others are trying to encourage changes on the cultural level. Abbot Alphonse Ndabiseruye, executive secretary of a Church-based development organization called the ODDBU, has begun working directly with people in the Kabezi and Mutambu districts, teaching them to understand their social worth is not determined by festivities. He wants to encourage other priests to spread this message.

Others have begun experimenting with so-called "affordable" festivities, where hosts provide free tea or coffee but charge their guests for alcohol. "I think it is an interesting case because at a time when other are making wedding a time of consumption, it shows that less spending means a better party," says a guest at one "affordable wedding."  

Read the original article in French.

Photo - Dave Proffer