Unitarians respond to Bujumbura Central Market fire

By Eric Cherry

Reverend Fulgence Ndagijamana, minister of the Assembly of Unitarian Christians of Burundi writes from Bujumbura:  On January 27th 2013, the central market of Bujumbura caught fire and thousands of families lost their livelihoods. It is important to remember that the central market was the largest economic engine for Burundi with billions of francs going in and out of it. The micro-lending program that the Unitarian church of Burundi started in 2008, which served poor and vulnerable women and form combatants, was also completely dismantled by the fire. Millions of francs went into flames with people watching helplessly. Needless to state, the local capacity was not enough to fight the fire. The fire vehicles were nowhere to be seen - one showed up many hours after the fire had started and it was too late to do anything. It is heartening to say that since the fire occurred on a Sunday. when many people were either already at the church or getting ready to go there, there were not many victims who died in the fire. Official figures talk about 2 people who were consumed by the fire. It could have been worse. Churches suddenly became overwhelmed by requests for material and pastoral support and shelter. The Unitarian church located in the Kanyosha neighbourhood where many people were working as daily labourers in the market received the same requests from people. The church was not prepared for this kind of situation. The usual coping mechanisms were no longer working and we had to put in place a special pastoral group to reflect on what needed to be done and make decisions. Although we didn’t have food to give away, we had listening ears and shoulders that people could lean on. And, we had a free space for people to use, if they were no longer able to pay for their housing because it was the end of the month. That was mostly the role of the pastoral team that was quickly put in place. We had thought that all was gone and more so the beneficiaries who feared the worse. We were wrong. UU friends around the world were moved in their hearts and asked what they could do to support the victims and give them a new beginning. The UUA and the ICUU coordinated their interventions and very quickly an appeal was put together to support the church's response to this tragedy. The response was overwhelming. Through contributions we were able to close this sad chapter of the market fire for 120 families with a reminder and renewed commitment to the fact that no matter what happens; destruction, fire, loss... we are not alone and hope is always permitted. Current situation The central market fire is not rebuilt yet. The government has no money to rebuild it and it will take time since the money being raised now is mostly for the upcoming 2015 elections ($ 60,000,000, yes democracy is expensive!!!!). For those who were able to start something anew, the option was to go to the smaller markets which are located in different neighbourhoods but they complain that the level of economic activity is different. People tend to do their shopping from the city centre on their way back from their offices. But it is also worth noting the extraordinary capacity that people have to survive and to cope with stressful and difficult situations. Although many are still under pressure - there is now an expression that came about after the fire: When you ask why a person is not buying what he needs to buy or pay back a loan, the answer is always “the central market caught fire”! But, we can see that people have now become calmer and are working hard to make things happen. Other people are resisting going to the neighbourhood markets and have invaded the streets in the city center because this is where they can find customers. The government is building a temporary market in Ngagara commune, which is in the northern part of the city. But this one has taken a long time to be finished. This is the pace at which the reconstruction is going and we are happy, as a church, to have given our contribution. Bujumbura November 2013.

About the Author

Eric Cherry

Eric was the Director of the UUA’s International Office since August 2007. Prior to this Eric served for 12 years as a parish minister with UU congregations in Burlington, Iowa and N. Easton, Massachusetts. Eric has long been involved in the UU Partner Church movement, serving as the English...


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Ruins of former Central Market
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A family receiving 'one-time' recovery support.
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A woman receiving a micro-loan
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The temporary market being built