Burundi has nearly doubled in size since I arrived here in 1999.
Clearly, that’s incorrect, but I make that absurd statement to highlight the horrific implications of the undeniable fact that whilst Burundi’s landmass has not changed in the last 17 years, it’s population has indeed nearly doubled. It was 6 million back then, and now it is approximately 10.5 million.
That, in a nutshell, is Burundi’s elephant in the room. That has a lot to do with why we are the hungriest country in the world. That is a major reason we are experiencing instability.
The average fertility rate (children per woman) in Burundi is 6.3. 90% of Burundians live off the land. So imagine that my grandfather had one acre to cultivate and live off. He had six children, so his three sons (sadly by law daughters don’t yet benefit), including my Dad, inherited a third of an acre to produce food to survive on. And now I and my two brothers will inherit a ninth of an acre – which is simply impossible to live off, so we are destined to die of starvation, live in extreme poverty, or fight (and kill, as is now sadly common) each other for rights to the land.
Burundi has enough land to produce food for 3.3 million people. For the rest, it depends on aid, or the people simply starve.
I think of Jacques, whom I employed as our day guard. I paid him three times as much as others in his position down our street. His wife is 26-years-old, and already has four children. When I discussed with him whether it was wise to have more children, he said: “God will provide.” Jacques doesn’t believe in birth control or family planning. So his wife has time for another half dozen children. He usually asked for his salary by the 20th of each month, because his money had run out by then. And he was far better paid than many others. How do people survive here…?
The answer is that many don’t, or they do in misery. We have the highest malnutrition rate in the world. So most new lives are destined to be lived out in chronic poverty. I want to celebrate new babies with my friends, and of course I do, but what kind of a life are they being prepared for?
As a follower of Jesus, it’s all the more frustrating because Christians are amongst the biggest obstacles to addressing this issue. Burundi is predominantly Catholic, whilst the biggest Protestant denomination is Pentecostal, and both of these groups think contraception is sinful. But surely it’s better to have quality of human life, not quantity of human flesh? God can ‘bless’ us with more children but he’s not given us more land. He told us to fill the earth – not to over-fill it. So it must be better to have children by loving choice rather than by unplanned ‘accident’. Ultimately, we have not inherited the earth from our grandparents, we have borrowed it from our grandchildren.
As Christians we are meant to love our neighbour – and that includes our future neighbours in Burundi. So loving them requires – inter alia – as many parents as possible to embrace family planning willingly, to ensure there are not too many of them, such that a halfway decent life becomes possible. It is of absolute necessity that courageous decisions are made to help lower Burundi’s fertility rate. It will require cooperation and funding from family planning agencies, and also committed leadership and endorsement from the Government. Difficult, but not impossible. Mexico, Sri Lanka, Thailand and Iran are some examples of countries who managed to reduce their Total Fertility Rate within a decade to close to two, and they did it by their respective governments recognising the population-poverty connection and removing the barriers to fertility planning.
I’m aware this is a controversial topic, that it’s very complicated, and that it’s justabout the last thing on decision-makers’ minds right now in the current crisis. Some Burundians reading this, as well as others, might question my credentials in broaching the subject. I’m not writing as an expert or a theologian. I’m simply devastated by the poverty, hunger and desperation that surround me right now in Burundi. And all the other problems we are dealing with in this precious nation spring off the back of this great big elephant. God help us!