Laura Gordon

Laura Gordon (Survivor Corps in Burundi): Laura worked as an English teacher in Côte d’Ivoire in 2002 and Thailand in 2003. In 2006 she graduated from the University of Oxford with a 1st Class degree in Modern History. After graduating, Laura worked in Uganda as a research intern for the Uganda Human Rights Commission. At the time of her fellowship she was pursuing her master’s degree in International Affairs at The Graduate Institute, Geneva. After her fellowship, Laura wrote: “I'm more comfortable in my skin now, and after a couple of years of wondering where I belong, I'm now sure that it's overseas in the development world. I love Burundi and I'm desperate to go back.”

Regional Ruminations: Religion

15 Jun

As anyone who has lived in Uganda will know, they take their religion very seriously indeed, with half the shops and businesses having religiously-oriented names – the ‘God is Great Butcher’ or the ‘Jesus Loves You Hair Salon’. After the improvement in the state of the roads, one of the big shocks of crossing the border from Uganda into Rwanda is the immediate disappearance of these names. The reason is even more distressing; the people of Rwanda turned away from religion en masse after the participation of many priests in the genocide.

Burundi lies between the two; religion is there, but not worn on their sleeves. A few shops have somewhat religious titles, but subtle, as, as I have blogged earlier, they seem keener on ‘peace’. The Catholic Church has historically been the dominant force and retains a powerful position, despite a period of repression under Bagaza (Tutsi military dictator number 2 of 3) between 1976 and 1987. However, there is also a fairly large Greek Orthodox community – the Greeks arrived en masse with the Germans, trading across the lake, and stayed through most of the 20th Century, building a church even bigger than the Catholic Cathedral in the process. Greeks have also played a part in the country’s history; Prince Louis Rwagasore, the first Prime Minister of independent Burundi, was assassinated by a Greek settler in the pay of his political opponents. According to Pierre Claver, a fairly significant Orthodox population remains, a mixture of Greeks who have stayed throughout, and people converted over the years. His confusion at my fascination with the church also reveals how established the community is, and how it is taken for granted in Burundi – and this makes me keen to investigate whether there are similarly large populations elsewhere that I’ve somehow missed.

Orthodox church


As in Rwanda, there have been changes due to the war; the Catholic Church lost ground to various strains of evangelical Protestantism, as the conversion of Pierre Claver’s family shows. Finally, there is a small Muslim community – estimates range between 5% and 13% of the population – and there are some indications that this is growing as a result of the role played by Muslims during the war, when they showed enormous courage in protecting large numbers of Hutus and Tutsis alike. However, unlike Kigali, Bujumbura remains full of churches, and gospel music is popular. Nearly everyone I speak to tells me that things are good ‘thanks to God’, and that they hope for peace ‘with the Grace of God’ or tell me early in conversation that they are a Christian, and asks what denomination I am*.

I think this moderation is one of the things I like about the country; I found Uganda’s evangelical fervour somewhat disconcerting, and generally used to dread the occasions when it was my turn to lead the prayers at work meetings. Similarly, there is something eerie, if understandable, about Rwanda’s empty churches and mass abandonment of faith. Attributing good fortune to God, discussing religion over beers, going to church every now and then, and good-natured inquiries about others’ faith seem much more normal and healthy. It may also have positive benefits; Uganda’s first lady’s enthusiasm for promoting abstinence may be one reason for the start of a rise in HIV infection rates, while Rwanda – and Burundi in the past – showed the way in which a powerful church can become a tool for marginalisation. It may be hoped that this seeming lack of interest in mixing church and state can help Burundi to avoid either pitfall in future.

* Happily I have yet to meet an Anglican, so have yet to be invited to church. It may also be because Europeans are known for being heathens, and they’d rather not know.

Posted By Laura Gordon

Posted Jun 15th, 2009


  • Larissa Hotra

    June 16, 2009



    This post was fascinating! It made me really think about how just showing interest and disbelief at the strength of the religion in Uganda or Burundi and at the imbeddedness of the culture, you are simultaneously teaching and learning. Teaching the Burundians (is that the plural?) that their faith is just one in a sea of many global faiths. Learning about how their religious views impact their work and the way they view the world. Q interesant!

    I am a former peace fellow for Survivor Corps-El Salvador (last summer). I would encourage you to also post on the Survivor Corps tumblr site. We have a lot of survivors and site visitor who would be fascinated to know about the great work you are doing in Burundi.

  • Elaine Gordon

    June 16, 2009


    I had noticed the lack of religion in the shop signs in Rwanda but hadn’t really made the connection until you pointed it out. It’s interesting to see that Burundi lies somewhere between Uganda and Rwanda on the frequency of religious invocations in shop signs scale. I rather miss that back here in the UK. What if Tesco were to be-named? Any suggestions?

    As for the Greek orthodox churches theres a group of them in Tanzania too – between Iringa and Ruaha. I wonder if they were established at the same time?

  • Laura Gordon

    June 17, 2009


    If the Greek community was coming in with the Germans, which seems to be the case, then it would make sense for them to be in Tanzania as well, before moving up to Burundi. Anyone else seen a Greek Orthodox church in Tanzania?

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