By Thierry Uwamahoro
East African (humorist) reporter Charles Onyango-Obbo humored Burundians this week (read article), but he is the one laughing all the way to the bank (yes, Mr. Onyango-Obbo sells clicks). And click we all did. Then we started writing. Complained. Instructed Mr. Onyango-Obbo how he should write about Burundi. Well, my fellow countrymen (and women for gender equity), Mr. Onyango-Obbo does not give a hoot what you instruct him to do. Tomorrow he will jokingly write that Burundians feed off dogs…we will click and share…and he will get paid. But, that is not even the point. Did we ask ourselves why we weren’t writing about Burundi and all its glory and greatness last week (before Mr. Onyango-Obbo’s piece)? Many of us have gotten deeply offended by his half-joking suggestion that Burundi needs a sex scandal to get noticed. And guess what? Mr. Onyango-Obbo’s imaginary sex scandal just woke us all up. The last time I saw this intensity of Burundians posting about Burundi on Facebook, the central market had burned and the CNTB had driven the country as dangerously close as possible to the ‘dark’ ages (of the 90s and early 2000s).
Mr. Onyango-Obbo’s piece got me thinking: when was the last time I proudly and positively posted a picture of my president on my virtual wall? When was the last time I read an op-ed written by my president in the Wall Street Journal, New York Times, Huffington Post, Le Monde, The East African, or The Guardian? When was the last time I heard my president deliver a policy speech on a continent-wide substantive topic in a world fora? When was the last time I penned a blog post that positively depicted Burundi? The answers are, respectively: 2011, never, never, and I have no recollection! How do these answers impact the image/knowledge of Burundi in the world and in my small inner circle of friends on social media?
When Burundians gang up on Onyango-Obbo and other East Africans (calling them ignoramus) for not knowing and appreciating Burundi, we are just like a company that blames its customers for not liking and buying its products; or an advertising agency blaming TV viewers for not noticing its ads. Forget Onyango-Obbo, forget our fellow East Africans; it is our job – us Burundians – to consistently sell and market Burundi outside the borders of our beloved nation. It would also help if we elected leaders who have the intellectual might and charisma to stand tall and keep the Burundian flag floating in the concert of nations. I can’t tell you how many TV ads I have seen on Jamaica, Brazil, Malaysia, South Africa, Indonesia, etc. Countries need a little active marketing.
Good publicity is not free. If you disagree, ask our northern neighbors. For a $50,000 plus expenses monthly fee, Racepoint — a US-based public relations firm — offered to clean up the image and bolster the brand of Rwanda. Here is how the Globe and Mail reported on the story: “Over a period of 18 months, Racepoint created two pro-Rwanda websites, filled the Internet with positive stories about Rwanda, and promoted a new national ‘brand’ for the country. It later boasted that its campaign generated more than 100 stories a month in newspapers, websites and television networks, while also producing an 11-per-cent reduction in online discussion of Rwanda’s genocide in 1994.”
For those keeping the tab, that is close to $1 million over a year and half period – with just that one firm in the US (the word on the street is that Rwanda engages various firms in many countries) – to market Rwanda. It is no coincidence that when I walk around Washington DC and get asked where I am from, Burundi does not register on most minds. I typically have to say that it is next to Rwanda to finally get the typical “Aaaah” and a nod! That is in Washington DC, a very international city. Imagine what would be the chances of getting a nod on Burundi in Wichita, Kansas. There are investors in Wichita and Washington DC – they will most likely land in Kigali, that they have heard of, before Bujumbura.
We can get irate as much as we want when Mr. Onyango-Obbo suggests a sex scandal is in order for Burundi to get noticed; the truth remains that Burundi is not well known (I wonder what Burundi’s Klout score is). It took an imaginary sex scandal for many of us to wake up and burnish our bona fide Burundi loving credentials and start ‘selling’ the glorious place of our births. Will the sentiment and the furor last? In the absence of our government paying millions of dollars to market Burundi, are we individually committed to make sure Burundi gets 100 monthly positive stories in the world’s major newspapers, imaginary sex scandals not withstanding?
Did you promote Burundi today?
Thierry currently lives and works in Washington D.C. USA