Belyse Inamahoro Bushombo is a UN Youth Volunteer Communications Assistant with UNDP, here taking some photos at the African Climate Week 2022 in Libreville, Gabon.
Belyse Inamahoro Bushombo is a UN Youth Volunteer Communications Assistant with UNDP, here taking some photos at the African Climate Week 2022 in Libreville, Gabon.

From Burundi to Gabon: Through the lenses of a millennial African woman

"My purpose is here," I told myself as I landed in Burundi after a four-year journey studying in the United States. I had always known I wanted to come back and work on the continent, but Gabon was never on my radar. I only knew three to four facts, memorized in high school, about the country’s independence in 1960 and the first president Léon Mba. In a matter of two weeks, between two selection emails, I was, however, ready to move from Burundi to this country I had just looked up on Wikipedia to refresh my high school notes. I packed up my life again in two suitcases and boarded that flight to Libreville despite all the COVID-19 restrictions in place.

As soon as I landed at the airport, loud French voices reminded me of how not francophone Burundi is, because Kirundi, our national language, does most of the work. I was at first nervous, for I hadn’t really used the language since high school. But as soon as I settled in, French eased its way back in during my conversations with colleagues, neighbors, and taxi drivers. The latter would always greet me with a "Tu es gabonaise?" (Are you Gabonese) full of suspicion, and I would wonder how striking it was that I was not from here.

Despite my apparent foreignness, Gabon instantly became my new home. The hot weather with spectacular sunsets on the beachy waterfront and the rich greenery that dominates the capital city reminded me of my own hometown. The girl from Bujumbura was happy and excited about this new adventure.

UN Volunteers in Gabon hike in the Raponda Walker Arboretum.
UN Volunteers in Gabon, including UN Youth Volunteer Belyse Inamahoro Bushombo (third from left) hike in the Raponda Walker Arboretum. ©UNV, 2023

With its immense forests, Gabon immediately inducted me into the fight against climate change. Serving with the UN Development Programme (UNDP) as a UN Youth Volunteer Communications Assistant, I learned for the first time about carbon sequestration, and how Gabon is taking the lead on the continent to preserve its nature.

My everyday vocabulary now included words like "green financing" and "carbon markets" and the COP became an event to look forward to. Every year, I saw in Gabon a powerful African country that is confident and ambitious enough to negotiate better deals for itself while sharing its knowledge and expertise on the international scene.

As a young African woman, Gabon also renewed my faith in our talent and potential when we are given access to adequate funding and mentorship.

From launching the YouthConnekt Africa chapter in the country to partaking in the first Local Conference of Youth on climate change and the UNDP Innovation Challenge, I am convinced now more than ever that we are not the future, but the present.

In an office where over 50 per cent of the staff were young African men and women, "Think outside the box" was our management motto. There seemed to be a common understanding that we all want better and bolder for Gabon and our continent of Africa.

Belyse at the Local Producers Market organized by UNDP Gabon.
UN Youth Volunteer Belyse Inamahoro Bushombo visits the Local Producers Market organized by UNDP Gabon. ©UNV, 2023

As I sit on the blue bench with the yellow "Ville de Libreville" inscription on Boulevard Bord de Mer, savoring my last days in the city, I cannot help but reflect on all the ways this country has inspired me to dream and want more for my country Burundi, and the continent.

What if Gabon and Burundi completed each other like two soulmates embarking on a lifelong journey?!? Ok, hear me out. I know these two countries sit on opposite ends of the “Richest Countries in Africa” list, but hey, I am not one to defy the law of "opposites attract." :-)

What if Gabon’s food security solution lay in the hands of millions of Burundian farmers who have kept the country nourished despite scarce arable land and decades of war? What if the Burundi land conflict found solace in a small plot out of the million Gabonese hectares?

Never mind, I might be getting ahead of myself trying to break through the boundaries of the Berlin Conference legacy [Gabon’s warm welcome to foreigners will do that to you ;-)] I guess, all I am saying is that we cannot afford to just think outside of the box as a continent, but we need to actually get rid of the box… and the boundaries.

In Burundi, we say "Umuntu agirwa n’uwundi" (People are made by other people), which quite contradicts the "self-made" Forbes narrative. As we celebrate 60 years of the pan-African Union this year, let us reflect on how we can make one another as African countries. Why seek solutions outside when we can be the solution for one another?

How can Burundi make Gabon better? And how can Gabon make Burundi better? But most importantly, how and why have we fallen short to do so? How can we "live and die in Africa" if we are not building one another up? Are we truly living up to "OUR Africa, OUR Future"? I do not hold the answers to these questions, but a wise senior colleague once said, "It is up to you, the youth of Africa, to make Africa what it should be."