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Meet Mfumukeko, former refugee at the helm of EAC

Ambassador Liberat Nfumukeko

Ambassador LIBERAT MFUMUKEKO is the 5th secretary general of the East African Community, a Burundian by nationality. He shared his life story with Capital FM’s Simon Kasyate, the host of Desert Island Discs program.

Good evening and welcome to the show!

Thank you very much and thank you for inviting me.

Who is Liberat Mfumukeko?

I am from Burundi. I am 52 years old and I was born in a place called Kinama, actually one of the poorest neighbourhoods of Bujumbura.

When I was starting my first year of primary school, there were events in Burundi. There were killings in 1972 and we had to actually fly away and go to DR Congo.

So, I started my primary school as a refugee in a place called Sange; that is in the eastern part of Congo. Then from there we went to another place, always in DRC, called Uvira; that is where I finished my primary education.

We have always had these stories of refugees, especially in Burundi and Rwanda…

You know when you talk about Burundi, and actually even Rwanda, what is happening today is actually historical background. It always feels very, very bad, very sad life to be a refugee. 

When we left Burundi, although I was very young, I could see that we were going from a normal life to a very precarious life…my father was a merchant; he was doing relatively well in Burundi. So, we arrived in Congo and life was very difficult.

So, when you leave your family, when you leave your friends, when you leave your country, it is a very difficult situation. In Burundi, unfortunately, over time, we have lost many people. My father himself had lost all his brothers and his father in 1965.

But as a young child then, you must have curiously asked what was going on.

I am actually the third in my family and my elder brother has passed away but at that time I had my elder sister and we would really wonder why we were leaving Burundi.

We knew that for several months people had been killed; and actually as we went to school in 1972, we could see people being brought to a police station and we could sometimes see people who had died already, but we could not understand exactly what was happening. So, when we arrived in Congo…we would ask our parents.

They would tell us in very simple words, as you would tell a child and say; well in Burundi, the Hutus and Tutsis are fighting against each other. That is what the story was. And we would ask: are we Hutus or Tutsis?

My mother is a Tutsi and my father is a Hutu…although he is a Hutu who is mixed. So, we have had a history of good relationship between the Hutus and Tutsis in my family. So, it was very hard to understand that the country was suffering because of the two groups.

Plays Africa Unite by Bob Marley

Isn’t it important to note that despite the circumstances, your dad felt it important to take you through school? Did you actually know what you wanted to be or you just went to school?

If I may be clear with you, when you are a refugee in general, you don’t have a country and you don’t have wealth. So, for most of the kids who are refugees, the only way out is education.

So, my parents made sure that they make us understand that. My parents would always insist on us studying every day and doing our homework and being in school on time.

Were you the kind of subservient kid?

When I was a child, I loved to play soccer, what you call football in English. That was really my passion, my hobby.

So, for a few years, my dream was to become a professional football player. At that time we wanted to be like [Karl-Heinz] Rummenigge and Johan Cruyff but my father would fight with me as I spent a lot of time playing football.

How was the quality of education of a refugee: did your parents pay the fees or the host country?

I think education of a refugee has not changed since. In the early 70s, if you were a refugee, your studies would be paid for by the high commissioner for refugees…The turning point for me in my education was the end of my primary school. There was a national competition in Burundi and Congo and most of the French-speaking countries.

They would have that competition after primary school and that is the one which determined which junior high school you would go to. I was very lucky, I think God was helping me and I turned out to be one of the best and I was sent to a Catholic school which was actually the best school in the eastern part of Congo. That changed my life. 

That was College Mwanga in Uvira. It was the best school. It had everything. Nice chairs, good [teachers], good food. From there, I was actually upgraded because I was sent to another school. I was brought back home in Burundi.

I was the only child in my family to be brought back to Burundi, coming to school in Burundi in College of the Holy Spirit. That was considered to be the best junior high school in whole of the Great Lakes region. So, that was a luxury for me. It was a very good school. A boarding school. Every student would have a room with a shower, it was really a five-star hotel for me.

Requests any song from Jose Chameleone

As you were in this college, what did you have your eyes set one?

I knew that I was going to a school where they had the best students. I knew I was in a school which had even produced the president of Burundi, and many people of high profile had come from that school.

I knew I was in the right place. I started really cultivating new dreams. I would already see myself in a very good university; generally when you came out as the best student in that college, you would get a scholarship to go to Europe, because it was a school owned by the Jesuit priests and so, they have many schools across the world. So, that was my target. I was studying to be one of the best students.

Did you ever play any sport?

I was playing football for my school and I even played for a team in Burundi; I was in the C (third) division.

Do you take time off to play football anymore?

Unfortunately I haven’t played for some time. I am still struggling to find time for exercise but when it happens, I think I still have the skills.

At this school, were you still in touch with your family?

It is very complicated. Because when I went to this college in Burundi, I spent two and a half years before seeing my parents again. They didn’t come to Burundi; I was the one going outside to see them. 

The journey to go see them was really very difficult. So, I was able to see them when I was doing my fourth year of secondary school and from there I would go to see them once every year. That time was really a time of strengthening my personality, being self-dependent. My classmates generally would go for weekends out of the school and me I would study.

I was managing my life alone. That helped me, especially later when I went to Europe. As a father today, I have four children, I have to say I don’t like distancing myself from my children. I try my best to really see them; even when I go to work, they come to see me.

Where do they live?

They are in Arusha, Tanzania. I try to ensure that my children can see me. On the weekend, I try to be at home with them.

Where did you go after this college?

There was also a national competition at the end of secondary school. That time I was the best in my class and I think I was one of the three best students in the country.

I even enrolled in the faculty of medical studies in the University of Burundi. So, I had applied in three faculties and was admitted in all. But during the holidays, there was an announcement on the radio asking me to go to the ministry of education of Burundi. So, when I went there, I was told that I have a scholarship to go to study in Europe. Ten days later, I caught my flight to go to Europe.

Which European country?

Requests any song from Kidum

How was your reaction on learning about the scholarship?

I could not believe it. When I went to the ministry, I did not know what for…The scholarships were split between Russia and France. So, actually I spent one year in Russia, in a prep school and then I went to France…

How did it feel to set foot in an aeroplane?

At that time going in an airplane, you are almost like a minister or a muzungu, it is something which was not common.

How did you encounter the coldness in Russia?

I went to Russia in August. So, it was really a good summer and I was discovering this big city. Moscow was my first big European city, it really looked beautiful but it was also a cultural shock.

I could not really read anything or understand anything. I had a radio in my room but I would [understand] nothing. So, I went to campus, we had a guide actually from the airport and he could speak French.

So, anything we needed, we would just call him. So, it took three or four months, we started learning Russian right away. And I was really happy to be taken to Moscow State University, which is really the Harvard of Russia.

What had you gone there to study?

It was a preparatory school. By the time I finished prep school, I was asked by the Jesuit community in Burundi to go to France. They had a scholarship for me. So, I left Russia to go to France. This time the language was familiar. Right away I enrolled to the university and went to the school of economics.

Why economics?

I sought advice from a few friends and they could tell I was interested in business but I was also interested in international matters. My dream at the time was to be in a big company…I went up to a master’s degree and specialized in corperate management.

Besides the serious side of university, did you not indulge in social life? 

A student life in France is very funny. You go to school from Monday to Friday and generally on Friday night to Saturday, you party. So, I actually discovered my first clubs and bars; I drank for the first time when I was starting university.

What was the first alcohol you took?

Beer. But I have never been a big drinker. Until today I don’t drink a lot. But I had a lot of fun. We spent weekends listening to music.

Which type of music?

For many Africans living in Europe, it was about reggae music. Kool and the Gang, Congolese music. But for me it was mostly reggae music. 

Were you ever in touch with folks back home?

At that time, I am talking about the 1980s. There were no cell phones. Calling with a landline from France to Africa was very expensive. So, we would write letters.

It took about one month to get to the place. So, I would expect a letter from home after three months. So, basically I had to manage my life in France by myself. I had a girlfriend who was French.

You met her there?

Yes. I met her as I was doing my third year of university and she later became my wife.

Is she French of African descent?

She is French white.

During this time, Africa, including Burundi, was going through lots of political upheavals: did you realize that as an African, you needed to come back home and make a contribution?

When I finished my master’s degree in France, I had a moment when I started thinking about going back to Burundi. At that time, I was lucky to have an internship there; there was a UNDP program in Rwanda, Kigali.

I went there for a few months. My boss was from Sri Lanka, he told me young man, you are coming from France, you speak French, I think you should go to an English-speaking country. I had told him that I wanted to be like him. He told me if I could speak English as well, I would then be bilingual…so, when he told me that, I went to the embassy of the US in Kigali and I picked a few schools and sent applications.

By the time I finished my internship in Kigali, I went back to France. …a few days later, I started getting responses from the American universities and I had four admissions. But they were very expensive. The least expensive was Clarke University in Boston, one of the best schools in international development.

I had to look for money to go study there. I went to see the Jesuit community in Paris because they had actually helped me a lot. I gave them my letter of admission and explained what I wanted to do... It was 1990 but the tuition was $27,000. It was a lot of money. I actually wrote to many deputies on the French parliament, I wrote to Bill Gates, I really wrote to over 200 people and foundations, telling them my story. I want to do this and I need some help.

The Jesuit foundation called me. They said one of the European congressmen received your letter and they asked us to call you and they want to see you in Strasburg. When I went there, I was sent to see a priest and he told me ‘listen, I know Africa, I believe in young Africans with talent’ and he said we have $9,000.

So, I needed to have some more money. During my studies at university, I had worked at a bank during every summer. I went to see my boss, who was French and loved me very much.

He said we have known you for many years and he believed in me very much. He said you would have more opportunity if you went to the US. So, they gave me a loan of about 25,000 Euros. He said it is a special loan for people who work for the bank and it had a one per cent interest. I had three years of grace period. So, one week later I was in Boston and started my MBA at Clarke University.

Requests any song by Kofi Olomide

Ambassador Mfumukeko (R) with Dr Susan Kolimba at EAC secretariat

When did you start working?

I became a lecturer, almost by accident. Because when I finished my first year of MBA, as I told you I had a loan of 25,000 Euros. So, after one year and a half, that money was finishing.

So, I had to find money to pay for my last courses. At that time I was really lucky because the department of foreign languages was looking for two people, someone to teach basic French, and a few months later they looked for someone to teach some programme of Russians.

So, I got the job to teach French to beginners. I would do this once or twice a week. I would do the same with Russian. This paid [for] my studies up to the end. When I finished, I had a proposal from the university to stay as a lecturer, this time in the business department.

This is how, when I finished in December 1993, I stayed as a lecturer. Two years later, I was assigned a program as the deputy director for international programs but at the same time I started also getting into the corporate world. ...in 1996, I started working with Fubu, they were starting at that time.

I was their agent in Europe, making money I would never make... in 1994, there was a war in Rwanda and Congo; so my parents and brothers and sisters had to come back to Burundi. They were actually living in a camp. When I knew exactly where they were, I organized their trip to go out of Burundi and I got them up to France.

Because I was working, I was able to get a loan to pay for the tickets for an apartment for them and have them in school. For my parents and young sister, I was able to bring them to Cameroon. All of this would never have been possible if I was not given the chance to work. So, by 1996, when I worked with Fubu, I was making enough money to help my parents to live a comfortable place in Douala and my siblings attend a good school in France.

Where are your parents now?

They passed away. They are buried in Cameroon, Dousla. But really, all the children we were very proud they didn’t have a difficult life in the end.

When did you start a family?
We got married in December 1993. When I finished school in the US, we got married.

If I were to host you to a dinner, what is your favorite dish?

I like cassava ugali and fish.

How would you love to wash it down?

Sometimes with some wine or beer.

What gets you angry?

When people in Africa start playing with their work. I think that this region is poor enough; so, when I see people playing with their work, not giving enough energy to help East Africans, when I see people trying to ignore the reality we are in today, that gets me frustrated.

What makes you laugh?

When I am told a good story.

When did you return to Burundi?

I came back to Burundi by accident. I had a one-month assignment by the UNDP. When I finished it, I had not been in Burundi for 23 years. So, I discovered a very different Burundi which had nothing to do with the Burundi I saw before. It was much more organized, and I saw some of my cousins.

I reconnected with my family. I felt I should stay. Friends also asked me to stay. I was given a position at the [UN] Food and Agriculture Organization. I was given a one-year contract to stay as a UN employee for Burundi. In 2005, I was offered my first position as CEO of the Burundi Investment Promotion Agency.

I stayed with the agency for two and a half years. Then I went to the presidency where I had a ministerial position as the principal advisor for the president for economic affairs. From there, I was appointed as the director general of the Burundi Water and Electricity Company, the largest company in Burundi.

At the same time I was given the chairmanship of the East African power pool; that is all the EAC countries plus five other countries including Ethiopia and Egypt. So, from there last year I was appointed to be deputy secretary general in charge of finance and administration at the EAC and this year in March, secretary general.

With all this experience, what are you working on to be your legacy at EAC?

To be able to build a very ambitious East Africa. It is much simpler. At an individual level, I was really able to uplift myself. I see that East Africa can as well do that. We have the resources, the people, it is a big market. East Africa can be a powerhouse.

So, we are working very hard to ensure that businesses flourish and ensure investors come to East Africa, and employment created. We are working very hard to have high level technology and education come to East Africa…I want to tell all children of East Africa that everything is possible.

There is no different between a child here in East Africa and a child in Europe; we have the same potential. It is up to us to uplift ourselves and uplift the region.

If you were marooned on a desert island and allowed to take one person or one thing, who or what would you take?

My daughter Camelia.

Plays any song from Beanie Man.


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