Picture this: distressed women baring their breasts in front of stunned customs and police officers.
This unusual scene took place at a market in the Burundi capital, Bujumbura, as officers seized wrap cloths imported illegally. The women, who are all stallholders, spontaneously decided to bare all in protest.
In Burundi, as in many countries in Africa, wrap cloths or “pagnes” are an integral part of the country’s heritage. Today, most of the cloths are imported from the neighbouring Democratic Republic of Congo where prices are lower there. In Bujumbura, the "pagnes" have been sold at markets by “mama vendors” for generations. But at the Chez Siyoni market on September 27, all stock was seized because authorities say the stallholders had not paid import taxes on the cloths.
The pagne sellers bared their breasts to show their despair. Photo taken by Iwacu.  

“Selling pagnes is our only means of survival”

Mama Yvette is a "pagne" seller at the Chez Siyoni market, in Bujumbura.
Customs officers from the Burundi Revenue Authority came with police officers and closed all the market stalls. This devastated us because selling "pagnes" is our only means of survival. It was in despair at the closure that we showed our breasts. We didn’t know what else to do to stop them from seizing our merchandise.
The year has been an unlucky and difficult one for us. On January 27, a fire broke out at Bujumbura’s central market. The stands and a large portion of our stock went up in flames, destroying our livelihoods of thousands of vendors and making our lives extremely difficult.
Some “mamas” then moved to the Chez Siyoni market, a privately-owned market [the central market run by the city] where the cost of hiring a stall is much higher. Every month, I pay 50,000 FBU [around 24 euros] as opposed to 15,000 FBU at the central market.
Ever since the custom officers’ raid on September 27, we don’t know what to do. It’s the first time that such a seizure has ever taken place; I’ve never seen this before. What are we doing to do now?
In Burundi, "pagnes" are overtaxed. The state raised taxes on them by 70% [according to the Burundi Revenue Authority, the tax came into force on July 1, 2013]. It’s no longer profitable, and thus encourages fraud.
We are calling on the Burundi Revenue Authority to sit down with us at the negotiating table to agree on a tax that would suit everyone financially.
When contacted by FRANCE 24, a spokesperson from the Burundi Revenue Authority said the operation “was carried out as part of the fight against fraud. All customs officers can, according to the law, carry out a search if there is serious information on the existence of fraudulent merchandise. It happens that in Burundi, "pagnes" are never declared even though the markets are filled with them, and it’s one of the most sold products. Surprising, isn’t it?”
The spokesperson added: “The tax on "pagnes" is there for the benefit of the local economy. Given that it’s a massively-imported merchandise, we tax it more than other items.”
Post written with FRANCE 24 journalist Grégoire Remund.