Why Reading About Burundi is Reading About Humanity

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“I hope you can understand why it is that despite all its faults and its legacy of violence, I so very much love my country and my culture. It is an amazingly rich, vibrant, and active way of life. So, it is possible that in one country you can find such extremes as genocide and grace.”

—Gibert Tuhabonye, This Voice in My Heart

In preparation for a week of teaching in Burundi, I did a quick dive into several books about this central African country. If Burundi is known for anything in the West, it is generally for its sporadic episodes of spectacular ethnic violence, perhaps most prominently a 1993 genocidal campaign by Hutus on Tutsis that was both prelude and accompaniment to the genocide in Rwanda the next year that left up to a million dead. I wanted to know something more than this one sad truth about the country.

In his 2006 book, This Voice in My Heart: A Runner’s Memoir of Genocide, Faith, and Forgiveness, Gilbert Tuhabonye tells the story of his narrow escape from an attack on his boarding school during the 1993 outbreak. A Tutsi who studied side by side with Hutu classmates, Tuhabonye also became a world-class runner, something that helped him survive when the terrors came.

Tuhabonye’s book alternates between the larger story of his life, which begins in the highlands where he sleds down mountainsides on banana leaves, and the particular story of the violence that shattered his world and his country. Though he now lives in the United States, Tuhabonye’s love for his homeland comes through in a narrative that is infused with his Christian faith. He describes the attack on his school and his fellow Tutsi classmates as a kind of inexplicable act, totally out of character with what he had come to expect. His response goes through anger to a larger understanding of humanity’s brokenness.

“Reading the Bible and going to church helped me enormously. I understood that what had been done to me was evil. Even though I was slowly coming to terms with all the hypocrisy I encountered—how could the same people who had once cheered me or nodded to me and smiled in church have poured gasoline on me and my classmates?—I remained very angry for a long time….If I were to place on a scale all the bad things that had happened to me and my family on one side and all the kindness and generosity on the other, the goodness in people would far outweigh the bad. I saw Burundi for what it was—not a paradise and not a hell, simply a land made imperfect by the people who inhabited it.”

Tuhabonye’s gentleness and determination shine through in this very readable memoir.

 

Roland Rugero’s 2012 novel, Baho!, has the feel of a fable. The first Burundian novel to be translated into English, Baho! is also haunted by the violence of 1993. In the remote hills of a place called Kana, a “one-eyed old woman” is the clear-eyed prophet who has come to see the truth of what war has done to her country. 

“The war managed to sever humanity from place. It was discovered with a certain dread that man has no place except through his history and culture. Violate those and it crumbles away…The war had unmasked Burundi’s countenance, thought the old woman. The war…” (5)

She is an observer to most of the action in the story, watching as a mob misinterprets the actions of a young man who cannot speak, assuming that he is attempting to assault a young woman when he is only asking where he can relieve himself. The gathered crowd cries out for bloody justice and a demobilized soldier named Jonathan, uncle to the captured man, tries to steer the mob to a less bloody end without revealing his connection.

“Aided by his hunter’s instinct in the dusty free-for-all this morning, Jonathan has manipulated the beast—that beast with two hundred heads and just as many pairs of arms—and kept them from grabbing rocks to stone Nyamuragi to death.” (82)

In Baho! there are no indications of ethnic identities. The characters are all caught up in something bigger than themselves. “The Situation” of the past looms over everything. The ripples continue. But the connections between people are not determined. Life is precious. As one of the Kirundi proverbs that begins the chapters has it, “Life is like water that spills onto the earth, never to be gathered again.” (91)

This is a beautiful, brief, and haunting book. And the characters persist as archetypes of some deep persistence.

 

Small Country, a novel by Gaël Faye, wastes no time diving into the ethnic politics of Burundi. Gabriel and Ana, the young children of a French man and a Tutsi woman, are pestering their father for the reasons that Hutus and Tutsis are fighting:

“So, they don’t have the same God?” 

“No, they have the same God.” 

“So…why are they at war?” 

“Because they don’t have the same nose.” And that was the end of the discussion. (1-2)

The bewilderment doesn’t go away as Gabriel relates the break-up of his parents’ marriage and the breakdown of Burundi in the 1990s. Protected somewhat by the affluence that allows the family to live in the expat areas of Bujumbura, the nation’s capital, the nightmares come calling nonetheless.

As with the other two books, there are rich evocations here of the natural beauty and small pleasures of life in Burundi. There is also beautiful writing that shows great insight into the difficulty of marriage and the cross-cultural journey. Faye knows this territory because he shares the same lineage as the fictional narrator in Small Country.

When the story descends into the chaos, Faye captures the claustrophobic nature of the war. It’s as close as his friends and even his own house where his emaciated mother has returned after searching for her murdered relatives in Rwanda. She can’t help inflicting her trauma on her children.

Of all the books, Small Country best succeeds at combining evocative writing with strong story, but I would recommend any of these books for learning more about Burundi and its history. I will share more stories from my recent journey there in other posts. What has happened there and what is happening today represent both our worst possibilities and our remarkable ability to persist and change.

One last scene from Small Country: Watching the TV news, an adult Gabriel sees a story about African migrants fleeing war.

“Public opinion holds that they’ve fled hell to find El Dorado. Bullshit! What about the country inside them? — nobody ever mentions that. Poetry may not be news. But it is all that human beings retain from their journey on this earth.” (5)

The presence of these luminous books shows that poetry can be a potent ray of hope.

 

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