By Alain Ndayishimiye
I consider myself to be an educated, open-minded Burundian but when it comes to ethnic matters amongst my fellow Burundians, I find myself puzzled, sometimes angry and often confused. I was not born in Burundi, which I view as both an advantage as well as a disadvantage. You see, I was born in Rwanda and spent the majority of my childhood in Tanzania and Malawi before moving to Canada in 2008. In my short lifetime, I have had the privilege of living in the four aforementioned countries and interacted with Burundians in each country to, of course, varying degrees. When I arrived in Canada, it was a year after I had gone to Burundi for the very first time. I had always wanted to go but my parents never really encouraged me to. That’s why I ended up spending the first eighteen years of my life knowing that I was Burundian, but without really comprehending it. It wasn’t until I stepped on the Burundian soil that I finally understood that being Burundian meant more than a title to me.
It was a day after my 18th birthday. I had just completed my final high school exams and because I had a bit of time before the release of final results, I decided embark on what would become a life-changing five-day bus trip from Malawi to Burundi. I didn’t have enough money to fly but I wanted to go so badly that the idea of spending five days on the bus through those rough roads of rural Tanzania didn’t bother me at all. I arrived in Burundi through Muyinga and continued to Kayanza to visit my aunt before heading the capital. The most vivid memory of the trip was when my sister took me to Bujumbura Central Market, and for the first time in my life, everyone around me spoke Kirundi. I stood there for a moment as if I was dreaming. To this day, voices from vendors and market goers from that afternoon still echo in my head every time I am reminded of that day… Hewe! Ni gute? Ni angahe? Oya sha!… It still seems quite unreal. In that moment, I felt something I had never felt before. Being in the market at that very moment felt familiar; it felt like somewhere I had been before. Or somewhere I should have been or at the very least tried to be. It felt soothing, it felt warm, literally and figuratively, it felt peaceful… it felt like home.
I moved to Canada a year later and decided to get involved with the community partly because, well, every time I spent time with my Burundian friends, I got to experience that feeling from that warm afternoon in the central market in Buja. It was something I genuinely enjoyed and wanted to experience often. You may call that selfish. I decided I would try and get Burundians here together as much as I could. Needless to say my first attempt was unsuccessful. A few months later, I met a lady who was as passionate about Burundi as I was and we immediately started working together. We put together a small group of friends and went on to organize Burundi Independence Day celebrations each year. Our community here is small but as you’d expect, we have people from both Hutu and Tutsi ethnic groups. Our events were well received and well attended across ethnic affiliations. For the first time, it didn’t matter whether you were Hutu or Tutsi; people showed up at our events and generally had a great time. Perhaps this was a reflection of the composition of the group. The organizing group consisted of people from both camps. Notice how nervous I am putting this into writing. Ethnic affiliation or tensions here and back home is something we blindly chose not to think about or discuss as a group. Perhaps tensions isn’t the right way to put it. There’s never been a time where it felt like there were any tensions of sort here but certainly an undeniable level of discomfort between the two groups. Unfortunately, or fortunately depending on the way you see it, discussing the issue never really occurred to us as a necessary thing to do.
Fast-forward to 2013: the group had grown stronger and the community trusted us. We had had many small victories in the community some of which had never occurred before. Because of the momentum, we started planning a big event along the lines of Burundi Heritage Day or something similar. As a result, we decided to keep independent day celebrations low key. We rented an Ethiopian restaurant for the occasion. As people started arriving at the venue, I noticed a pattern. Those who identify as Tutsis sat on right hand side of the restaurant while those who identify as Hutus sat on the left.
The music got louder and drinks continued to flow, and of course people kept rolling in. As this happened, the pattern I observed earlier became clearer and clearer. On one occasion a guy and his fiancé sat on the “wrong” side and a person from the “right” side came and pulled them to where they were “supposed” to sit in the first place. I felt sad. Everything I thought I had worked to avoid was happening right in front of my very eyes.
At the end of the night, I went home and spent time trying to make sense of it all. I realized it was unrealistic of me to think that the wounds our country has suffered over the years can be healed in a mere three years of getting a small group of people together. I also realized how much bigger the problem must be at home. I didn’t know for sure. I have only been there for five days which were of course for me, a sort of romantic adventure the entire time. I couldn’t really tell what was going on nor do I know now, but one thing I know for sure is that we still have a long way to go. Through all of that though, I was reminded of the good people I work with in the group. They are all incredibly passionate about the country and regardless of their ethnic affiliation, they work tirelessly everyday to build a vibrant and dynamic Burundian community here. Not a Hutu community, not a Tutsi community but a BURUNDIAN community. That alone gives me hope.
Alain currently lives in Vancouver, Canada