By Rita Siohban

Can we be honest about the ghosts of our past?

The recent political turmoil rocking our country lately seems to have brought up old ethnic commentary not seen since the end of the war. Granted, we’re at a much better place than we ever were in terms of ethnic relations but some touchy subjects have old wounds resurface and maybe bring in vague awareness that a bit of healing is still needed.

Reading through the inter-web comments over the last few weeks, I’m not so sure we’re as “moved on” as we’d like to think we are.

Have we really addressed the reasons why there was so much hatred to begin with? Or is it better to just let old dogs lie and continue on as the new generation is less burdened by our painful past?

How did ethnicity shape any of us, if it ever did?

On its face, the idea of ethnicity in the Burundian/Rwandan context is absurd to me.  Maybe my parents or my family completely failed in their duty of giving me the proper tools for understanding what it all meant, but I really had a hard time grasping the concept. The following will sound naïve, uncomfortable or maybe even wrong to some but perhaps for others, it may ring a bell. Again, this is just one personal account among millions, and in no way, shape or form represents the experiences or feelings of a whole group (I would love if more shared their personal journeys though).  And euhh,  KRis, I read your blog post about people complaining that the site is mostly made up of privileged Tutsi kids from the capital… Whoops, sorry for adding one more.

So anyway, at the ripe old age of 7, I learned that I was Tutsi. There wasn’t a sit down or an explanation or anything like “hey kid, you are Tutsi and this is what it means”… I just learned that I was a Tutsi when my grandparents and cousins came to live in our house since “Hutu neighbors wanted to kill us Tutsis because we killed Ndadaye”. My childlike imagination conjured up scary images from monsters to dragons, to witches because I had no reference as to what “Hutu” was. I had never heard of the term before. Neither had I heard of “Tutsi”.  So, my siblings and I got a crash course education of what a Tutsi was supposed to be from my 12 year old cousins, who very vigorously defended their veteran knowledge of the matter.

Their mostly silly and wholly inaccurate juvenile teachings did nothing to explain what being Tutsi actually was or meant.  It was very confusing (a mixture of milk, cows, noses and crickets… I have no idea).

Obviously, as time went on, I learned the historical connotations of our ethnic makeup, the brutal history, and the ravages it brought on to our region.

The war raged on until the cease fire, peace talks and elections. Then, seemingly overnight, an unspoken mutual decision to carry on and not dwell on it, seemed to have been reached.

But, the stereotypes, the mistrust, the fear, the doubts…Have they really gone away?  I’m wirily amused by the tendency of most of us lately to get publicly uncomfortable with the subject… “Ah! ni vya kera sha. Turi bamwe twese. Ntaco bivuze ubu”    Oh yeah?

It means nothing? Something that meant life or death at one point did not affect us at all or skewed the way we view certain things, past, present or even future?  We don’t think the way we interpret local events was shaped by our background? A background colored by ethnic conflict? How come, during times of remembrance, my Facebook timeline is filled with different historical versions of the dates ’72 and ’93?  Would you marry someone from another ethnic group, with no trepidation? Would your family be okay with it?  Who makes up the bulk of the people you surround yourself with?

For kids who grew up in the 90s in Burundi (like me), every day was pretty much consumed with war and the ethnic baggage it brought. Again, it’s not like any of us had a choice. We were born into it. But, there were decades of massacres and genocides in the name of the almighty identity of Tutsi or Hutu.

And one day, we just woke up and switched it all off? “Ni vya kera dis”. Excuse me, but color me skeptical.

On an intellectual level, a lot of us know there is no difference between us Burundian brothers and sisters. None. A poor Hutu farmer will feel the same hunger pains as a poor Tutsi farmer. A bloodthirsty Tutsi leader is as deadly as a Hutu one (to all Barundi).

But I’m in the belief (maybe I’m the only one) that we need to feel things on an emotional level to truly make peace with each other. And there is nothing more emotional than putting ourselves in each other’s shoes.

A long, emotional conversation between two friends and I was the most candid talk I ever had on this issue. One was a Burundian Hutu girl whose father was a big personality in one of the early predominantly Hutu parties and the other was a Rwandan Tutsi who grew up in Burundi as a refugee. Now, contrary to my own past obliviousness, they both knew exactly what they were since a young age. The Hutu girl remembers her parents sitting her and her brothers down, explaining to them how they needed to behave in case they ran into the Army (mainly Tutsi then). They needed to stay quiet and not cause any trouble or risk imprisonment, beatings or even death (especially the boys). Three of her uncles had already died in the arms of the army. Her father had been imprisoned multiple times.  She remembers how going to a private school in the capital was an interesting experience. There were very, very few Hutus in the entire school.  All affluent neighborhoods in the capital were mainly filled with Tutsis.  How was that possible in a country where 85% was Hutus? She hated violence but she didn’t know how Hutus were going to gain any rights without the war waged by the rebels. She believed the rebellions had been a necessary evil.

My other friend also told tales of her upbringing. Her family fled Rwanda in 1959 into Burundi. She remembers when RPF was still in its infancy and how she, her mother and all Rwandan neighbors did cultural events, sold little knickknacks to fundraise for the war efforts.  Her older brother kept pestering her mom to join the ranks of the fighters since he was 14 but her mom always resisted. He never did go but a lot of the neighborhood boys would escape home to join “Inkotanyi”. Her whole identity was shaped by “returning home”. They packed up and went home as early as September ’94.

It dawned on me that the two girls shared more of a common background than they did with me. Theirs was a story of identifying with a struggle. Their “people” had been persecuted in their own lands and their entire families revolved around fighting for justice. Unfortunately, since they had a “Hutu” and “Tutsi” attached to their identity, they were supposed to feel distrust of each other, instead of being two sides of the same coin as they actually were.

I didn’t have a story of struggle to share.  I did not. Yes, I could have brought up the impact it had on me seeing my father cry for the first time when he was telling my mom how he found his brother’s home burned down to ashes,  with him and his 5 kids in it. I could have spoken of the stories my relatives told me about their escapes from machete-yielding neighbors. But everyone in Burundi at the time, from all ethnic groups, was living the same horrors. And parents tend to shield their kids from the worst of everything so compared to them two, my childhood was okay.

One last anecdote I’ll share is my encounter with a Burundian refugee family in the US. In 2007, the United States brought in Burundian refugees who had lived in Tanzanian camps their whole lives (for those who do not know, these were Hutu families who fled Burundi in 1972).  My then schoolmates and I volunteered at the center helping them settle into their new American lives. I was playing around with this cute little girl when one of her older brother or uncle said in Swahili, laughing and looking at me, something to the effect of “look at this Tutsi girl they brought in”. The little girl heard them, looked at me, gasped and promptly burst into tears, running away to her room.

Let’s just say it was an awkward moment for all involved. And I realized, for that little girl, who most likely had only heard Tutsi in tales told, I was her monster, her dragon and her witch.…

I know all of this doesn’t really matter when speaking of what will advance the country… Education, development, health, business etc… That’s what Burundians are striving for now and should rightfully focus on. And I absolutely know that we are capable of unity, where ethnic groups do not matter at all. The most recent example being the floods that affected everyone and all rose up to help the victims.

But, a feeling in the back of my head tells me that a whole population went through a trauma and never adequately addressed it, talked about it and made peace with it. We have silenced our ghosts. In its place instead, there’s a cheerful fakeness of determined pretense of “ni ivya kera, vyaraheze”…until an event or news story happens with strong ethnic tones, and all pretense flies out of the window. Kumbaya is fine and all, but honest/brutal truth and reconciliation should better deliver us and free us.

(Image by Elena Nani – dphotographer.co.uk)

Rita currently lives and works in Phoenix, Arizona