By Alain Ndayishimiye
Photo by Arnaud Gwaga Mugisha
When I woke up on the morning of February 7th, I checked my twitter account as I always do every morning. This day was different, my mentions were going crazy and for a good reason. In just a few hours #MyBurundianDream had taken off; it had appeared in France24 News and Al Jazeera. As my Friend Karl-Chris Nsabiyumva would later note, for the first time, Burundi had made headlines not for something the government had done, but for an initiative for Burundians by Burundians. I particularly liked Al Jazeera’s article stating that “Burundians online are dreaming of a better future as their government struggles through a tense political crisis”. It was a symbolic moment of finding hope in the colours of our dreams amidst political tensions that seemed to be getting worse by the minute. It took me back to about five years ago when I shied away from searching for Burundian news. I had grown weary of the negative coverage Burundi was getting. Seeing the dream in the news reminded me of what we could become if we dared to dream, rose up and acted on our dreams. The whole concept had been two years in the making.
You see, in the summer of 2012 I started following Karl-Chris Nsabiyumva also known as “Mr Burundi” on Twitter. I had joined twitter three years prior but had not been an active user of the site. Finally, I was starting to get the hang of it and following people with whom I had shared interests. Of course, the name Mr_Burundi captured my attention. Looking at his handle I thought of two things; either this person had won the Mr Burundi competition, or is a really passionate Burundian. As I would discover, the latter was true. In fact there was no such a thing as a Mr Burundi competition as far I knew. Soon after, we started communicating. I was intrigued by how well he knew of Burundi, and his honest opinion on what was happening in the country. A lot of it was interesting, and a lot of it was actually quite funny. Through him I also discovered a small community of Burundians on twitter otherwise passionately known as #Abatwip (Abarundi on Twitter). I thought together, we could do something to increase Burundi’s visibility on the social media site. I pitched the idea of “trending” a Burundi related topic to Kris who loved the idea. Kris and I would suggest the topic and ask #Abatwip to tweet about it. We exchanged a few ideas but nothing materialized. It was not the right time.
On December 19, 2013, I was flying from Seattle, Washington to Rochester, New York. I had brought along Malawi’s former president, the dearly departed Dr. Bingu Wa Mutharika’s book, The African Dream. I had read the book before but wanted to read it again. I liked president Mutharika in his first term and had particularly admired his efforts in boosting the agricultural sector and reducing hunger in his first five years with his controversial but effective Agricultural Subsidy Program. As I read the book I kept on thinking about Burundi the whole time. I wondered what lessons we could learn from the Malawian experience. In the process I asked myself a few questions. Were we part of the African Dream he talks about? Did we have a dream? And if so, what was it? I decided to pose the question to a number of Burundians I knew. I did not know what to expect. A lot of people I spoke with often asked to clarify on the question; it was clear to me the notion of a Burundian Dream was foreign to a lot us. Still, I wanted to dig deeper to find what hopes Burundians had for our country. As I thought more about the idea, I got excited by the multiple dreams I would get. I remember tweeting my excitement about the article. Kris and other Burundians tweeted supportive messages. I told them, this article was not going to be “my” story but rather our shared story. It would later prove to be true. I started putting my thoughts down on a piece of paper. I wanted my write-up to be short so as to populate the article with people’s dreams. I interviewed a couple of people, starting with a fella named Claude. He had come to Rochester from Lincoln, Nebraska to visit my cousin for the Christmas holiday. Claude was a perfect candidate because he grew up in Burundi and was now in America to study. Earlier that week, we had had had a good conversation about Burundi. I enjoy speaking about Burundi with people who have lived there longer than I have. I always learn a great deal from them. After Claude, I interviewed my family members, then later my friends, acquaintances, and of course some #abatwip. Everyone I spoke with responded positively telling me of the dreams they have for our country. I was moved by every response. It reflected on each and every individual’s beliefs about where we should go as a nation. After collecting all dreams, I noticed they were as diverse as the people I had interviewed BUT were all bound by the shared dream of a better Burundi, a country we all so dearly love.
After finishing the draft, I sent it over to the This Burundian Life. The ever-so-creative team got back to me with the idea of turning the article into a campaign to commemorate Burundi National Unity Week. It was fitting that we celebrate the week with our shared dreams. In the same week, political tensions were rising in Bujumbura. We published the first part of the piece and immediately started encouraging people to tweet their dreams. Within hours, #Abatwip started tweeting their dreams. It was one of my proudest moments. The positive spirit of the Burundian community online brought a much needed light to the otherwise gloomy situation back in the country. A few days later, we published the second part, also to great response. On February 7th, as we published the third and last part, the conversation was still going with the #MyBurundianDream hashtag on twitter and Al Jazeera and France 24 News had both carried articles on it. The office of the president also mentioned they were following the “rich contributions” shared by folks on twitter. There were indeed lots of great ideas ranging from cleaner streets in Bujumbura to a better and stronger education system.
LESSONS WE LEARNED
- We can tell our story. There is no denying the media controls the information we get. They dictate what we watch on TV and what we read in our newspapers but as seen from the #MyBurundianDream experience, we can get our stories across if we tried. And the Burundian story needs to be told. The dream needs to be heard.
- It is going to take more than dreaming to see real change in Burundi. I am an overly optimistic person who strongly believes in change. But I also understand that change is slow and demands more than dreaming to happen. A lot of people knew and felt that too, and called on all of us to wake up and act in order to turn those dreams into reality.
- Burundians have the desire, capacity, and capability to rise up to the occasion when asked. I do not have the exact number of tweets generated during the week but when we published the story our website received an unprecedented amount of hits that week, a clear indication that people were following the stories. If you ever need to see something happen, do not be afraid to ask.
- We all have an important role to play in getting Burundi where we want it to be. Just as we all dream, all of us can act. Each and every Burundian I spoke with had dream. Now the question we should be asking ourselves is “What am I willing to do to realize that dream?” One of my favourite tweets was from a young lady named Samantha: She called for the Diaspora to return home to build Burundi instead of waiting “for a better Burundi to come home”. I liked this way of thinking, but it concerns all of us, not just those in the Diaspora. We all need to see that we have a responsibility to work towards making Burundi better not just for us but for generations to come.
On behalf the rest of team at This Burundian Life, I want to sincerely thank everyone who participated in #MyBurundianDream. This is certainly not the last time you will hear about it. It is our goal to see the movement grow beyond the limitations of the internet. To reach those who dream but cannot express their dreams with a tweet or a Facebook status. We want the story of the common Burundian to be told. Their dreams to be heard. Continue to watch this space for more; follow us on twitter (@LaBurundian) and like our Facebook page to get all the updates.
Before you go, check out the video below which is a compilation of some of the most notable #myBurundianDream tweets.
Alain currently lives and works in Vancouver, Canada. You can follow him on Twitter: @alainndayi