A post by Amadeus
I am not Burundian.
This is probably the phrase I utter the most on a daily basis since I arrived in Burundi in August 2014, greetings notwithstanding, so I decided to get it out of the way. However, I love Burundi.
Burundi is my favorite country in east Africa, so far.
I’ve had the opportunity to travel quite a bit in and around Burundi and it almost feels like home here. Everything from the people, the climate the food and the landscape are great. This is why I am writing this post.
In the six months I have been around, I have been blessed to meet new people from different backgrounds, and in different locations across the country. My line of work requires me to travel to rural and urban areas within Burundi.
I have slowly come to the realization that in fact no matter where I am, no matter who I meet, there is a logical succession of inquiries directed to me in the aim of putting a finger on my origins. This is natural. Anyone who meets someone new will likely say: “Nice to meet you, where are you from”.
Origin is the number one identifier for individuals, and depending on whether you are dealing with a person from your country or not, the identifier becomes more and more specific. This, I believe is done to answer the subconscious question: “How similar is this person to me?” or yet, “How different is this person from me?” there is an inherent effort to establish a common ground for interaction.
In my situation, most people are surprised to find out I am not “Burundian” (I am mostly assumed to be a specific type of Burundian… we will get into that later).
I end up telling them I am from a country in West Africa…
95% of the time, (for some strange reason suggesting that people who look like me can only hail from Burundi; which, incidentally, occupies 0.9% of the African continent’s surface), they do not believe me.
I smile because I know that this is the point where a game starts in which these four general questions are asked in a specific sequence:
-Why are you in Burundi?
(If it had not previously been covered, I tell them my line of work etc.)
-How come a person from your country looks like Burundians?
(I usually answer with the same question from my point of view and enjoy their reaction :) )
-Are your parents from that country?
(I once pulled out my National I.D. card and showed it to them because that makes sense right?)
-Are there a lot of Rwandans in your country?
(At this point I just change the subject, or try to… depending on the interlocutor’s resolve.)
The more straightforward people don’t hesitate to ask me: “Are you sure you are not Tutsi?”
In the beginning, this question seemed rather innocent for me. I used to think it was an effort to establish a rapport so I can be more relatable, so our common ground could broaden. As I learned more and more about Burundian history, I progressively started noticing that most times, the people asking those questions, and insisted, were mostly from the ethnic group opposite than the one they suspected me of being part of. I started wondering:
Why this obsession with that specific social identifier?
I am an outsider, and I understand that there are things that I cannot grasp about social structure in Burundi, simply because I am not Burundian. So what I am going to say is in full conscience of my oblivion to specifics and of my hopefully objective opinion.
This needs to stop.
Pointing out differences in such a manner, anywhere in the world cannot be healthy for unity. If Burundi, truly is attempting to keep the past at bay and move forward from the horrible events it has witnessed, this behavior immediately needs to end.
The quest for a united nation will need to start with different groups working together to establish a foundation for a future that our children can grow up and prosper in without the threat of conflict looming over their fates.
The only thing that all humans have in common on this earth is their diversity. Let’s embrace that.
While asking that question in and of itself does not constitute a threat to peace between different groups in Burundi, it does suggest that a strong label exists and is systematically placed upon people belonging to different groups. The fact that there is a subconscious priority to categorize that label upon meeting a new person in my opinion, is dangerous. It underlines antagonization, and the pre-established opinion of a person based on their ethnic group, regardless of their character, or person.
We are all guilty of prejudice. It is the human defense mechanism for the idea of the “Other”. I am not saying we are wrong to point out differences. I am saying that we should focus on how we can use them to move forward without needing to be enemies.
A constructive effort to work as a unit to solve the problems that ALL Burundians face as a nation, can most likely aid the country to move forward.
So the question we need to ask ourselves is:
Will we let the past repeat itself by letting it define us, or will we use the painful lessons it has taught us to build a future devoid of conflict?
I think it is food for thought for any African anywhere today.
It sounds fluffy but seriously. Try it. Give it some thought. How does the way we think about ourselves negatively impact our society?
Happy Burundi Unity day!
Also, it’s my birthday. 🙂
A Concerned World Citizen who loves Burundi
(Image source: iwacu-burundi.org)
Amadeus currently lives and works in Burundi, in the development field