My earliest memory of it was when I was about 5 or 6 and I heard them arguing, with low voices, outside my room. It was at night and I needed to use the bathroom but Papa sounded so angry, I was scared to venture out.

My little sister next to me woke up and groggily asked me to accompany her kugira pipi.  Glad to use her as an excuse, I took her hand and we slowly walked the hallway toward the bathroom. We had to pass the living room and that’s where we found them.

Papa, bent over menacingly towards Maman, who was backed in a corner but with a defiant look in her eyes. Her chin was up and her stance was proud. I remember that particular scene with sharp recollection for some reason.

When Maman saw us, sleepily rubbing our eyes stumbling through the unlit vestibule, she put on a bright smile and walked over, asking us if we were okay. When we told her we needed the lavatory, she briskly picked my little sister up and we all went.

Papa was still standing in the living room, gradually releasing the tight grip he had on the table that was between him and Maman.

Maman was laughing with us, giving us kisses but we all felt the peculiar vibe in the air (even my baby sister who was usually pretty oblivious to everything but food and her naps).

Mom put us back to bed, tucking us in snuggly then left. It wasn’t long before I heard the slaps and muffled screams in the next room.

The next several years were okay. Me and my siblings got used to the arguments, the fights, the screaming matches…. Pardon me, I do not mean “got used to”. You do not get used to something like that… You develop a coping mechanism. Mine was to listen to music or go to a neighbour, my sister’s was to pretend like nothing was happening and my younger brother, as he grew up, was to try to get them to stop, angrily shouting at both of them.

Well, those were the good years.

Things got real when we had to move and Maman wasn’t working anymore. Sometimes I think her working or not working is irrelevant and it wouldn’t have changed the progression of the violence, but most of the times, I am convinced it made a significant difference in how this University graduate, world-travelled woman slowly but surely stopped having any self-worth and stopped fighting back.

Her husband (my Papa whom I love in a very complicated way) treated her like the biggest shit on the planet.

Sheets weren’t made the way he wanted? Three slaps (even though umuyaya usually did those). Food turned cold while he was taking forever to come home from the bar? A kick in the stomach (even though umukozi was who usually set the table). Either of us kids came home with bad grades? He locked her up in a room we used as storage, with no bed or food for the whole night because “nta mwana wiwe ari ikijuju, ni nyina atabakurikira neza”. I remember he cut her arm once with a broken Fanta bottle. I can’t recall what set him off that time.

My Maman… ma jolie et chere Maman… She turned into a shell of a woman. Eventually, gone were the defiant looks and proud stances. Instead, whenever we heard that car door shut, indicating that Papa was home, she became this jumpy, scared, thoroughly pitiful being. It didn’t matter what she said or didn’t say, it was always the wrong thing to do.

At first, Papa was a bit careful not to let the outside world know what was going on. But, as time went on or if he had a little too much to drink, he would humiliate her with very mocking or mean-spirited comments in front of everyone, whether it was guests at home or at social events. Burundians have an uncanny ability to pretend like everything is okay and they will smile/make jokes about every single thing so whenever that happened, people carried on as if nothing. No one probably thought we noticed the quick glances between them, the nervous laughter while pretending they didn’t just hear him call her stupid for saying this or that or the forced awkwardness of my friends around me… As one of them said to me, in a frank moment “Don’t worry, all parents fight…Niko zubakwa sha”. The acceptance of such destructive unions in our culture has always infuriated me.

I think even worse than the physical abuse (because those scars do heal) was the mental and verbal anguish he subjected Maman to. To this day, I do not know how she’s still sane of mind and rather peaceful. I would have gone crazy or most likely be serving a life sentence for murder at this point.

Why did he marry her in the first place? How could they live close to 25 years in wretched misery together? What in the bloody hell happened for it to get to that point? How did he not think of or notice the mental damage he was doing to his own children? In his red states of fury, would nothing go through his mind when he looked up from hitting her and saw 3 little ones looking at him with terror in their eyes? By the way, he actually never beat us kids. Just Maman.

Burundian women rarely leave or ask for divorce. Burundian women do not complain about their husbands or share their torment to anyone else. Where would she have gone to anyway? She had no financial prospects and she couldn’t leave her 3 kids behind. And the stigma of a divorced woman in Burundi at the time…

I know even in more progressive countries, parents try to stay together as a favour to their children, for their sake, for societal pressure, for the finances etc… I do not agree with that at all.

Please be happy separately instead of horrifyingly terrible together. Your children will thank you.

My parents are still together but they are getting a bit older now. The beatings have stopped and the arguing has lessened considerably. I guess she survived. She doesn’t even seem to hate him, really.

The (emotional) scars are still there for us though. I hardly cried during that time but, as I get older, I have no idea how the tears flow freely whenever I (rarely then but more frequently now) let myself think of those dark moments, wondering if I did everything I could to help my mother. I highly doubt I will ever get married. I would have to trust a man and get over the fear that if we get into an argument, he would put his hands on me. Logically, I know most men would not but I’m not taking any chances. I’ve even had relationships, and they would treat me as well as could be, but the irrational voice in the back of my head tells me it might all change once he “has” me by marriage.

But with all of that said, I’m generally a happy, relatively sane person, with lots of love in my life. My sister got married last year (to the sweetest man, I may add). My brother is in a committed relationship and from what I’ve seen, it’s a healthy one.  

Actually, you know what? I think we’ve all survived pretty good.  

To those who are living this hell, or have lived it, you too can survive. But I’m hoping with all my being that options have gotten better for Burundian women in abusive relationships and they have places to turn to escape.

Kiki is a student

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