As much as I sometimes love to call myself a patriot, I’ve never actually believed Burundi is “the best country in the World”. (This sentence feels like a “déjà read”. I’m sure it’s not the first time I write it.) I mean, the mountains, the valleys, the Lake and all that are pretty, but there is so much more beauty out there in the World that competes with whatever we have in Burundi. Bujumbura has like one road that’s decent enough for a photo (does anybody hate that “Kuri Leo” roundabout as much as I do?) Resource-wise, we’re not that endowed either, even though we love to boast about our fertile soil and our reserves of Nickel which, realistically speaking, are not enough to make us the “first World country” we claim we could be… not in our lifetime at least. But for some reason, I’ve always felt proud of my Burundian-ness. Sometimes I tell myself I didn’t really have a choice but to be proud, but I think I’ve finally put the finger on what I think makes Burundi, or being Umurundi, “special”.
Raise your hand if you live or have lived outside Burundi, and have been told by non-Burundians, that you were different. A good kind of different. I’ve noticed some people get offended by this statement, especially when they hear it from *cough* white people *cough*, but I actually take it as a compliment. Besides, I’ve heard it from folks who are just as black, and sometimes as African, as I am, so I’ve concluded that it really has nothing to do with condescending assumptions about black people or Africans, or Burundians for that matter… Well, not always.
The funny thing however, is that I get complimented for “qualities” that aren’t really personal, but which I believe a lot of Burundians, or at least, a lot of Burundians around the same age and with about the same background as me, share: extensive general knowledge, fluency in more than one “international language”, “good manners”, our “fun” side, the way we go out of our way to make other people feel comfortable, …you know, all those little traits that make a Burundian a Burundian.
There is something in our education, our culture, our values, the way we were brought up, that makes us (often) stand out, in a positive way. Which is actually strange, considering that Burundi has pretty much been at war since 1962… with a few years of rest (not peace) here and there: that’s 54 years of chaos, and pretty much, three generations who grew up in times of trouble. But, we’re still decent people! We’re warm, we’re fun, we’re smart, there’s this kinda suave we have going on, we’re outspoken but respectful, we dress well, we know how to have a good time… all this despite all the sh* t we’ve actually gone through! In fact, our troubles made us resilient, adding another quality to our list! A friend was telling me the other day that if you have lived and somewhat made it in Burundi (and with Abarundi), there is no place on earth you cannot survive. Can I get an Amen?
But look at our country… How can we, so “awesome”, have and live in a country so messed up?
Raise your hand if you’ve heard somebody claim, and/or you’ve claimed that “the problem with Burundi is Abarundi”…
It’s so easy to take the flaws of our leaders and elites, and the sad consequences of years of our country’s bad management and conclude that all Burundians are just as “messed up” as our country is. It is true that “we get the leaders we deserve”, but is it fair to say that all “abarundi are corrupt”, all “abarundi are lazy”, “abarundi are racist”, all “abarundi are bigots”, making it sound like failure is actually a component of our culture? I guess you could say that we’re a little bit negligent for allowing irresponsible men and women to govern us (more like, not govern us) for so many years, but the truth of the matter is, the flaws that we see have nothing to do with our culture and the values that were instilled on us growing up. They are not Ubushingantahe/Ubupfasoni-esque!
I’ve been following the Buja257 Snapchat account for a while, and one question that keeps coming back is: “why are Burundians not united and how can we change that?” I’m sure this one gets a lot of “Amen” from many of us (although “Amen” actually means, “so be it”), but where did we get the idea that we are not united and supportive of each other? Which other people come together and support each other during bad and good times, like Burundians do? So much so, that we often complain about our social obligations being too demanding! And who are we actually comparing ourselves to when we claim to be bad? Okay, we all know about one or two stories of (a) Burundian(s) hating on and/or not supporting a fellow Burundian’s initiative(s), but how and why do those regrettable and shameful occurrences define who we are as a people? Didn’t we all grow up being taught to be united and sticking up for each other? “Umuntu agirwa n’uwundi”, “ahari ubumwe, urusato rw’imbaragasa rwifuka batanu”, “imiti ikora ikoranye”, “nyamwigendako ntarimira impeshi”… are all Kirundi proverbs that teach nothing but solidarity and working together towards a common good! It’s true that most of us have a rather high degree of “kwinubana” (what’s the word in English?) – which is only natural, given all the trouble we’ve been through; and it’s really nothing honest dialogue and accountability measures can’t fix, if we really want to work to together! But do you want a recent example of how we’re not what we think we are? There were no acts of vandalism on private property during the protests last year. Where else in the World do people riot for weeks and not give into vandalism? Isn’t that a sign we actually look out for each other?
It’s also true that “Umunyembwa aba umwe agatukisha umuryango” (which, by the way, is another expression of solidarity, in terms of taking responsibility for each others’ mistakes), but does it mean we should allow the flaws and mistakes of a few to bring everybody down? Breaking news: every society has its own share of fools! Besides, there is a big difference between gutukisha, and believing that all the members of the family are all like the munyembwa! In fact, there is another proverb that says, “Gito cawe abangira ijambo nawe ukabangira indishi”, which literally means that there has to be a responsible person in the family to be ready to make up for the mistakes of the irresponsible one(s). Where are all my responsible people at?!
A wise friend of mine once told me that we Africans (not just Burundians), have a tendency to always focus on the negative side of things when evaluating ourselves and each other, and when we allow others (usually “the West”) to evaluate us. However, we will associate everything positive with abazungu. This is actually an inheritance from our colonial training, consequences of which, although we’ve fought hard to get rid of, are still very much present in our spirits. *Humming* “Emancipate yourselves from mental slavery…”
45 million Americans (almost 5 times the entire Burundian population) live under the poverty line. Almost 13,000 people (32 times the number of our crisis’ victims) were killed in the United States in 2015, in gun homicide, unintentional shooting, or murder/suicide. Anybody can Google these numbers, but you’ll almost never hear about them, whereas, on the other hand, everybody is talking about us as bad examples of security, of unity, of development, bad examples of everything… Which has a little bit of truth to it, but.. really?
My wise friend calls this the self-fulfilling prophecy problem: when you are told something long enough, and you have one anecdote of it being true, you tend to believe it might always be true. And hence you set yourself to mediocre standards. *Humming* “… none but ourselves can free our minds…”
What do we actually believe about ourselves?
Is it “simple-minded” and wrong to believe that Abarundi (ignoring the few elements who have been giving us bad rep), Abarundi are actually brilliant decent people, culturally fit to be exceptional worldwide citizens? Is it crazy to think that Burundi’s number one resource, my source of pride, and the one thing that has the highest chance of making Burundi a first-world country, is actually its people?
How about we start believing and prophesying good things about ourselves? History is so full of lessons and facts we can use to remind ourselves just how great Burundi was and can be! Maybe when we start to see ourselves under a positive light, we’ll realise that our problems (including the people who cause them), are just mere cancers that need to be removed. We’ll realise that the the selfish, greedy, corrupt, bigot, condescending, disrespectful elements in our society, the haters, are actually very un-Burundian! Bwira mugenzi wawe w’ikigaba uti, Reka kutumaramaza!
How about we start giving ourselves and each other a chance?
I’ve been replaying Beyoncé’s ***Flawless all day today (leave my masculinity out of this please!) The lyrics actually inspired me to write this whole post. While Beyoncé and Chimamanda were talking about being a woman and a feminist in the song, I sang along (and danced a little) thinking about being Umurundi. I’ve decided that from now on, whenever somebody tells me, “you’re different”, I’m going to throw my hands up in the air like Beyoncé and sing: “I woke up like this! I woke up like this! We flawless!” Because really, Abarundi turi flawless.
Photo by Aristide Muco