I’m the type of person who would elope. Well, I would (probably) never marry anyone my parents, close family and friends do not know about (and approve, to some extent), but I could certainly says the vows, receive the blessing, and sign the papers in a tiny ceremony with just my bride and I. I believe certain important life events are best celebrated intimately. Before you call me selfish (or totally confused), which I’m sure my mama will, hear me out! I have a plan. If I ever elope, I plan to later have a big sort of “introduction party”, for our parents to invite their friends to celebrate “the union of our two families”. But I’ve been wondering what kind of speeches would be said at that party, considering that we’d already be married. I trust my dad to be able to come up with something, but to what extent does the Burundian culture allow creative speeches for couples who eloped? Mbe would there be a dot?

I’ve been to quite a few “unconventional” Burundian weddings before. Like when the bride and groom are not present at the ceremony (usually a dot), and their absence is filled with their photos. I actually once heard of a wedding – not a dot, a wedding, where the bride said her vows to the groom’s brother who was “standing in” for the groom who couldn’t be there… Ibaze. Or like weddings of couples who have been living together for years (and sometimes even had a child or more together). What always surprises me (and saddens me a bit) at these weddings, is how the speeches (and everything else that should be different) never take into account the uniqueness of the situations – nko gutwikurura abantu bavyaranye kabiri, si kwonona uburyo n’umwanya kweri? If it’s ever my daughter in such a situation, I would still send the food and supplies, but there’s would be no need to have a party, to be honest. Otherwise, it would be playing pretend.
And then there are the small things that always make me laugh and shake my head: like when the dowry is being presented to the bride’s family and the DJ plays the sound of a mooing cow… Like, is the cow in that basket or what? Or when folks (often siblings, cousins, or former classmates) say that they “broke the cow into small pieces and put it in a box which they wrapped in gift paper”, ignoring that “breaking a cow” is an abomination in Burundian culture.
(By the way, if you identify with any of the situations described above, please don’t take it personal. It’s really not hating… Or is it? Hehehe)

I fancy myself a traditionalist, to some extent. I love and cherish culture and traditions (well, most of them), but I also believe that cultures change and evolve, and traditions should adapt to changing societies. The way we celebrate our weddings is one of the things that we need to think about as Burundians, and maybe adapt to current realities. I guess some things are like poetry – not to be interpreted literally, but meaning is the core of why we do the things we do, and say the things we say; isn’t it? So, why maintain a tradition that has no meaning at all? I’m not saying let’s get rid of it, I’m saying let’s transform it… creatively. Anyway…

Lately, I’ve been thinking a lot about a particular tradition: Kugandara. Mourning.
For those of you who don’t know, Abarundi mourn a loved one for a week to a year (sometimes more), depending on the age, the social status, (and the circumstances of death?) of the deceased. The mourning period is settled by a ceremony known as Kuganduka, during which inheritance issues and the debts of the deceased are settled, if any. Normally, the family is not allowed to celebrate anything (such as weddings) before Kuganduka, but we all know a family or two who broke this “rule”. However, between the burial and Kuganduka, there are rituals such as Gutanga Amasuka and Guca Ku Mazi that allow the family of the deceased to go on with their daily lives – these rituals put an end to the period of actual (I call it “full-time”) mourning, where relatives, neighbours and friends gather at the home of the deceased and comfort the family for three days to a week. This particular time of mourning, or at least the way we live it in Bujumbura, has always left me feeling quite puzzled.

If I lost a person close to me, I don’t think I would want to have anybody around for a few days – I like to “deal with my demons” alone. But the whole concept of Kugandara expects you to come out, greet and converse with the guests. You would expect a mourning atmosphere to be morbid, but after a few days, Kungandara environments are quite lively:  people cracking jokes (sometimes insensitive, in my opinion), laughing, and sometimes, a choir singing uplifting songs in the background. I understand this is supposed to help them family move on… But, do they?

Abarundi are strange but interesting people. From a young age, we’re taught to smile, especially in the face of adversity. Expressing sadness is a sign of weakness (although, ironically, proclaiming that all is well and joyful, even when it really is, is seen as bragging). Resilience is a virtue, which is one thing I actually love about us, Abarundi. So I wonder how many people actually move on from difficult situations, like death of a loved one, and how many settle for pretending to move on, because society, and sometimes circumstances, pressure them to.

Times of crisis, like the one we’ve been going through, are sad but good at bringing out feelings that were swept under the carpet instead of being addressed as they deserved. Like feelings which Kugandara and Kuganduka may have forced some to cover up (after the culturally prescribed time), but which never really go away until they’re dealt with properly. The thing with Kuganduka is, after it’s done, you’re not supposed to talk about the deceased again (or so I understand); but how is this possible and realistic if, for example, they were murdered, and their murderers are still roaming free? How do you demand answers? How do you allow yourself to live in peace? How can you move on without justice? Religious leaders like to talk about forgiveness; but how do you forgive someone you do not know, and if you do, someone who hasn’t asked for it… Or at the very least, someone who hasn’t expressed regret for what they did? Even salvation, which is much greater than forgiveness, is asked for personally.

I was telling a friend the other day that we probably need “crisis time” versions of Kugandara and Kuganduka, which would officially allow us to move on, without moving on completely… Only moving on halfway, until we get the answers we need to really be at peace. You know, through justice? He laughed at me. I know nothing can bring a dead person back, but do people really move on?

By Karl-Chris Nsabiyumva. Check out his blog: misterburundi.wordpress.com and follow him on Twitter: @Mr_Burundi.

Image source: storypictureagency.com