Photo copyright: Nelson Niyakire

It’s a Thursday night, it’s almost 2AM. I have work in the morning and yet I’m sipping on my Sauvignon Blanc, conversing with Tricia and Nadine (aliases, for the sake of anonymity). The three of us, all originating from different countries in East Africa, were fortunate enough to move to Amuuurica for higher education. Four years ago, the wedding of a friend we had in common brought us together and our lives were forever changed as we can no longer imagine life without one another. A mere two weeks after the wedding, we were already having a slumber party and a couple of months later, we were on our way to Las Vegas for a fun weekend, turning up on the little money that was still being sent by our parents (spoiled brats, I know). If this were to be a romantic relationship, we would have definitely been moving way too fast, but for some reason (female intuition, maybe?), it felt right and appropriate for the three of us. Since then we have cried and laughed together, temporarily lived together, fought and not talked for weeks at a time; shared our dreams and fears, bought birth control for one another, called out on each other for making bad decisions or being a bad friend, and the list goes on… We are family, sometimes more so than real family.

Like most migrants, I left Burundi nearly 7 years ago having established strong friendships, bonds that could never be broken by neither distance nor time… or so I thought.
Before I moved, I had a close-knit group of friends. The five of us had gone through the ups and downs, the best and worst of our teenage years leading up to our respective departures for different parts of the world in pursuit of a better life and better education. Just like any group of girlfriends, we had each other’s backs but simultaneously had ambiguous dynamics:
Some were closer than others, some had dated the same guy (what? I know right?!), some talked about others behind their backs; some drank alcohol while others religiously attended youth church groups. No one except for us could have ever guessed any of the above mentioned by the looks of our Facebook/Hi5 pictures, our public displays of affection, our perfect depiction of a “ride or die” group of girls everyone wanted to be friends with.

Fast forward to 2015, a year we would all turn 25. Despite our friendship having experienced a few difficult and silent times, occasional Whatsapp messages and Skype calls (shallout to Whatsapp, amirite?!), we always wanted to celebrate the milestone that is a quarter century, together. With God’s grace, we were all at a stage in life where we could afford to personally pay for trips and celebrate each of our birthdays together – at least, we planned to.
Unfortunately, the unpredictability of life as an adult made it possible for us to only celebrate three birthdays: one in New York City, one in Toronto and the last one in Miami. (Damn, that makes us sound so fabulous but, over a year later, we are lowkey still paying for those trips. This life, smh! Don’t be fooled by credit cards!)
On every single one of those trips, we recreated our epic group photos, reminisced on our crazy teenage years, were introduced to significant others, enjoyed a couple (or more?) tequila shots, remembered how much fun we could have together and how much we actually loved each other. However, on my flights back, I couldn’t help but realize how unconsciously different I tended to be when around them. I was always happy and excited to spend time with them and considered them my very best friends. Friends I could easily speak French, Kirundi and English to all at once, friends I loved collecting our awesome photo ops with, and yet, I always looked forward to reuniting with Tricia and Nadine back “home”.

For some reason, I felt guarded and choosy about life stories or feelings I would share with the group, opting to keep it as positive and superficial as possible – was it all in my head? Was I the only one having those conflicting thoughts? Could these thoughts be an indication of a friendship falling apart? Or was it the unassuming fact that the “ride or die girls” always found a way to “playfully” ridicule me for either my petite size, my inaptitude to set up an umbrella on the sandy beach of South Miami (apparently, a real adult should know that kind of sh*t), my lack of cooking skills, my unorthodox “American” lifestyle and accent, etc? For as long as I can remember, the most recurring dynamic of our conversations always revolved around me being one to make fun of, the one who could take a joke, the one who always had to learn from others – truth be told, out of all, I have always been the most free-spirited, spontaneous, fun and witty one, so clearly, I had no feelings whatsoever (big LOL). But then again, playful ridicule is at the core of the Burundian culture: the more they tease you, the more they have love for you, and that’s how you grow a tough skin.
Was I just becoming more sensitive? Had I set different standards and/or meaning to friendship over the years we had spent apart? Were they poking on my deeply embedded insecurities? Was it me or was it them?

It’s now a little bit past 2 AM. Tricia, Nadine and I are still talking about the true meaning of lifelong friendships. Is the friend you call at 3 AM to help you get through a panic attack the true friend? Is the friend you have known your entire life, look forward to having play dates with, but yet feel ashamed to call in dire times the most realistic representation of a lifelong friend?
Is it okay to let go of a friend solely based on the fact that distance and time have created stronger bonds with the ones closest in proximity to you? What will happen when Tricia, Nadine and I go back to our respective home countries or relocate somewhere else and start our own families? We live in an era where migration is almost unavoidable for many of us, either by choice or by force. (Thanks Pita for leading some of us to unwillingly leave Burundi SMH!)

I have learned that friendship and kinship are the true cornerstones of one’s life experiences. My pastor once said “show me your friends and I’ll tell you your future”. Which friends would definitely shape my future? Even then, is that the future that’s best for me?

What does the Burundian culture say about friendship, anyway?

A million questions and yet no clear answers. The older I grow, the more I question everything about and around me. Someone once told me that friends you make in your twenties are likely to stay your friends for a lifetime. Twenties are commonly known as the years that shape the person you are going to be for the rest of your adult life. Ironically, I have spent most of my twenties abroad where life-defining moments were shared with my non-Burundian friends. As I intend to permanently relocate back home in the near future, will I have to start from scratch and create a new support system or instead, will I be able to rely on the friends and community I left behind before I ever had to question pretty much anything?

I can’t be the only one having a thousand unanswered questions going through my mind at any given time, can I? If I don’t know who my real friend is, am I truly my own best friend?

Somebody help a sister out!

By Natacha, a marketing professional in Berkeley, California.