They are two sister countries and their cultural and historical affinities are so profound. In fact, they are like identical twins, and no foreigner will ever be able to dissect their people. It is of no surprise to anyone that these countries are culturally and historically closely related. But what is so surprising is that they possibly but unknowingly go by the same name.
Since my school days, I was very interested in the history of countries and peoples. The word “history” didn’t make any sense to me whenever it was used to talk about peoples’ achievements and names of the places where they inhabited, if the historical knowledge available failed to provide explanations regarding the origins of those peoples and the names they identify themselves with.
After I found the origin of my clan and its name, as well as that of my ancestors’ names who guided my star, my second pertinent quest was to find out the meaning of my country’s name. I think I wasn’t alone in my desperate search for the origin of the name “Burundi”. Unable to answer a simple question like what is the meaning of the name Burundi made me feel really bad. It was a mind collapsing failure. So I set out on my journey from the unknown to the known.
During the colonial period, the Belgians ruled Burundi and Rwanda like a single country, and they even hyphened the names of their names, referring to them as Rwanda-Urundi. After independence in 1962, the two countries became separate sovereign nations, with Burundi recovering its B.
I recall one of my classmates asking the question as to why the B had been taken away from Burundi by the Belgians, and the teacher’s answer was not satisfactory, as far as I was concerned.
When I happened to meet Rwandans, we spoke about various things including the history of our respective countries. As a result of these discussions and debates, it came as a shock to me that some of them jokingly or seriously dared to talk about Burundi as an extension of Rwanda. They based their arguments on the assumption that the Belgian hyphening our countries’ names was a reflection of the idea that Burundi was an indeed an extension of Rwanda. That was completely unacceptable to me, and I always challenged them by relying on the same argument that the aforementioned teacher provided. My Rwandan friends’ point of view was hurting my nationalistic feelings, because I regarded the implications and meaning of that statement as completely blasphemous and therefore intolerable.
These discussions revived my desire to find out the origin and the meaning of the name Burundi, with its B remaining untouched. My findings have now changed the way I see the two countries and my approach to analysing the events that have occurred in the same.
In Kirundi and Kinyarwanda, two languages spoken in Burundi and Rwanda respectively, when the name of a person, a cow or a hill is often constructed from the combination of two words, one ending with a vowel and the other beginning with a another vowel. Hence, the vowel at the end of the first word is omitted and only the vowel at the beginning of the second word is kept or reappears in the constructed name as a result of the combination of the two words.
- Ntiburumunsi: this name is constructed with two Kirundi words combined together: Ntibura-Umunsi.
- Muhimpundu. This is also a name of a person that is derived from the combination of two words: Muhe–
- Yiyuhimpundu. This is a name of a person, derived from two words: Yiyuha-Impundu.
- Bihungimpunzi. This is again another name of a person, constructed with two words combined: Bihunga-Impunzi.
In the few examples given above one can see that the vowel at the end of the first word has been omitted while constructing the names, whereas the first vowel at the beginning of the second word remains.
Those who understand Kirundi and Kinyarwanda would agree with me that the term Burundi is constructed with the help of two Kirundi words: “Ba” and “Urundi”. “Ba” derives from the verb Kuba(ho) which can nearly be translated into English as verb “to be”. “Ba” is used when a person is giving an order or making an authoritative request which cannot be declined. It has to sound like an order, or as if a person was speaking over someone with full confidence that his/her words have the power to transform and bring forth the person – a sort of desired-results-producing power.
In our case under consideration, the order is given or the request is made to something – a country, a territory, an entity. But again, where we come from, people do not consider a country as just… something. In fact, our country “gives birth” (Igihugu catwibarutse ), our country has a womb and the actions of whoever drives it into a valley of desolation and miseries are equated with the killing a fetus in the country’s womb (kugifukama mu nda= kneeling on the country’s womb). Therefore, to us, a country is also a person to whom we can talk, convey a message… thus, it is capable of listening.
The second word used in the construction of the name Burundi is Urundi. The meaning of Urundi is also easily understood by anyone who speaks or can understand Kirundi or Kinyarwanda. It means, “another”.
The first letter of the word Urundi functions as an article or determiner (the same as “a” functions in “a country”), except that in Kirundi, the article is part of the word it determines. And then, –ru– functions as a pronoun. Given the rules of Kirundi grammar, we can assume that it’s referring to another word that also “starts” (after the article) with –ru–, and was referred to earlier in the same sentence.
This is how the constituent elements that make up a word are checked in Kirundi. Probably the same rule applies in Kinyarwanda. When one looks into the construction of the word Urwanda, we find the u– and the –ru– present too: Urwanda: /U-ru-and-a/
From what is demonstrated above, one can clearly see that the duo –uru– from the word Burundi plays a role no other than that of representing something/a word that had already been said in a sentence by the person who was talking.
Considering the fact that the Kingdom of Rwanda predates the Kingdom of Burundi, considering that these countries speak similar languages and share strong cultural ties (including proverbs, value systems, social group make ups, beliefs, the same God with the same nomenclature, etc.), the following inference can be drawn: the person or the group of people who named the territory that we now know as Burundi must have known about Rwanda and its people; or they were most likely coming down from Rwanda.
Coming back to the word “Ba“, I assume that it’s arguably agreeable that whoever spoke this word for the first time was giving an order to something – a territory or entity in this case – to which he or she ordered “To Be Urundi!”
But… another what?!
The answer is already clear for those who speak Kirundi or Kinyarwanda or both. There is only one clue that can lead us to an answer for this question. The duo “uru–” as I said earlier plays a representative role in the term or name Burundi. In my opinion, and in the light of what has been shown above as well as the linguistic, historical and cultural ties between our two countries, the “uru–” may very well represent “Urwanda” in the term “Burundi”.
I believe that the person or people who said the word “Burundi” for the first time were probably standing on the hilltop of one of the countless highlands in Burundi, with Rwanda behind them. They looked at the hills and valleys, the height of the hill they were standing atop allowing them to see far and wide, and ordered the new land “To Be another Rwanda”. I believe that the complete sentence they said, with fingers pointed at each of the two countries sounded something like: “Wewe uri Urwanda, nawe Burundi (Ba-Urundi) – You are Rwanda, and you, be another!”
It is also possible that groups of people migrated from Rwanda and named the territories they brought under their control outside of Rwanda as Burundi. Even in this case, Burundi retains the meaning assigned to it in the explanations given above.
By Ndayishimiye Bitwivyamaza Ntumvibihwiji (Floribert)