By Karl-Chris R. Nsabiyumva
Photo by Guy Basabose

Bashingantahe, bapfasoni, rwaruka…

… A greeting that anybody who has attended a Burundian function has heard at least 5 times (the average number of speeches at one given function *sigh*). For those of you who aren’t familiar with the greeting, well, it’s our version of ‘Ladies and Gentlemen’… with a touch of discrimination so special to Burundians…

You see, (a)bashingantahe is the plural of (u)mushingantahe, a noun used to refer to traditional judges. Not every man could be umushingantahe; however, one had to be married to deserve the title. The same applies to umupfasoni; a married woman… unless you’re trying to say that a person is ‘polite’ in which case the word becomes an adjective that can be used to qualify both male and female i.e. I have an uncle nicknamed mupfasoni. Then there’s urwaruka… the kids… technically (and legally) anybody under the age of 18 for females, and 21 for males…

Hence, translated faithfully, the greeting actually says “married men, married women and all kids and teenagers”… Find the missing link…

During the weekend I was invited to this party at a friend’s house. It was really his parents’ party, so most of the people there were their friends. To be honest, if it hadn’t been this particular friend, I wouldn’t have even bothered going to the party by myself… Here is why…

So I already told you that most – wait, ALL of the guests were the friends of the parents of my friend i.e. married men and women. I was the only person that my friend had invited (not that he doesn’t have any other friends, but because of the meaning and reason behind the party). Then there were his cousins, none of which are above the age of 18, and some other relatives, including an uncle who is a little bit older than me, but who was nowhere to be seen when I arrived at the party. My buddy wasn’t that much ‘around’ either, so I didn’t quite have anybody to hang out with. Although I knew most of the people at the party, I just couldn’t go hang out with them… it didn’t feel right… Why?

… Because I’m single!

In this society, a person like me can’t just go and sit with the adults – read, abashingantahe and abapfasoni. If I had been a girl, it would have been easy. You would have found me at the ‘back’, with the other girls, busy helping out with the things like washing dishes, cooking and you know, stuff that girls do. The guys are usually found sitting somewhere in the corner away from the adults. At this party however, I was the only guy – until my buddy and the uncle decided to show up – so I couldn’t just go sit in a corner by myself… talk about awkward situations.

Therefore, when I first got there, I tried to be helpful… I helped set the table, arranged the chairs, got drinks for some of the guests, and ran around to and forth, pretending to look busy. At some point one of the guests – whom, I think, may have noticed that I was a bit ‘lost’ – invited me to sit next to him and we started chatting… And just when I was finally starting to feel comfortable and engaging conversations with the other guests, more adults arrived and I had to move! *sigh*- Fortunately, my buddy and his uncle finally appeared and we formed our little group which was later widened to include the teenager cousins, and the girls (after they were done with the chores).

One of my bestest friends is getting married at the end of the month. He has been making fun of me saying that once married, we won’t be getting the same ‘respect’ from people (or the same treatment at parties, for that matter). He is totally right. As soon as he “puts a ring on it” he’ll gain automatic access to the adults club. I’ve actually been wondering if at some point he won’t find it embarrassing to hang out with somebody like me, abandon me and find himself a bunch of new adult friends – which reminds me about somebody who told me it’s not ‘healthy’ to hang out with people in ‘committed relationships’ when you’re single, and vice-versa. Eish! So as much as I’m happy for my buddy getting married and all that, I’m a bit worried about the future of our friendship (this is the part where he calls or sends me an SMS, laughing out loud and asking me what kind of drugs I’m on – SMH).

We are the invisibles!

You see, in ancient Burundi, by the time one turned 18, they’d have been already married and with kids, regardless of their gender. So it was normal that one would go straight from urwaruka to umushingantahe/umupfasoni. Needless to say that the célibataires endurcis (I couldn’t find the proper term in English) were – and still are – marginalised *one minute of silence*…

Then when ‘development’ came along bringing about a new class of unmarried adult (legally speaking) men and women, society forgot to review its norms and traditions to acknowledge and include this new category! It’s like we don’t belong anywhere; or at least, we are UNFAIRLY classified as urwaruka… along with the thirteen year olds!

There are no best places to realise this than in Churches, with their ‘youth groups’. I was telling a friend the other day that many people here seem to confuse being single with being young. I know quite a few of people who passed the young age-group a long time ago but still continue to attend ‘youth group’ meetings with kids young enough to be their children. Even I (and I’m not that old) stopped going to these meetings: like there aren’t that many things a 26 year old employed man can discuss with a sixteen year old high school student; unless it’s under some sort of mentoring programme context. Quite frankly, I find more value in hanging out with my friends (and this is the part where the folks at church discover that I’ve been lying, claiming being ‘busy’ as the reason behind my absence at the meetings).

In fact, to think about it, I think it wouldn’t be a bad idea to speak with my Church leaders to see if there’s something can be done about this whole situation

… And if you ever catch me chatting about while you present your speech at some function, please don’t feel offended if you introduced it with the traditional “Bashingantahe, …” you’ll have lost me somewhere between bapfasoni and rwaruka

Tugire amahoro!

Karl-Chris currently lives and works in Bujumbura. Follow him at and on Twitter: @Mr_Burundi