A couple years ago, I meet someone at a social of some African association in Boston. When I told him that I was from Burundi, he said: “Oh ladies from Burundi, in your education, they teach you how to be lady like, right?” I thought, wait a minute, duh, every girl is taught to some extent to behave like a lady… that’s everywhere no? Every society has their gender norms with an ideal set for what makes a respectable woman. But then I instantly thought of “Ubupfasoni” and understood what he meant. We are raised to become abapfasoni, which I guess has a certain lady like pretense to it. More recently a very close friend of mine told me “les Burundaises vous faites vos precieuses, surtout en presence d’autres Burundais”. This is less flattering because, thanks to Moliere, être precieuse c’est être ridicule. He does have a point. The standards are so high, sometimes unattainable, so we sometimes focus on acting like ladies instead of being ladies.

Truly, I have been thinking, what really is umupfasoni? What is it that we are taught that makes us abafpasoni b’iteka – respectable ladies? Last week on a Facebook group called Habwimpundu #BurundiGratitudeChallenge a lady praised ubupfasoni. She went on about how it reflects a great sense of dignity and self worth, and did a cool feminist manifesto. I think she just came up with her own definition, so I will come up with mine. For a start I will use the etymology she gave. “Umu-pfa-soni ni umuntu yotuma apfa ha gukorwa n’isoni” – a person that would rather die than live with shame. She is right the contrary to umupfasoni is ishirasoni – one who exposes their shame. To go further, I think there are some key traits umupfasoni is expected to have; let’s go through them.

The first and most important one is confidentiality.
Let’s remember the primary role of umupfasoni is to be a mother and wife, as such she is the one the family confides in. She must be able to keep her own secrets, and those of everyone of her family members. And yes everything is a secret! So women whisper to one another, and a mother and her daughter share many secrets, many times even more than spouses share secrets. In her actions, things like speaking or laughing loud are frowned upon. So is crying in public. Such behaviors show too much emotion, which should be secret as well. They reflect a lack of discretion. She does not want to look like a person who divulges everything; she has to be someone that can be trusted with the most mundane matters as well as the darkest secrets and be able to handle them.

The second is humility.
Umupfasoni must be proud and stand her ground on her values, her name as well as her family’s name. She should not compromise her integrity or do anything shameful for any reason. Yet she must be humble and modest. There is no room for arrogance and self-boast mu bupfasoni. She is expected kwicisha bugufi – to make yourself small. She should be discreet in everything she does. Attention seeking is not tolerated! It is about knowing your worth but not looking down on anyone.

The third I would say is graceful selfless work ethic – umwete.
The worst thing a lady can be is lazy! She must stay on her feet and make herself useful. Cook, clean, fetch water, help mom, grand mom, older sisters, anyone older than her. She has to care of anyone younger than than her as if they are her family. So things like dragging her feet disqualify her from the club of abapfasoni. Plus “nta mukobwa aba umushitsi” – a girl is never a guest. When she enters a person’s home, she should not to expect to be treated as a guest, but demonstrate the selfless work ethic by treating everyone else as a guest and serving them, cleaning up and so forth. All this work must be done gracefully and selflessly making it look effortless. This makes me think of the different Burundian traditional dances, they are so energetic and powerful yet the whole secret is to make them look graceful and effortless. Umupfasoni never wants to be seen over eating (or even eating at all) or drinking, or over indulging in anything. This could make her look like igisambo – a glutton.

The fourth is a perfect combination of simplicity and elegance.
Umupfasoni is expected to be put together, well maintained but never overdoing it. Bling bling is distasteful and just too much. I think our traditional dress imvutano is the truest reflection of this aspect. It is so elegant, yet a very simple outfit. It is comfortable but makes us look tall, voluptuous and graceful. Her elegance shows her infallible pride and the simplicity reflects of her humility.

Overall, pride is the most important point. Umupfasoni calculates everything she does and says so as to never be disgraced. Now even though umupfasoni designates a woman, ubupfasoni – which is the combination of all the above traits – is a valued quality in both men and women in our society. There is higher emphasis on women to have it.

Now as much as I am a TCK, and am confused about many Burundian things, I am heavily influenced by ubupfasoni. No! I did not just self declare myself umupfasoni as described above. I am just expressing that in my conception of gender roles, and things that inspire admiration, ubupfasoni is essential. Obviously it’s almost impossible to have all the characteristics described above, but when we fail, we’ve got to fake it, which is where is gets ridiculous. Many are too focused on perception, rather than substance. Ubupfasoni is about being lady, and always looking like one. Never loosing face. And that often gets out of control, as many pay too big of a price to “keep face”.

So dear foreigners, this is your intro to the perfect murundikazi. My fellow Burundians, how else would you describe abapfasoni?

MRG currently lives in Toronto, Canada. You can find her on Twitter at @msmiraiga

Photo: Burundi National Tourism Office

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