On the surface, it is possible to mistake me for a typical Nkurunziza supporter. I am Hutu. I spent the majority of my childhood in various refugee camps, and my mom, just like Nkurunziza, lost her father in the 1972 genocide. In other words I have all the characteristics of an average “#SilentMajority” member, except well, I am not. You are probably wondering why I am being so open about all of this. This is almost Unburundian-like and I will gladly take it. But look, being Hutu or Tutsi is a very real thing in our society. In fact I can’t think of anything more real than that. It’s in our constitution. You can’t run for public office without publicly indicating which ethnicity you are or identify with.
I have been Hutu for all my life, but until recently, this part of my identity has been mostly uninteresting. In May this year a friend of mine invited me to the first anti-third term demonstration that took place in Edmonton. He knew where I stood on the matter based on conversations he and I had had as we watched the whole ordeal unfold. My views were quite firm at the time, and I don’t know whether I was being naive, but I assumed I shared the same views with the majority (no pun intended) of those Burundians I know. I was wrong.
On the morning of the demonstration, somewhat unexpectedly, I found myself spending more time than usual in the shower trying to find reason for what I was about to do. The night before, it’d been a non-matter, but when the day arrived, it became clear to me that if I were to go to the protest, I ought to know why. I ought to be convinced. I asked myself a lot of questions. In the process, images of protesters in Buja flashed in my mind, and so did those of refuges I had seen that week. The later touched me the most. They were too familiar. For so many years, I had been the boy behind the mother running for safety. I saw myself and many others I know in the innocent eyes of those refugee children. I got dressed, went and picked up a few signs and made my way to the protest.
When I got to the venue of the protest, a few people had arrived. I introduced myself to the people already there. We waited for a few minutes for more people. An hour or so later, the march started. Chants begun. Songs kicked in. This one lady grabbed the megaphone and started leading the chants, some of which I found to be at best in disagreement with, and at worst just plain outrageous. I figured we can’t all agree on the specifics of the protest but it’s important to keep in mind that we all have a common goal. After the march, we assembled at a square where a rally-type of event was to conclude the demonstration. A gentleman who I believe was the chief organizer took the mic and said a few words, mostly thanking people for their participation. I don’t recall much of what he said. Later, someone else took the mic and said a few words as well.
I have a confession to make here. Remember how I said earlier that I didn’t agree with some of the chants at the demonstration? One of those chants I didn’t agree with was “No more genocide”. But, that’s not the confession; I will come back to it later. The UN defines genocide as “acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group”. At the time of the demonstration there was no indication that Nkurunziza’s government was planning or carrying out genocide. I saw no need to drag that term into a demonstration that to me was about democracy and respect of the rule of law.
A few days later, I phoned a friend of mine who is probably the most passionate Burundian I know. I had not seen him at the demonstration and wondered why he did not participate. We had a long impassioned conversation, but at the end of it, my impression was that his argument was simple. “This fight is not ours. It’s theirs.” And by us he meant Hutus. And them Tutsis.
Back to my confession: the Burundian in me that still thinks in Hutu-Tutsi terms had noticed a disproportional representation at the demonstration. I hope this is not news to anyone reading this blog but there were significantly more Tutsis at the rally than Hutus. I am not going to lie, in the moment his argument coupled with my observation at the rally struck a chord with that Burundian in me. As days went by, I continued to examine my position on the issue. I tried to be as informed as I could. When I was confused or didn’t understand something, I would ask people whom I believed knew more and could help broaden my understanding of that particular issue. The more I knew, the stronger my position got. That did not stop me from being accused, by a presumably Hutu fellow, of going to anti-third term events simply to pursue Tutsi women, on a Facebook comment thread months later. I found that accusation laughable.
The committee that organized the first rally started to plan for a second one. They offered me a chance to be part of the planning team, which I readily took. This gave me an opportunity to voice my concerns from the first demonstration, which were immediately and appropriately addressed. I had spontaneously spoken at the first protest, and when they asked me to speak at this one, I knew I had to think clearly of what to say. I wanted to tell people why I was protesting and so I started my speech by telling the story of the first time I went to Burundi (I wrote about it here if interested). How Burundi became home, and how as a son of that home, I have the responsibility to do everything in my power to protect and maintain its integrity, which in this case involves advocating for a more peaceful, secure, and democratic Burundi. A Burundi that respects rights of its citizens. A Burundi whose leaders honor and not disregard the rules and agreements that we have put in place to guide us. I believed then, and I still do now that I share those beliefs with many Hutus and Tutsis, and will continue to fight for them whether I am fighting alongside Tutsis or Hutus because at the end of the day, Burundi belongs to us all.
By Alain Ndayishimiye. Alain lives and works in Edmonton, Canada. You may follow him on twitter @alainndayi.