Burundi: When Silence Tells the Story

The story of rebel violence, ethnic division, entrenched poverty, government instability, and lack of access to resources–education among the top–are the leitmotifs of the African Great Lakes region since independence for most of the nation-sates in the early 1960s. Burundi has been one of the best examples of this far too consistent and tragic through-line. No different than its neighbors–Burundi experienced the events that unfolded in the aftermath of colonial domination and the next generation of leaders too reticent and green to embrace a fully democratic practice of an egalitarian society. Coups, rebellions, assassinations and even genocide were all employed as political recourse for governmental action and policy. Over time such recourse takes on an inner dimension of a society, of a people–both personable and palatable. Ironically, the wounds that have not healed, the scars far too visible, and the silence ever deafening have furthered the complex and confounding nature of Burundi’s story. Burundi’s true story is the one that was never told.

Burundians do not tell their story. The old adage in the Kirundi language goes: “Ntuhandwe ku rurimi ibirenge birihotranslated as “Don’t be stung/hurt/stuck on the tongue, when you have feet for that”. In Burundi, keeping secrets is a quality. The adage refers to, one, avoiding such divulging of truths and, two, talking carefully so as to avoid compromising oneself–as a protective measure from potential sabotage or betrayal. It also refers to the notion that keeping secrets is like wisdom for Burundians who have experienced the deadly and destructive themes in the decades of their independent, sovereign nation. And, like all themes–lessons are learned. Perhaps, in a psychoanalytical sense this keeping secrets and truths to oneself is the feeling that no one outside can truly understand the plight Burundians faced and continue to face. It may be a coping mechanism to forge the inner strength to prevail through the woes and challenges such lessons bring. Or perhaps, simply, a sense of pride befalls the Burundian. Burundians are a very proud people. Pride is a limitation in that it makes Burundians think that no other people can truly comprehend what they went through–which can be limiting to those on the outside willing to help. It is also an asset in that it unites them together as a people despite their historical origins and the divisions intentionally created by their colonial ruler.

Strangely enough–there’s a long tendency of Burundians to think that anyone who divulges a secret, even if it is true and about the facts is called a ‘liar’. The popular word in Kirundi-umubeshi is referenced to this notion. The thinking here, which may seem contradictory, is the feeling that such hurt that Burundians went through is not enough to articulate in words. Picture the Burundian who lived through the 1972 genocide retelling the horrific event to another person even a fellow Burundian. Another meaning could also imply that such sordid narratives must never be told. Therefore the telling of such stories needs to be put down swiftly–which often means discrediting the messenger and stifling any revelatory details. Any exposure to such revelation to truths, secrets and information–is shunned and dismissed. Umugabo afira ibanga or Gupfira ibanga are Kirundi expressions of keeping “the secret until death”. On the flip side this could also mean ‘”faithfulness until death”, like in the U.S. Marines motto ‘Semper Fidelis‘–Latin phrase meaning “always faithful” or “always loyal”. If my line of thinking is correct on this long tendency and practice of discrediting the messenger or limiting the access to accurate and profound truth-telling I believe it reveals a deeper reality to the level of trauma Burundians are living with. This trauma is brought by the constant cycles of war, hunger, insurrection, oppression, tyranny, injustice, impunity, pain, fear, betrayal and revenge. If people of a given milieu specifically and citizens of a country generally hold back in any dissemination of information, feelings, moods, secrets, facts, and experiences of their given environment due to an irreconcilable trauma important aspects are left out of the given narrative. We, who truly want to understand through the nuances of such narratives that are often relegated to the margins of history, will be left lost in piecing together the long saga that continues to haunt Burundians and their beloved homeland.

One thought on “Burundi: When Silence Tells the Story

  1. Athos

    A very nice perspective. However, I would disagree that Burundians are not story tellers. They are. You just need to listen to their imigani, ibitito, amazina, ibisokozo, ibicuba, Imvyino, etc., even name calling because Burundians live in a context-rich culture, their story telling is never literal. The most figurative one is, the most admired s/he is. To suggest that Burundians do not tell stories, or their stories, would be to say that poets are not story tellers.

    I would also object to the characterization of silence. Being silenced and being silent are two different concepts. From colonization to the different military dictatorships, Burundians perfected the art of inner retreatism. They learned that “uko zivugijwe ni ko zitambwa.” For instance, following the 1972 events, it was forbidden to say “1972” or “72”. The question is whether they cannot conceptually tell that the drum’s beat is different, or whether their pride dies during with the survival mode.

    Burundians’ spirit and pride live on, despite losing their mwami, the denigration of their budhingantahe/bupfasoni, their sovereignty. As is done for other cultures, once must take the time to know the people of Burundi before trying to decipher their message. No people is literal; neither are Burundians.


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