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from the July 2015 issue

Burundi: Writing from the State of Sleep

Burundi is a small East Central African nation on the northern edge of Lake Tanganyika, one of Africa’s Great Lakes, which holds almost one-fifth of the world’s entire fresh water supply. The lake was of minor strategic importance during World War I, when it was a battle site for the German and British, later served as the backdrop of Che’s fighting in the Eastern Congo, and today is home to Gustave, allegedly the world’s largest crocodile. The former Belgian colony’s reputation has been shrouded in the despair of a fifteen-year civil war, which ended officially in 2005, and overshadowed by its neighbor Rwanda’s genocide, which is entangled in Burundi’s own story of periodic political violence along ethnic lines. Known to many only as an exotic source of high-end coffee, Burundi has recently been in the news after a decade of relative peace and recovery, because of its president’s contentious bid for a third term in office, which has led to a failed coup attempt and a significant outflow of refugees who fear a return to civil war. Despite this upheaval, an active literary culture is emerging from among its estimated population of just over ten million, led by young writers like the three presented here.

Very few opportunities for literary publishing exist in Burundi, although that is beginning to change. The three writers in this feature are notable for their literary activism. Ketty Niyvabandi and Roland Rugero co-founded the Samandari Writing Workshop, which meets weekly in Bujumbura, in 2009. Rugero was instrumental in establishing the Prix Michel Kayoya, named for the noted Burundian memoirist, which has twice recognized Abdoul Mtoka for his French-language prose. An English-language contest, the Andika Prize, was launched in 2013, in an effort to encourage Burundi’s integration into the East African Community (EAC) as well as the development of its relationship with the United States. Increasing access to the Internet has proven important to the most recent generation of Burundian writers, connecting them to a wider audience while expanding their own access to literature being written around the world. Nivyabandi recently told me, “Social media has become the equivalent of the traditional fire: a space where stories and ideas can be shared, debated.”

The Kirundi language is spoken by all three of Burundi’s ethnic groups, and its oral tradition remains strong. Its influence on contemporary literature is significant, even as most Burundian writers work in French. Nivyabandi compares the elevated diction of the oral tradition to Classical Greek or Latin, and attributes much of her nature-oriented imagery and the rhythmic repetition of her poetry to its influence. Rugero begins each chapter of his novel Baho!, which Chris Schaefer has elegantly translated from the French, with a Kirundi proverb that sets the tone of the narrative to follow: “Kahise gategura kazoza. The past prepares the future.” While French predominates as the language of written literature, it’s not the only language of literary production. Mtoka writes his poetry in Swahili, spoken in his home neighborhood, Buyenzi, and along the shores of Lake Tanganyika.

It is my hope that these examples of contemporary Burundian literature help paint a broader, more humanizing, and more optimistic portrait of Burundi than the relentless negativity of the news cycle. Despite recent political upheaval, demonstrated concretely by the estimated 90,000 refugees currently in Rwanda, Tanzania, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo, these urgent new voices refuse to give up in their pursuit of a better Burundi.

© 2015 by David Shook. All rights reserved.

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