Weekend with a one-eyed man who’s machete throw is unmatched

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Last weekend I was on a very interesting and insightful trip upcountry. I have been upcountry before but I often end up in some urban centre somewhere… and I don’t consider urban centres real representations of what countryside (the real) Burundi is about. Anyway, the little story I’m about to tell you took place somewhere in the province of Karuzi, on a hill so remote it’s hard to get a Coca-Cola for miles around. However, that particular hill is the land of my ancestors…

The primary reason for the trip was Kuganduka on a relative – my father’s cousin to be precise. For those of you who are not familiar with our culture and rituals, let me give you a rough explanation of what Kuganduka is all about…

It is a ceremony which concludes the time to mourn for a deceased. This time can be between one week and one year long depending on whether the deceased had a family or was unmarried, and on other factors. The ceremony usually begins before dawn, when close relatives of the deceased are given milk – kunywa amata – by the oldest member of the family as a sign that, despite the loss, the rest of the family will still be there to care for, love and protect them, just as the deceased used to (which makes me wonder if this is still applicable if the deceased is a child). One of the highlights of Kuganduka is the announcement of the heir to the deceased, when applicable.

The first thing I noticed when we (my dad, his best friend, a cousin and I) arrived at the family home was the shelter made of branches and old UNHCR tents, in which forty men and women (more men than women) sat eating. The entertainment was being provided by a young chap blasting Pentecostal music from his radio equipped with a memory-card reader. Naturally, being the special guests from the big city we were given the best seats. The first thing I did while seated was scan the faces in the room to determine the ethnic composition of the party… Oh, did I just shock you? Am I crazy for saying I do something every Burundian woman and man spends half of their life doing? Anyway, there was a reason behind this little “study” of mine and I’m going to share it with you…

Twenty-something years ago the land of my ancestors witnessed the largest spread of ethnic cleansing Burundi has ever known. Most of my dad’s side of the (Tutsi) family was literally wiped out in a matter of days. It was easy as they all kind of lived on the same hill. The few who survived the killings and managed to flee (including the cousin I was with) left the village for good meaning that not a single member of our family lived on the ancestral land since October 1993… well, except for my dad’s (now deceased) cousin and his family – a son, his wife and their children. They moved back there from a refugee camp a few years ago when the old man (he died aged 85), tired of the refugee life, felt like he had nothing left to lose.

So as I scanned the room, I realised that the population in it was quite homogenous; and I thought it was awesome, considering what these people had gone through not so long ago… regardless of the roles they had played in what happened. What did I know anyway? I wasn’t there when the war broke. But my cousin was; and he was old enough to understand and remember exactly what happened and how it happened.

As we sat there he started showing me men who had killed in 1993; yet they were there – free – drinking and celebrating with us. He told about this one-eyed man, sitting across the room, who’s machete throw was so precise he could hit a target trying to escape a dozen of metres away. This same man seemed delighted as he greeted us when we arrived. I couldn’t help ask myself what was really going through his mind. Did he know we knew? Obviously he knew we knew since my cousin was one of the people who managed to get away…from his machete… But what did he think of it? Did he feel comfortable sitting there; him and the other guys who had killed too? What did the hosts of the party think of it? Had they forgiven? Had they forgotten? Had all these people reconciled with the past and were they now living in peace and harmony? Or were they just pretending to get along, for the sake of surviving (each other)? Was this the solution we need to fix our problems: to just get over our past and go on like nothing ever happened?

After we had been welcomed and offered drinks, the real urubanza began. The MC called everybody together, and within seconds, the little shelter was overflowing with people, some squeezing to fit on the benches and others opting to sit on the ground that had been covered with hay. The ceremony started with giving milk (although it was well past midday) to the family, but to my surprise it wasn’t milk that they were drinking but beer… traditional sorghum beer known as impeke. Somebody explained to me that due to poverty (which translates to not owning cows; hence no milk) many Burundians (and not just in Karuzi) have resorted to using a commodity which is more accessible i.e. home brewed impeke, conveniently renamed amata for the occasion.

Whereas most Kuganduka functions I’ve been to in the city or urban centres (where there are intellectuals) are characterised by sets of formal speeches (which almost all say the same thing), things happened a bit differently upcountry. Yes, people (men and women equally, mind you!) would be given ijambo (an occasion to express themselves), but the speeches were more conversational than anything, with members of the public reacting live to what the speaker was expressing… and topics discussed ranged from testimonies on the life of the deceased, presentation of the family members, inheritance issues, guests asking for more drink, etc… I loved it! One other thing I observed was that there was no circulation of money envelopes, primarily because, traditionally, people contribute drinks (banana wine and impeke) but also because access to money (that you can give away) in this part of Burundi can be as difficult as seeing a vehicle make its way across the village (ours was the only car there) – not because the people are too poor (some of them are though) but because they live on the crops they produce.

As my father spoke, I also came to realise that the image that some “Westerners” have of Africa isn’t totally wrong: I almost fell of my chair when he reminded the congregation how the deceased used to be an expert antelope hunter and how, back then (when my dad was still a kid), the place where we were seated used to be a forest populated with wild animals some of which would wander around their homes looking for food – imagine playing outside and coming face to face with a hyena lurking in your fields! Hah!

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