The Status divide

status divide

Photo by Brice Ntwari

It used to be about schools. We were still kids so we didn’t care about “abana bo kwa…” things yet. In primary it was simple: there were public schools and private schools. Well, there were one or two good public schools (Stella Matutina peeps, this one is for you), but the general rule was that some colour (not kaki) in your uniform made you cooler. It’s in secondary school that differentiation became more “complex”…

As far as the quality of teaching was concerned there were “excellence” schools that always had the highest grades at National exams (yes, that’s you Lycée du Saint Esprit *rolls eyes*), “good” schools, “okay” schools and “ghetto” schools. Then these were divided into “high status” and “not-so-cool” schools. The “high status” schools used to run the show – that’s where most of the cool kids studied – and there were just three of them really: Ecole BelgeEcole Française and Ecole Internationale (almost, Indépendante, almost…) These weren’t the schools with the smartest kids (let’s be honest), but they were the most expensive. Ecole Belge and Ecole Française had ridiculously high fees, so not many kids studied there… and most of those who did lived in a world of their own. Internationale was where “the magic happened”, well, up until parents started sending their kids to boarding schools in Uganda, then kids who went to those schools gained cool status as well (duh, aba arrivages!).

The cool kids were generally more knowledgeable about the cool things in life than the rest of us. They were always well dressed (Belge and Française kids didn’t even wear uniform to school), the first to see new movies and to know the lyrics and choreographies of new songs. They spoke excellent French and generally better English, and the girls were allowed to relax and braid their hair… they were the prettiest. When mobile phones and SMS first arrived, we boys used to get their numbers and “anonymous” text them. In public, we kids on the wrong side of the divide used to hate on them cool kids; but deep down we wanted to be with them… some wanted to be them.

There were ways to cross the divide though, even if you weren’t enrolled at one of the “high-status” schools.
If your dad was “somebody” it was easy. In fact, I take back what I said earlier – being “umwana wo kwa…” gave you a special position in the society, regardless of what school you went to… (it was kind of a shame when “umwana wo kwa…” went to some “random” school though…)
If your dad wasn’t somebody but you lived in a good neighbourhood, it meant you were neighbours with cool kids, so you could hang out with them and be friends. Although some neighbourhoods were obviously better than others, living in a good neighbourhood made you cool (umubabilon, “from babylone”, is the correct term) in the eyes of those who lived in other parts of town, regardless of what school you went to.

Befriending a cool kid (or being related to one) gave you access to their parties, to their friends, to their world. There were always kids at school (I mean the not-so-cool schools I went to) who were popular because they were buddies with a lot of cool kids and knew so much of what was happening on the other side of the divide. (They are also the ones who’d give us the phone numbers of the pretty girls). It was very likely that these kids were at some point members of ‘Top Shaka’ and ‘TA1″ (nice try ‘United Generation’): the cool clubs (do they still exist?)

And then there were the special ones: aba arrivages – the kids from outside countries who would grace us with their presence during the holiday season. Even the cool kids admired them and wanted them in their circles.
Former arrivages (who had returned home for good) could maintain their cool status if they put in the required efforts. The easiest was to get enrolled in the “right” school. If that wasn’t possible, there were other ways… the same used by those who had gained access through cousins and friends. One of them involved being present at most if not all the parties. Cool kids loved (they still do) to organise parties, events and gatherings for cool kids nyene. One also had to be up-to-date in the clothing and gossip department. These rules haven’t really changed…

And then came University…
Status became about where one went to study after high school. The further you went from Burundi, the cooler you were likely to be. The divide began to shift. Former somebodies became nobodies and the other way around. Some of the cool girls started dating guys they would have never talked to in high school, guys who weren’t even from cool neighbourhoods.
Status was further emphasised by the quality of one’s Facebook updates i.e. trips, social life, friends, etc. In Buja, the cool kids would hang out in packs, going to the same (expensive) places, the same parties and speaking some variant of Kirundi that has a lot of English (and/or French) words in it (IgisuédoisOya reka ntaco, we get the point… na wewe nyene muchinois!). This hasn’t really changed either…

The cool kids who returned home after schooling abroad still enjoy some sort of status, although after a few years of not doing enough to maintain it (see how above), one just becomes a random person yigeze kuba hanze. If you have to pay to get into Toxic, then you are not cool. If you aren’t seen hanging out at popular spots or you aren’t invited to cool parties then your status is debatable… unless you have a cool job and make “good” money, but even still, usohokera he? Abagenzi bawe ni bande? The answers to these questions are essential to define how cool (or vain) you really are
Furthermore, there is another element that has become important, especially when chosing a life partner: your family name! “Abana bo kwa…” are more demand, which is why it is not rare to hear somebody at a wedding ask: “yarongoye/we (n’)umwana wo kwa canke umu anonyme?” Ibaze hemwe ngo umu anonyme?! *LOL! SMH*

Disclaimer: The author was born in 1987 and lived in Bujumbura between 1997-2007 and 2009-to this day. Therefore the opinions expressed in this text reflect that period. Furthermore, some opinions may be untrue or biased: As he was schooled at Ecole Saint Michel ArchangeLycée Vugizo and Lycée SOS, and does not have a face the bouncer at Toxic would recognise, it is very likely that he may have missed some very important aspects of life on the other (cool) side of the divide. Corrections and additions are welcome in the comments section. Thank you.


One thought on “The Status divide

  1. Sooo on point! Although I lived in Burundi for a very short time, I’ve noticed the exact same trends (even in the small Burundian communities abroad). It’s a bit everywhere though, not only common to Burundi.

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