Learning from Burundi’s Civil War

A year or so ago I started a “Reading Around the World” program, which I had read about online. It is basically just what it sounds like: you read a book from each country in the world, A to Z. The woman whose blog I read did it in a year; it is definitely going to be a much longer project for me: I am reading other books, too, and taking my time [which is why I only just yesterday finished the Bs!]

The last country [alphabetically] in the Bs is Burundi, and the book I read from that country is the one in the picture: The Tears of a Man Flow Inward: Growing up in the Civil War in Burundi, by Pacifique Irankunda. It was fantastic, and I wanted to share a few reflections that I am still thinking about.

The subtitle basically sums up the story, which talks about how Irankunda managed to stay alive in the middle of a 15 year civil war between the Tutsis and the Hutus, including the colonial background that put the conditions in place that led to the war. He is an amazing writer, and his story is both really poignant and also really applicable as we think about peace today and how to work for it.

He talks a lot about his mother, Maman Clémence. She was an amazing woman and not only kept her family together, but also earned the respect of friends and enemies alike because of her kindness and her integrity. He talks about one time she confronted some soldiers, and as a young boy, he was amazed at the respect they showed his mother. As he reflected later on why they treated her that way, this is what he concludes: “Maman Clémence showed them respect and tender love. These were things she seemed to have completely internalized when she saw soldiers mistreating somebody, she talked to them as if she were talking to her own children. I think they were surprised that she confronted them when everyone else feared them. She didn’t do this in a hostile or argumentative way. It was as if she were disappointed and surprised by what they were doing, as if she were their mother, and they knew what she expected of them. The way she talked to them was not talking down, but lifting them up…For the soldiers to be told by someone who seem to care for them that what they were doing was wrong and out of character was, I think, a compliment to them, and uplifting” [42-43].

At multiple places in the book, he talks about the Bashingantahe, which literally means “many just people.” This is a traditional judicial institution, which existed in every village. “They were ordinary people, farmers, and cow herders, but you could not become one of them unless everyone in your village agreed that you were wise and just” (26). An individual of this group was called a Mushingantahe. He describes the history of this institution, and how it was extremely democratic; he notes that “One European wrote: ‘it is incredible, how in a society without police, the Bashingantahe managed to maintain social order by their moral authority.’” This institution was a casualty of colonialism; it was outlawed by the Belgians, “who replaced their wise justice with violence” [54].

He also describes how, in Kurndi [the language of Burundi], the word “God” can also we used as a verb. He writes, “In Kirundi, Kumana means ‘to God’ and Kumanira [means] ‘to God through’. There is a Burundian saying, “Imana imanira mu bantu, which means ‘God gods through people’. If there is a way to defeat evil, in us and in the world, perhaps it is to allow God to god through us” [116-117]. I love that concept: God ‘godding’ through people.

Finally, Irankunda tells the story about going to upstate New York to see some cows. Not just any cows, of course: these were unique cows, Ankole cows, the historic “Cattle of Kings.” This type of cow is originally from Africa, and they play a central role for his family and many people in Burundi. Irankunda finds out that this couple has some of them, and so he travels to see them. He explains to them that he grew up with these cows, and that they were, in a sense, part of his family. He says, “I am a Tutsi. And my people, back then they called us Watusi. So the cattle actually carry the name of my people” [143].

He goes on to have a great conversation with this couple, and he says that he felt at home, being with the cows again. As he was leaving, he noticed a big banner on the barn: “Farmers for Trump. Make America Great Again.” He writes, “I thought of the warm exchange I just had with Julie and the laughter we had shared talking about cows, and also of Tom’s generosity–stopping work, and taking me to his barn–and I felt unsure how to reconcile these interactions with the news and political campaigning that were dominating the media here in the United States. I felt a sad, cognitive dissonance. What I’d heard on the news and from American friends has made me think that I wouldn’t–and shouldn’t–feel comfortable among people who had voted for Trump. We would have nothing in common, I had assumed. Now I thought about the identity politics in my native country, and I told myself, ‘it’s all the same‘” [146].

I really appreciated the insights he shared about Burundi–the country, the culture, the religion and the history–and how he reflected on his experiences there in light of his life in the United States now. There is lots to reflect on, lots to learn about dealing with differences, and forming relationships across divisions.

2 thoughts on “Learning from Burundi’s Civil War

  1. I love your “reading around the world” personal book club!! Next time you post about one of those books, can you say a little about how you find and choose titles? Miss you!


    1. Of course! If you Google “reading around the world,” you will find several different lists. I start with one of those, but then also Google [for example] Cameroon authors to get current ideas. Some have more options than others; for Andorra, there is only one book that I could find that is actually translated into English “Tale of Cheops,” by Albert Salvado!


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