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Slow Down and Live: Roland Rugero’s Burundi

Rugero’s Baho! is the first Burundian novel to be translated into English—and it’s the perfect antidote to widespread misconceptions about his native country.

By Aaron Bady


(Photo: Roland Rugero)

If you read about Burundi in the news, you’ll read that Burundi is “on the brink.” This was the headline in the New York Timeslast April and in the Mail and Guardian last June; it was theheadline for an Al-Jazeera article in December, a Newsweekpiece in January, and aLos Angeles Times photo-spread in May (also one for Reuters). “Burundi on the Brink” has been the umbrella category for all of Vice’s coverage. “Bienvenue au Burundi,” one blogger declared — “A Country Always on the Brink.” (The major exception is the BBC, doing the language of Shakespeare proud with an inventive variation: “Is Burundi on the verge of return to ethnic conflict?”)

Why is this Burundi’s single story?

The simple answer is “Rwanda.” Everyone knows what happened in Rwanda in 1994, or at least they’ve heard the broad outlines: Ethnic violence, civil war, governmental collapse, genocide … a war of all against all, mere anarchy loosed upon the world. To say that Burundi is “on the brink” is to say that “Rwanda” could happen again, in Burundi. Just as Americans use the word “Vietnam” to denote a period in United States history — subordinating a foreign nation and its millions of people to a traumatic episode in our own narrative—“Rwanda” doesn’t just mean a nation; for political scientists, journalists, and commentators, “Rwanda” is the specter of a genocide that “the world did nothing” to stop. And just as “Vietnam” has become an American word for imperial overreach, “Rwanda” has become the same kind of object lesson in foreign policy, except with the opposite moral: If Burundi is on the brink, we must do something, now, before it becomes “Rwanda.”

The gravity of the situation in Burundi should not be understated: A quarter of a million refugees have fled the country, there are daily killings in the capital, the threat of coups and counter-coups has become constant, and who knows where it goes from here? It could get a lot worse, very fast. And the comparison with Rwanda is not facile: Rwanda and Burundi were both centralized, dynastic kingdoms from the 17th century until they were conquered by Germany in the 19th century and colonized by Belgium in the 20th. Until they became independent in 1962, the two kingdoms were part of a single colonial state, Ruanda-Urundi, in which imperial administrators pursued very similar policies, ruling through a codified and politicized distinction between Hutu and Tutsi. Belgian colonialism didn’t quite create these ethnicities, but it transformed what they meant in practice: exacerbating and codifying political divisions, issuing mandatory identity cards, and establishing the Tutsi minority as rulers of the country, over its Hutu majority. In this way, the stage was set for conflagrations to come.

Rugero’s folk philosophy can tell us things about Burundi that no political scientist has time for.

So, is Burundi on the brink? Is Burundi becoming “Rwanda”?

Roland Rugero’s newly translated novel Baho!does notask oranswer that question. This is a good reason to read it.

There is little for the political scientist in this slender novel, now translated by Christopher Schaefer for Phoneme media. The back cover declares it to be “the first novel from Burundi to be translated into English,” but readers seeking insight into the present conflict might be disappointed: It’s not about ethnic violence, nor — since it was first published in French in 2012 — can it speak to the present crisis. It will not answer the question of whether Burundi is on the brink, or going over it.

Instead, Baho! is the story of Nyamuragi, a voiceless boy who is wrongfully accused of rape and then subjected to a brutal process of communal justice: When he runs from his accuser, it is taken as a confession of guilt, and a protracted lynching begins.

Of course, the novel hardly sidesteps Burundi’s history of political violence; it is intimately concerned with the future, and with the hope that the future will be different. But Rugero asks a different set of questions about Burundi than foreign journalists or political scientists. He asks: What if it got better? And how would that happen?

When we ask if Burundi is “on the brink,” the best we can hope for is that it will stay there, that the status quo will retain its hold: There is no space for idealism or justice “on the brink,” and the best-case scenario is that things won’t get worse. We don’t need to know much of anything about Burundi at all: If we are asking whether “the world community” needs to act, and to act quickly, we only need to know the answer to one question: yes or no?

Rugero moves slowly, telling stories and lingering in the details. Indeed, far from a work of political science — or an instruction manual for international statecraft — his little book reads like political philosophy, full of parables, proverbs, and nested stories to be savored and digested slowly. Instead of looking forward to the outcome that must be prevented, it looks backwards, toward the complicated stories and memories that have brought about the present. In this way, while it is a novel about killing — and specifically about the “wounded memories” that fuel communal violence, as Rugero told me — the title means “to live” in Kirundi, expressed in the imperative. Baho! is an exclamation to a country consumed by death and violence: Live!

As Schaefer, the translator, has observed, ethnicity is conspicuous by its absence in this novel:

In Rugero’s account, we never learn the ethnicity of the unfairly accused Nyamuragi, his uncle Jonathan, or the nameless one-eyed woman…. The words “Hutu” and “Tutsi” appear only once” (and there as a reference to the oft-forgotten third ethnicity, the “Twa”).

When I asked Rugero why this was, he told me, simply, that ethnicity was not relevant. The question isn’t a good question: Those distinctions mean one thing in the city, he said, but they don’t have the same meaning in the country, and since most of the country is rural — perhaps 85 percent — that’s where he focused his attention.

Instead of a hurtling descent into violence, then, Baho! is a slow book of stories. The basic action of the novel happens quickly: Rugero — who is also a filmmaker — joked to me that if it were a film, it would be about 15 minutes long. But just as those who try to save Nyamuragi do so by slowing things down — dragging the process out so that cooler heads might prevail — Rugero’s novel also slows down the action, delving into the backstories and communal storytelling through which the rural community understands itself. Indeed, the novel is so laden with proverbs and folk tales and random tangents that the narrative sometimes seems barely to move forward: At a crucial point in the book — when the rope has been fetched with which to hang the poor boy, and everything is ready for the execution of “justice” — the novel suddenly becomes a protracted folk tale about an old man with a beautiful daughter and the age-old problem of finding the appropriate suitor. With Nyamuragi’s fate left hanging, the suspense feels like murder. But this is Rugero’s point: Simple stories make it easy to rush to action, and to take actions that cannot be taken back; take a minute, then, and tell a longer story. The important thing is to live.

This is Rugero’s point: Simple stories make it easy to rush to action, and to take actions that cannot be taken back. Take a minute, then, and tell a longer story. The important thing is to live.

If Baho! were a 15-minute film, it would be the story of a lynching. It’s still a slim novel — less than 90 pages — but Rugero drags things out until the lynching never quite happens; like rural storytelling itself, the path hugs the terrain, winding its circumlocutory way rather than taking the straight and shortest route. Or, as Rugero put it to me, if his writing is a commentary on the action, like a sports announcer’s, he tries to include everything else besides the action on the pitch: the bench, the bleachers, the singing, the yelling, the watching. Instead of the story of a young boy’s death, Baho! is the story of an entire community contemplating justice. Storytelling slows things down, and complicates what might otherwise be simple and easy. And that is the point.

For the wrongly accused Nyamuragi, after all, the problem is that he cannot not tell his story: In a moment of bladder-related need, he uses gestures to ask a young woman where he can go to relieve himself, and she mistakes his proposition as a sexual threat. It’s awkward; he is mute and cannot explain. He cannot express his underlying need for relief, and so he runs, and they quickly catch him. They judge hastily and, it turns out, wrongly.

They also judge ironically: In Burundi, athletic clubs — especially for groups of runners — have become a site of national cohesion, an officially sponsored effort to bring together citizens of all ethnicities and politics. The country that sweats together stays together; indeed, one way to understand the present government’s efforts to crack down on athletic clubs is that only through ethnic division can the current president stay in power (the irony of the present political crisis, in fact — invisible to Rwanda-minded observers — is that the question of the president’s third tem has actually brought Hutus and Tutsis together, both in defense of and opposition to the present regime).

Baho! is filled with ironies like this, “irony” being a word for something simple that turns out to be its own complicated opposite. And while taking complicated social realities and turning them into simplistic truisms is one kind of politics — the political science of action — Rugero’s is another kind of politics, one which slows things down, unfolding simple stories back into the complicated realities that we, in our haste, might overlook. The novel actually contains a figure for society’s quickness to judge, a one-eyed old woman who serves as the novel’s frame narrator. In the beginning, she watches events unfold and cheers on the bloodletting. With only one eye (metaphorically), things seem simple, obvious, and easy.

But she is also half-blind, and nothing is ever as simple as it needs to be, if we are to act on it. In this way, the conclusion of the novel amounts to a philosophy: Reflecting on what she has seen, the one-eyed woman finally observes that life is nothing but disturbance, and that “hanging, lynching, imprisonment, exile for life … are mere judgment … that can never compensate for a victim’s pain.” Violence doesn’t address violence; you can’t correct the past. You can only move forward, as, with the cautious wisdom of slow philosophy, she reflects:

Disturbances mark our entire life, whichever way you look at it. The most important thing is to disturb life itself without letting it fall to pieces. Life is the water that flows over the earth, never to be gathered together again….

Rugero’s folk philosophy can tell us things about Burundi that no political scientist has time for. And it’s worth reflecting on how hard it’s become to imagine the future as better than our hellish present, especially in places like Burundi, but certainly not only there. It’s easy to imagine the opposite — the apocalyptic descent into bloodshed and violence — but this ease is an indictment of our own myopia, we who look at Burundi and see only Rwanda, again. After all, life is the water that only flows forward, never to be gathered together again. The important thing is not to spill it.