I have been introduced to a new word that may take me a lifetime to understand. The word is ubuntu. It is less a word and more a philosophy, a way of living, but my Burundian/Rwandese, maybe all my African friends, will know what I am talking about. It is one of those words that is hard to translate; the kind of word that makes faces soften, hands draw up to the heart and eyes stare off in wonder when you say it aloud. Literally translated it means “human-ness.” Its core belief is that humans cannot exist in isolation because society is not made up of individuals, but people who “belong to each other,” who share in each other’s humanness, who say, “we are because you are, and since you are, definitely I am” (Eze, Michael Onyebuchi. 2010. Intellectual History in Contemporary South Africa. Palgrave Macmillan). Let me introduce you to a few faces of the people I have met who possess ubuntu.
This is Freddy Kaniki and his wife Esther. He is part of the reason I have made it to Burundi. Almost two years ago, Norbert Runyambo, the father of two of my students and patron saint of my trip to Rwanda as well as almost everyone who knows him there, introduced me to Freddy who is building the Burundi American International Academy in Bujumbura. The school is perfectly sandwiched between the shores of Lake Tanganyika (a lake so beautiful I think I could spend the rest of my life just staring at it) with views of it out one side of the building and the mountains of Burundi on the other side. Freddy knows that it is in the classroom where the seeds of the future are planted. While I was there, I helped edit a few brochures with my new friend Carine who is helping Freddy fill the school with both local and international children. Carine invited me to her son Johan’s fifth birthday party where I met her friend Alice who went to college in the U.S. (in Pennsylvania in fact!) but who felt the pull of her beautiful Burundi and could not resist, and so she came back to work in her native country. In the photo, Alice is on left and Carine on the right. I think you can figure out which one is the five year old. Check out BAIA on line at: http://www.baiacademy.org.
Nelson Mandela has said that one of ubuntu’s basic tenets is related in a story of olden times. He tells of how travelers entering unknown villages were treated. They did not need to ask for food or water; the people of the village would supply them with what they needed. I have been that traveler invited into the homes, the cabs, the restaurants, the schools, the markets and everywhere I went in lovely Bujumbura. Everywhere, I got what I needed and so much more. I was lucky enough to live with the best hosts in all of Burundi and meet people like my two friends Dominick and Judicate.
Indeed, ubuntu is here in the people of Burundi. They do not ignore their past or their present. Both are very real for them. It is evident when Domitille pinches my leg after an important person, who drives like he actually does own the road, picks us up after our car dies hours from home. We are stopped and I point at a structure, innocently asking what it is. The Pinch. I shut up. (That’s one universal gesture that has meaning in every language.) I later learn I was pointing at the sight where a class of secondary school students was asked to separate into Hutus on one side and Tutsis on the other. The students refused. Their school was burned down with them in it. Domitille later tells me you don’t ask such questions when a favor is being extended.
But that Burundi is the same place where Lake Tanganyika’s pristine waters calls out to you as you enjoy lunch by its banks. It is where Freddy Kaniki is building BAIA because he believes education is the way to rebuild the country he loves despite losing his father and brothers during its long civil war from 1993-2005. It is where the Godfather of music in Burundi Buddy (pronounced Boo-day) and singer, American born/current Nairobi resident, Denise Gordon performed on a recent Friday night at the Roca Golf Hotel and then came out with a bunch of us who continued dancing until the wee hours of the morning at Geny’s Beach.http://www.burundi-tourism.com/
On my second day in Burundi I sent an email to E’nkul Kanakan, former Waynflete board member and father of five, three of whom are Waynflete alumni (Axel Kanakan, 2008, Cynthia Kanakan, 2010 and Kevin Kanakan, 2013). I asked him where the family lived when they were there. “Avenue Muyenga,” he writes back. My heart stops. I am living at 44 Avenue Muyenga. I am on the same street….just a few blocks away from their family home.So here it comes full circle. They left for good reasons in 1996 and I visited for good reasons. It is all connected. I am here because you are there.
I am ending this post with a photo montage of some of my favorite Burundi photos. I want to remember this place forever.