Only In Burundi

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.

Photo of founders of Burundi American International Academy, Freddy and Esther Kaniki

Freddy Kaniki and his wife Esther


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.

Freddy had asked Carmen Nibigira, Burundi’s Director General of Tourism, to host my stay, but I was warmly welcomed not just by her but by her whole family: the beautiful Elsa, a budding Interior Designer like my own daughter Amelia, Carmen’s sons Dominik and Merick who were so busy studying for their exams we only had limited time to perfect our card games, Emmanuel and Fulgence, the two men who keep the home humming and make the most delicious food (especially pancakes!), and my new, dear friend, Domitille, a former Ambassador who is a VIP whether she admits it or not. She currently serves as an Advisor to the Ministry of Justice on issues of Gender, Human Rights and Legal Negotiations, but you would never know she has such a high position. She is humble and tries to mask her importance, but once you figure it out, you know she is The Boss. In fact, I think Springsteen needs to step down and let Domitille take over. I was grateful that the accommodations at Domitille’s house allowed me to meet Judicate Johnson, my Tanzanian neighbor. At just 24, he is both an entrepreneur and an author ready to publish a book. And then there is the lovely and wonderful Dominick, my taxi driver, who faithfully picked me up whenever I wanted to be driven around the beautiful city and endured my painful French.

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.

It is a place where the people who have stayed are passionate about rebuilding and promoting it to the world. It is where Carmen Nibigira, my host, is the Director General of Tourism and is proud of her “Beautiful Burundi.” She knows she lives in a place people need to see. I was honored to volunteer in her office and help edit the website because it gave me the opportunity to meet other Burundians who feel the same way she does. Check out the website at: 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.

Cynthia and Axel Kanakan standing in front of their home in Bujumbura.....on the exact street where I was living during my brief two week stay.

Cynthia and Axel Kanakan standing in front of their home in Bujumbura…..on the exact street where I was living during my brief two week stay.

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.

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24 thoughts on “Only In Burundi

  1. Bob says:

    Of course, you would embrace ubuntu. It is about community. And community is what you, Sue Stein, build everywhere you are and go.

  2. E'nkul Kanakan says:

    Mama Sue, I kind of guessed why there was no post yet from Burundi, you finally made the Internet work. Bravo. Thanks for bringing back memories. If I never said it before let me tell you out loud, you are Ubuntu, it is so you and may God continue to
    Bless you.
    Papa Mike, aka E’nkul

    • I am overwhelmed by you, E’nkul. Truly overwhelmed by what you write to me and what you say to me and what you do for me. Please know you have touched me deeply and I will forever be grateful that I have had the honor of working with some of your children and am privileged to remain in touch with them.

  3. Beverly Freeman says:

    WE truly do belong to one another,,,ubunte is everyone together…and my face has softened and my hands are at my heart! It is always so beautiful and so rich to read your posts. We learn and feel so much through your writings. As to being “unpolished”…I think this is one of your best! Thank you.

  4. Leslie says:

    Wonderful Sue! I read it out loud to Susan M.and Linda F. yesterday and we all enjoyed living a teeny bit of your experience through your words. At some point I would love to have you write your itinerary down. Where you have been and where you are still going. I’m so confused!
    Are you back in Burundi?
    Happy Easter!! Love you!

  5. Audrey Maynard says:

    Dear Sue….I am lucky to have had family and friends living and traveling in various parts of Africa ever since I was a child. So I was not kidding when I told you I would be an armchair traveler on this blog. I have been in this seat many times before. In the last 15 years california friends began working and living in Cape Town – they created a business called Art Aids Art to help women with aids earn income from the sale of handcrafts in the US. From them I first learned about ubuntu …so, to a certain extent, the philosophy (concept?) has been a “foundational” premise of my life for a while. I feel that “Ubuntu” is a retake ( maybe “update” ?I ) of english word “generous”. The latin root of generous means “to make/ to create” …. ubuntu is about what is needed to have the spirit that builds community. Ubuntu promotes community and helps create an ethic of sharing and taking care of one another. “What’s good for you is good for me”. And the result is what english people call “generousity” . Sadly, In our culture we (sometimes) emphasize the power relationship and it becomes about “charity” and the ego of the giver & the beneficiary. But that is a distorted relationship …. because it ignores the bigger reality. The reality is COMMUNITY is what we humans need. We should all do as much as we can to live in strong communities!! Now do you understand the dishwasher Sue ??? 😉
    I can’t wait for you to come home …. I am still hatching housing plans for you. Don’t laugh! I can’t help myself. xxxxxxA.

    • Now I understand the dishwasher.
      You are a good friend, Audrey, and I appreciate your reflections about ubuntu and generosity and distortions. I apologize for taking so long to reply to this comment. I am grateful for your words and very excited that you are still thinking about my housing needs, but, uh, don’t you have a wedding to be planning????

      I can’t wait to hear about that and see your new place! I’ll be home soon and anxious to see you!!
      Love,
      Sue

  6. Dear Sue,

    Spring has finally sprung on Peaks Island and I have been away from your travels for awhile but glad I caught up with you in Burundi. The photos are stunning and your hosts and their world and work lift my spirits. Somehow in all the media spin in the USA a concept like ubunto can get lost or worse, there, but not considered interesting enough to “spin” unless it’s a sidebar story, a nod to the gentler angels of our nature.

    You are doing your own wonderful work right now. I am so grateful that the face of the USA for those you meet and share life stories and dreams with is the face of a teacher and a writer and a listener. Much love to you, ma chère amie.

    • Love you, Nicole. Thanks for getting me going on this blog and for all your support. I will be home soon and hope to catch up with all that’s been happening in your life. Didn’t you take a big trip this spring? I’m anxious to hear how the book is going.
      We will talk soon–in person!
      Love,
      Sue

  7. Beverly Freeman says:

    Oh Sue…I come and visit here often….rereading the powerful words and experiences. I am telling everyone about ubuntu and building community wherever I go…and I love it and you! Looking forward to a new posting someday soon…and looking forward to seeing you again soon….and I’m rooting for your friend who is concentrating on finding you a home! Keep on being who you are, spreading compassion all around you.

    • Thanks, Bev. I can’t tell you how much it means to know you are always there reading my posts and sharing it with others. I love you and am anxious to see you again. I have so much to tell you!!

    • It is going to be a big adjustment coming home, but I have discovered I know where my home is: Portland, Maine. I can’t wait to see you and catch up with you, the girls and Brad. Give everyone a big hug for me!

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