The chances of finding a Burundian book in English were looking slim. There were novels and non-fiction books out there, but they were all in French. None of them seemed to have made it through the translation net into the English-language market.
Having exhausted my googling powers, I decided to turn to the Burundian diaspora for help and fired off an email to the United Burundian-American Community Association in the hopes that its members might be able to point me in the direction of some literature that fitted the bill.
I got quite a few emails back. Several suggested analytical books by Western academics charting the causes and consequences of the civil war that ravaged Burundi for much of the mid-late twentieth century. Interesting though I’m sure these are, they weren’t quite what I was looking for. Others mentioned books in French – again, close but no cigar.
One person even asked me to help them finish a book they were writing about their own experiences in Burundi. As I have slightly less than two days to get through each book for this project, I thought this might be pushing it slightly and had to decline.
Then I had an email from Edouard. An old classmate of his from Burundi had published two novels in English. Her name was Marie-Thérèse Toyi. He hoped this helped.
It certainly did. After a bit more searching, I found contact details for Toyi, who is now based at Benson Idahosa University in Nigeria, and emailed her to ask how I might be able to get hold of one of her books as they were not commercially available online. She kindly offered to courier one to me. A few days later, I was holding a battered copy of her novel Weep Not, Refugee complete with a greeting from the author written inside the cover.
Following the fortunes of Wache Wacheke Watachoka, a Burundian boy growing up in a refugee camp because of the ethnic war between the Hutus and Tutsis in his homeland, the novel explores ‘the overpowering burden of forcing oneself to live in a foreign land where you are most undesirable’. As Wache grows up and has to confront the absurdity of the ‘nose complex’ (a widespread belief that the shape of the nose distinguishes Hutus from Tutsis) that has torn his country apart, the narrative reveals the cruel partiality that governs much of everyday life for the most vulnerable and exposes the injustices against which displaced people have to fight simply to stay alive.
The episodic narrative comes across with freshness and immediacy, at times reaching out of the pages of the book to grab the reader by the scruff of the neck:
‘Just for you to have an idea what it was like, take a cup of ground red pepper, pour it on your bleeding wound and you will have a little idea what it was like. If you have no wound, well, we cannot discuss again, because there are things which you will never be able to understand.’
This can be very compelling, particularly when it comes to reflections on the powerlessness of refugees in lands where their rights exist ‘only in the heart of the person [they are] dealing with’, the indignity of living on handouts, the injustice of imprisonment and the cruel arbitrariness of ethnic conflicts. The section where Wache at last returns to Burundi and, at the age of 26, enrols in school only to find that he has become an alien in his own land is particularly memorable.
At times, the declamatory style and the heaping of tragedy upon tragedy (while no doubt true to many people’s experiences) is hard to swallow. However, this may say more about me as a privileged Westerner than it does about the book.
All the same, I couldn’t help wishing that Toyi had trusted her story and characters to speak for themselves throughout rather than feeling the need to harness them to drive home her appeal to the reader to help improve the lot of displaced peoples at the end. This is the only part of the book that feels forced and it stands out because the experiences and reflections narrated in the rest of the novel are far more persuasive than the closing rhetoric.
Nevertheless, this is a fascinating and valuable insight into a situation most of us cannot begin to imagine. It gives a voice to people whose stories we mostly hear second-hand from Western charity appeals and reporters. It was a great privilege to read it and it will stay with me for a long time. Many thanks to the UBACA, Edouard and Marie-Thérèse Toyi.
Weep Not, Refugee by Marie-Thérèse Toyi (Emhai Printing & Publishing Company, 2007)