Burundi: diaspora power

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)

25 responses

  1. Very interesting story of how you managed to get hold of the book – although it probably means that other readers interested will have a hard time tracking it down! A pity really…

    I wonder if Marie-Thérèse Toyi (and other writers whose books are not widely circulated) have looked into self-publishing online to make their works available to more readers.

    • That’s certainly something worth considering. I also think there’s a larger question to be asked about why so little effort is made by Western publishers to translate and promote books from certain countries. It’s as though there’s a huge glass wall up between us and certain literatures – we can look but can’t touch. How much we must miss.

      • How much we must miss… that’s a question I have asked myself ever since I read the introduction to a collection of poems by Rabindranath Tagore (entitled ‘I Won’t Let You Go’, published by Bloodaxe). I read it way back in secondary school, but what the translator wrote was really significant for me. She noted that Tagore was the only writer from the (huge!) Indian subcontinent who had ever received the Nobel prize, as if that were the only good writer to come out of that region… In fact, if you look at past Nobel Prize winners, you’ll quickly realise how geographically and linguistically limited (=biased) the prize is – very much dominated by certain countries (disproportionate number of awards for some European countries) as well as Indo-European languages. Even when the geographic map looks ‘international’, it is less so than it would seem: Herta Müller writes in German rather than Romanian, writers from Africa or the Caribbean are those that write in English or French, never in any ‘minor’ languages. When you raise that point, most people seem to excuse it with that there are (apparently) no major, notable writers in ‘other’ countries or ‘other’ languages rather than realising that they exist but we think they don’t because they simply haven’t been translated. I wish people would ask more often what IS it that we miss because it’s never been translated? What is out there, that we are totally and absolutely unaware of? I think there must be so much. I’ll stop ranting now (-:

      • Thanks for that comment – please feel free to rant at any point. These questions are exactly what I hope this project will highlight. Good to have you along for the ride.

  2. The main characters name is Kiswahili and when translated into English, it is ” Let them keep laughing, one day they will get tired and eventually cease.” I wonder if this comes across in the story at all. Very curious about the book.

    • Thanks so much for that – I had no idea about that extra layer of meaning.

      It’s certainly a fitting name – Wache’s journey is about him fighting against the odds to secure a comfortable life in the face of the people who mock, scorn and challenge him.

      Great to have your input.

  3. A happy suprise, I must say. Could this book be an autofiction? Whatever it is the, the simple fact that it is written from a hutu perspective alone inspires hope. Many congratulations to the reader for not having given up and given Wache a chance to be heard. T

    • Thanks for your comment. I’m not sure how much of the book comes from the author’s personal experience. In terms of perspective the book is quite careful not to take sides – Wache is actually a Tutsi but he is often mistaken for a Hutu and sees this as a sign that the distinctions between the groups are not as clear-cut as many believe. At one point he talks about his conviction that he is a human being first and foremost. Thanks for stopping by.

  4. Thanks for this review – I was looking for a Burundi book for my around the world journey and just saw that amazon had it in ebook format -yay!

  5. Hi. Can you please share the contact details of the author. I have been surfing the internet but unfortunately found no information.

  6. Pingback: Reading the World – Scott's Blog

  7. I respect this woman so much. Very humble and intelligent. My lecturer at Univ. I’m happy to see her work on ebook and see people talking about it

  8. Pingback: Burundi: slapen op schedels - Papieren Wereldreis

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