A recent article from The New Yorker begins with the Burundi saying, “Where there are people, there is conflict.” As the article continues, it’s easy to see how this saying rings true. A small country nestled beneath Rwanda in the heart of Africa, Burundi has a tumultuous history. Formerly a Belgian colony, it was the setting of two genocides, first in 1972 and then in 1993, as its two principle ethnic groups, the Hutus and the Tutsis, continued their fight for political power. As the article goes on to discuss, Burundi’s struggles are far from over, though its division is no longer down strictly ethnic lines. It seems that after decades of fighting, the violence has left a lasting trauma on the people and things left in its wake.
It’s astonishing how little we Anglophones know about Burundi. Although it’s easy to see why. Until this year, no single Burundian novel had been translated into English. Not a single one. Lucky for us, this year Phoneme Media published Baho! by 28-year-old Roland Rugero, translated beautifully from the French by Christopher Schaefer.
The novel tells the story of a mute young man named Nyamugari, who becomes the scapegoat for a town suffering from drought, violence, and debauchery in the Burundian countryside. When a young woman mistakes the mute boy’s gestures as an attempt to rape her, Nyamugari is frightened and runs off, seemingly confirming his guilt. Pursued by a growing mob of irate townsfolk hungry for revenge, the boy contemplates the life that has brought him to this moment, as a one-eyed old lady and a mysterious stranger look on.
Though written primarily in French, the language of the colonists, each chapter begins with a saying in native Kurundi, followed by its translation, and the book is saturated with Burundi oral folklore and wisdom.
Baho! is a cry for life amidst so much drought and death, a slim book carrying with it the weight of Burundi’s perilous fate. This fate lies heavy over the landscape itself, as Rugero describes on the very first page of the novel:
Kanya’s hill is still draped in the eucalyptus of the National Forest. Dry, prickly leaves, countless, dense, and towering, spread over the earth. Without water, the sky has become spiteful.
Or rather, men have committed too many sins. It is God’s punishment for this country’s great evil.
An old woman is standing at the foot of the hill. She rests her age-worn cheek on a shepherd’s crook. With it, she tends to a couple of skinny kids foraging in the pebbles and the weeds trying to find something to round out their scrawny bellies.
The earth’s drought meets her eye. She understands: Times have changed.
Like the drought oppressing the land, mistrust and debauchery have taken over the town. Men drink too much and cheat on their wives. Women live in constant fear of being raped. There isn’t enough water to grow food, and so people are hungry. We see how these forces are intertwined with Nyamugari’s fate, and how they feed on one another endlessly.
We can only hope that this year brings us more translated literature from those talented authors around the world who are, unfortunately, unacceptably, missing from our bookshelves.