After a period of escalating political violence in Burundi, rebels attacked several army bases near Bujumbura on December 11th, 2015. Police responded the following day with door-to-door raids in neighborhoods deemed “anti-government.” Reports say that authorities stole from families and rounded up young men. Pictures circulated on the popular social media app Whatsap, one of the few sources of information and rumor after the closure of most of the country's independent media. Photos showed the bodies of young men, dead in the streets from bullet wounds, mostly to the head, some with their hands bound. Authorities would admit to 87 deaths, but independent estimates bring the number to over 100. An official toll has been extremely difficult to obtain. The massacres of 12/12 are only one of the recent manifestations of Burundi's crisis, which began in early 2015 with the runup to the presidential election. Burundi's sitting president Pierre Nkurunziza decided to run for a third term—or Troisième Mandate—despite opposition claims that this was against the country's constitution.
In February of this year, Amnesty International released satelite imagery claiming to show a mass grave located just north of Bujumbura. Though recent violence has largely disappeared from headlines, the torture and killings continue. Many activists and civil society leaders have already fled into exile. Poet and activist Ketty Nivyabandi was one of them. She received death threats for her activism against Nkurunziza's third term. I caught up with her in Nairobi, where we continued an ongoing conversation about activism, art, and what it means to write in a state of emergency.
When the poet Ketty Nivyabandi walks into a room, people take notice; they stand up a little straighter, speak a little more clearly. I've seen this happen at a party and a panel. It's not just her beauty or her height, though Ketty is quite tall. She has an elegance I'd almost describe as regal. Except, I wouldn't, because the poet has no patience for those who call her a princess or try to allude to her family's royal past. Ketty is no royalist. She is, like the best dissenters, a true patriot of her beloved homeland of Burundi. As reports of bodies in the streets multiply and fears of large scale massacres become reality, Ketty has grappled with both activism and writing as a response to the current disaster—one mostly overlooked by international and even regional East African audiences.
I first met Ketty during more peaceful times at a café litteraire at Ishyo Art Centre in Kigali in 2011. Along with the Burundian writer Roland Rugero, she formed Samandari, a digital and physical space for writers and readers to gather in Bujumbura for weekly readings of new work. The weekly events attracted participants from across Bujumbura’s ethnic groups, cliques and classes. Burundi's literary scene, though not exactly gigantic, was on the rise, boosted by a tradition of free expression and a (relatively) free press.
All of this has changed radically within the past year, a change that many including Ketty foretold, although few wanted to believe just how bad it might become. Burundi was due for presidential elections in mid-2015, but it was clear that the sitting president Pierre Nkuruniza was considering another term, despite having already served the constitutionally mandated two. The two-term limit comes from the Arusha Peace Accords—an agreement widely credited for Burundi's relative post-war stability. The president's team argued that because Nkurunziza had been chosen initally through an indirect election, he was allowed to run again for one more term as he was entitled to two popular elections. Many in the opposition saw this as a way of undermining the power-sharing framework set out in the Arusha Accords. Protests leading up to the election and those that followed Nkurunziza’s locally and internationally contested “victory” in July left hundreds dead and were met with mass arrests and torture. Local non-governmental organizations have seen their charters revoked, particularly those working in areas of political opposition. The largely free press has been shut down, with radio stations attacked and destroyed. Over 200,000 refugees have fled to nearby Tanzania, Rwanda and beyond, and this number does not include the large number of undeclared refugees.
In the buildup to the election, Ketty and other Burundian writers wondered how they could sound the alarm to what was happening. As the election approached, Ketty turned to social media, writing a series of poetic tweets expressing her dismay and fear, and also her deep love for Burundi. Joining Twitter for Ketty was both an activist and poetic act.
On May 29th, 2015 she tweeted:
— Ketty Nivyabandi (@kettynivyabandi) May 29, 2015
The Burundian crisis risks being dismissed as the cliché of just another war-torn African country falling into turmoil. And yet, Ketty paints a picture of Burundi before the war—a country of verdant hills, and, when she was young, relative peace. She moved from Belgium to Burundi when she was about five and her first memories and loves and pains all took place in Burundi's capital of Bujumbura, a city on the shores of Lake Tanganyika. As she says, on a clear day, you can see across the lake's blue waters to the emerald hills of the Democratic Republic of Congo. In her neighborhood she could play with other children and roam the streets; she describes a childhood happier and “safer than in many Western countries.”
She points out that unlike other African states, the boundaries of the Burundian state were established long before the arrival of colonialism. And with that pre-colonial history comes a vibrant tradition and culture. Burundi was a self-declared land of milk and honey, but those resources and others were not merely metaphorical. The pre-colonial state had a rich poetic heritage that "really baffled the colonialists when they came to Burundi. [Because] it had structures. As an old country, it had developed its system of governance, but also a very strong social fabric, and not to say that everything was great, but it had its own ecosystem: political, social, economic."
One aspect of that pre-colonial culture is a tradition of oral poetry or ijambo. Although Ketty writes in primarily in her native French, ijambo influences her work in rhthym and substance. Born in Belgium, Ketty learned Kirundi as a child from her cousin when her family moved back to Burundi. She looks to the nation's past for inspiration. And though ijambo celebrates a relatively macho tradition, Ketty, as a female poet, is not without historical precedent. "The women in Burundi did not have a public space to speak,” she says. “They are always, like many women around the world, spoken for. However, women have always found a way to communicate."
The women of Burundi learned to communicate through song; Ketty explains there are songs for everything. Mothers sing devotional songs filled with tales of trial, endurance, and aspirations for their newborns. More than a lullaby, Ketty says, “It's not just a song for the baby. It is almost like speaking a prophecy into a child or mapping the life that she wishes for that child."
Women also sang to each other. When a daughter was married she would join her new family on a new hill, and could go months without seeing her own family and friends. As Ketty says, "You have no links. You have no relatives there. So the songs that other women would sing for you when you're getting married are some of the most tragic songs. Women are known to cry and cry. There's a ceremony the day after your wedding where your entire family comes and brings you baskets of food and supplies for you to survive the next few months, and when they leave they sing this poignant song telling you ‘goodbye, farewell. We will not see you, but be strong where you are and know that it is not easy.’ These songs are still sung in Burundi today.” Ketty admitted that at her own wedding she was moved to tears after realizing that a new life begins with a new family.
When women would meet each other after marriage they would have to communicate through song—and quickly. Thus came the tradition of the akazehe, or "little joy," in which the women would sing their feelings, longings, and news to each other. "When a young woman would meet her sister or her cousin, she knew that she was meeting her for a short time, because after that she had to go back. So in that short time they sing to each other and it's the most beautiful thing. They sing to each other and they are greeting each other...One person leads and the other responds with a standard response. After that it's one's turn to ask questions and the other one answers. ‘How is your brother? How is Mum?’ And towards the end you say, ‘Okay now. I'll have to go but be well. Take care of yourself. Greet everyone, stay strong.’ You say this in an upbeat manner, a very deep manner but it's also very sad. They see each other and then they separate again, and this is a sisterhood that remains alive through that song. So it's a very, very beautiful art form and yet again a symbol of how rich the tapestry of our culture is. "
For Ketty, these traditions, the beautiful landscape, and the richness of her country are the milk and honey of the poem, and precisely what Burundi now stands to lose.
Exile and education
At the start of the protest movement in Bujumbura on April 26th, Ketty tweeted:
it's raining bullets
on God's green pillow
it's raining fear and steel
on seeds of hope
but these seeds will grow
— Ketty Nivyabandi (@kettynivyabandi) April 26, 2015
This was not the first time that bullets had rained in Bujumbura. Ketty's idyllic childhood abruptly changed in 1993 when her mother sensed, just as Ketty herself did last year, that the situation was becoming untenable as war approached. At age fifteen, Ketty was sent off with her younger sister to France. They arrived in Europe in a cold September to stay with family friends, and were then sent to a “very Catholic convent” boarding school run by Dominican sisters.
Despite the coldness of the European life and the double difficulty of adolescence and exile, Ketty found comfort in books. And the nuns were really “intellectuals.” Though some texts were forbidden—Jean Paul Sartre was “like the devil”—she had eight hours of philosophy a week. And the Dominican education, unlike the Belgian-style education she might have received had she been able to stay in Burundi, encouraged questioning: “Even though we didn't have access to the most revolutionary works, that stayed with me, and it helped me not take everything for granted and always, always question things later in life. That was the main thing that I took from that education.”
Nonetheless, there were gaps in her education that bothered her. The history of Africa and the African diaspora were barely taught, or taught wrongly. In a lecture about the civil rights movement in the United States, she even had one teacher who said that Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was a pimp. The feeling that she knew more about European history than that of her own continent would encourage her to continue her studies in Nairobi.
And then there were the other girls in her class who tended to espouse the political ideology of their parents, views that leaned to the far right and were at times pro-monarchy. Many of these girls had never interacted with a black person. In retrospect, Ketty is forgiving of her classmates' taunts which came from a place of "ignorance and thus innocence." As the girls stayed on in Paris, Ketty learned to combat them with humor. She invented stories to respond to their questions about her coiled hair or whether she lived in a hut. She explained that she rode a camel home to Burundi from North Africa, where she lived in a treetop hut with monkeys and had a pet elephant. When they asked what she did with her clothes when she went back to Africa she explained: "I leave them in North Africa, and I go naked. When I come back, they are waiting for me, and I get dressed to come here."
Eventually she was able to form real friendships and interact at a human level despite difference. She moved to Nairobi to study and returned to Burundi whenever possible. By 2003 she was able to move back. She says, "I've always wanted to live in Burundi. It's very instinctual...It's something that is not rational. It's just something that overcomes you, and you just want to be home. You feel that that's where you belong." Ketty worked as journalist at a new radio station, wrote poems, married and raised two girls. She describes this period of her life as a privilege, in which she was grateful to be home and building a life in her country.
But then the bullets began to fly again, with rumors and the reports of massacres outside the capital. It was clear during 2014 that Nkurunziza was considering running for office again, and the opposition to his run was growing. Ketty says, "If we all sensed it, [Nkurunziza] could sense it even more. Sensing that his candidacy could rip the country apart but doing it anyway—it's almost an act of treason in my eyes. Being willing to see a country come undone completely for your own personal interest is something that I cannot begin to comprehend."
Ketty's activism expanded. She continued to tweet, but also became active on the ground. She watched the growing protests while at a conference in South Africa. In early May, she and I met up in Nairobi for a coffee. She was already clearly committed to doing more than being active from afar and online, and that weekend, despite the protests of her family, she returned home. I remember expressing my own misgivings—Ketty is certainly a known face in Bujumbura and had already been publically very critical.
Alongside renowned children's home activist Maggy Barankitse and others, she led a march of women against the Troisième Mandate, the dismantling of the Arusha Accords and the disrespect for the country's constitution. "What we wanted to say was: "We are tired. We do not want war again. We do not want this third term, and we do not want what it's bringing to our children and to the country as a whole."
The women were the first protest group to reach Burundi's city center, which had been cordoned off by authorities in an effort to keep protesteors sequestered in their own neighborhoods. The police knew to look out for young men marching, but an organized women's march wasn't something they anticipated.
And the women were well organized. They met in discrete groups at different sides of the town. As the police tried to keep them separate, they could see each other and they began to sing to each other, performing an echo of the akazehe tradition. Ketty says that when the groups of women finally converged "it was a marvelous moment. We were jumping, and at that time the police just went back. They didn't know what to do anymore. It was too powerful. We were too many. We had taken over the entire street, and we were stronger than ever. There is something about women as a force. When it's unleashed, it's impossible to stop it."
A widely circulated photo of the march by Reuters photogapher Goran Tomasevic shows Ketty prominently at the front of the protest with her arm raised. In front of her, a policeman attempting to stop the marchers looks back towards the camera with a baffled gaze. Tomasevic was part of a relatively large group of foreign journalists reporting on the protests. And the women's marches received press coverage, not only because they were new, but because "there's something about women demonstrating, only women demonstrating. One of the women among us was close to eighty, and the youngest one was probably sixteen or seventeen…this was something powerful. It was a strong message, and though we marched under a lot of resistance from the police, the march was peaceful."
The police, however, didn't stay baffled long. At the women's next march they arrived with tear gas and water cannons. The women arrived singing and endured the onslaught, waving white handkerchiefs hankerchiefs as a symbol of peace. Ketty said she became outraged at the police's treatment of the women: "These are policemen who are paid by taxes, our taxes, and they were gassing women who had children, who could be their mothers. I think I was so outraged by this that at one point I stood up and went in the middle of the street in front of a water cannon alone with my handkerchief and knelt down as a way telling the police ‘we are here in peace. What are you doing? What are you doing?’"
The police responded by releasing the full force of the water cannon on her. The women gathered around each other. They were promptly tear gassed, but it didn't stop their resolve.
"We took over the place and sang and sang and sang. It was the day that the East African community was meeting regarding Burundi. We were saying that we wanted our voice to be heard all the way to Dar-es-Salaam,” where President Nkurunziza was present. Shortly after that as we were in the streets we heard an announcement saying that the coup had happened.”
Ketty describes the crowds’ mood as jubliant following the announcement. “The entire city came to the streets singing again, jumping. It was a moment that is very difficult to describe. I've never seen such unity among Burundians. I've never seen people from such different backgrounds just jumping into each other’s arms. The joy that erupted on people's faces and their hearts was unbelievable, like nothing I had ever experienced before. You could see the relief. We cried; people cried. All kinds of people celebrated and were so ecstatic, which speaks to the inner imprisonments that most Burundians felt throughout the years with Nkurunziza. The level of their joy is a manifestation of the pain they live with daily."
The joy was short lived. The coup failed, and some of its architects were arrested while others fled into exile. The government used the coup as an excuse to prosecute protesteors. Suddenly anyone who had been active in the Anti- Troisième Mandate protests were at risk of being labled a putschiste, or pro-coup. Mass arrests ensued, and the violence, torture and killings have increased since.
Many like Ketty fled the country after receiving threats. The international media presence as well as that of the Burundian intelligence services at the marches meant that the identities of prominent protesteors were well known. Shortly after the attempted coup, Ketty received a threat so credible she fled without packing up her belongings.
The situation in Burundi has continued to deteriorate since Ketty fled into exile. Prominence in the community is no longer a guarantee of safety. In August, 70-year old human rights activist Pierre Claver Mbonimpa was shot in the face. The personal intervention of diplomats allowed him to escape to Belgium. His son and son-in-law were later shot to death. Maggy Barankitse fled while her children's home was deemed subversive and had its charter revoked. The numbers of dead before the 12/12 massacre were in the hundreds. Over 200,000 refugees have fled to camps in neighboring countries and beyond. Burundi's stagnant economy meant that prior to the crisis, the country also suffered from some of the worst of “Africa's Brain Drain." The crisis has made this much worse, and as the numbers of undeclared refugees grow higher, Ketty also wonders about who can afford to stay and help rebuild: "The brightest people that I know in Burundi are leaving—the youngest people who have the greatest potential, the young bloggers and entrepreneurs, the most competent..."
Longing for normalcy
Ketty and her young daughters are now in exile, without many of their belongings, including their beloved books. She organizes and tweets from afar, staying apprised of the situation through social media and messages from remaining family and friends. She spearheaded a global campaign of vigils for Burundi. A reluctant activist, she longs to return home, a longing familiar from what she felt in years past in Paris and Nairobi. And she longs for a return to normalcy. In a Facebook status she wrote of last year: "Feels like i was thrown in a washing-machine at full speed. Come to think of it there was a water cannon episode, which is not far from it... Nkurunziza needs to go so i can go back to my quiet, normal, introverted life. Tweet about gorgeous sunsets, Gregory Porter and Virginia Woolf. Argue about trivial things, like that sentence in an essay. Or more important ones, like modern african feminism. Read ten consecutive articles on Idris Elba. Sit on the porch of my sunny yellow home. And just breathe."
As she writes of her longing to return to life's little joys, the echoes of Eric Garner's cry of "I can't breathe" are clear. And yet, despite the onslaught of the last year and Burundi's precarious future, Ketty holds fast to a little bit of hope, that the country of milk and honey can find a way back to peace, and then a way forward. She asserts that despite the politicians and the fueling of ethnic tensions "Burundians across the board, whether they are pro-Nkurunziza or not, all want the same thing. We all want the same thing. We want a peaceful country where we can all thrive."
So she tweets that with a last breath:
we seek freedom
like yellow diamonds
thru dust, thru stone
our naked hands
bleed on rocks
we breathe in coal
but exhale hope
— Ketty Nivyabandi (@kettynivyabandi) June 22, 2015
Elizabeth Senja Spackman is a poet and playwright. After receiving a Fulbright to Rwanda, she stayed to work with artists including Odile Gakire Katese of (Rwanda Professional Dreamers) and Wesley Ruzibiza (Amizero Kompagnie) while teaching at University of Rwanda. She now writes and works between Nairobi, Kenya and Naselle, Washington. Twitter: @esenjas.
Feature image © Viviane Nkurunziza