My life as a Burundian activist in exile (Part 1)// Dear Diary7 minute read

Ketty Nivyabandi is a poet and writer from Burundi. In May 2015 she became a refugee after organizing and leading historic, women-only protests against the violation of her country’s constitution. Ketty writes, speaks, and advocates regularly on the power of women in conflict zones, human rights and displacement

In this first ‘Deary Diary entry, we asked Ketty to tell us about what is it like being an activist in exile and to outline the situation in Burundi for us. 

I miss everything [about Burundi]. The smell of the earth after the first October rains. The mountains of Bujumbura, which always feel so close, as if they are coming to hug you. The taste of ‘utumaramasenge’, our tiny and deliciously sweet bananas, or my favorite passion juice, Fruito. I miss bargaining for a basket of tangerines by the roadside, just to converse with a woman I know nothing about. And then ending up buying two more. I miss the powerful and exhilarating sound of our drums. I miss all the buzz and craziness that possesses families before a wedding. I miss my family, my friends, my great-grand uncle whom I adore, all the people who have fed my heart. I miss hearing my language, Kirundi, at every corner of a street. I miss not wondering if the sun will shine today, not having to convince myself that yes, I do belong here, several times a day, not second-guessing my words, not having to think about invading someone’s personal space. I miss hugging, touching people several times a day, holding hands and chatting endlessly with an old auntie at the store. I miss knowing that I can randomly run into an old auntie at the store. I miss not having to ask myself whether my actions are appropriate because I instinctively know the codes of my society. I miss the slow pace of life, the easy laughs, the elegance of our women, the mischievousness of our men (good men are dreadfully serious in North America). I miss waking up to the actual sound of birds outside my window. I even miss the potholes, that’s how bad it is. I just miss home. All of it.

Ketty in Burundi in 2014 just about a year before she left. “We were driving back into Bujumbura, and stopped to watch the sunset on the city” – Ketty. Photo by Gwaga.

That’s the tragedy of exile, it tends to romanticize what you have lost. Exile paints the ordinary with extraordinary. Every mundane incident is magnified and preserved in your emotional memory, like a precious archetype. Everything you left behind gains a new sheen and fills you with this irrational hunger and melancholic longing for all things ‘home’. Edward Said summed it all uprightly: ‘the essential sadness of exile can never be surmounted’. It’s like walking in tight, new shoes. You live with it, you smile through it, but it hurts all the way. Because of the forceful nature of exile, how it uproots you against your will and strips you of your freedom, your power, your agency.

What’s happening in my country today is revolting. Burundi has become the classic case of a government by the government, for the government. The state has used every brutal avenue to assert its authority, silence dissenting voices and instill fear in people’s bones. We are in a deep democratic crisis, and although on the surface it seems as though things are quiet, in practice we have returned to the single-party, despotic type of governance of the 80s. There are no checks and balances anymore, both the judiciary and the legislative answer to the executive, or more specifically, to the head of state. There is no independent media, unfortunately, our opposition is feeble, fragmented and mostly in exile, and there is no room for young people to organise for social and political change. All this was achieved in three years, which is quite incredible when you think of it. The current leadership, like the ones before it, used the state apparel to repress calls for change in a way that is reminiscent of colonial structures.

Ketty protesting in Burundi. Photo by Joseph Ndayisenga

My biggest concern today is the growing resignation and fatalism in my compatriots. People have been crushed for the last few years and are slowly giving up on the idea that they deserve better. Good governance feels more and more like a mirage, and instead, people are focusing on survival, how to make it through the day, and how they can cope and exist in the current system. It’s a common phenomenon in most dictatorships. Dictatorship is, after all, a mental game, and the challenge for those of us who dream of change, is to offer another vision, to help people remain resilient, undefeated, and hopeful, to remember that we have faced worse trials, and that change is always, always possible.

Burundians have endured such a harsh history, they are exhausted, bruised and discouraged, and many inside the country have opted to quietly endure the current regime rather than fight for a better leadership. It’s really the same pattern as an abusive relationship: the abuser seeks to crush and dominate you mentally, make you doubt yourself, your power and strength. They seek to keep you locked in the belief that your situation is not as bad as it seems, that enduring the abuse is far less harmful than fighting it. And like abusers, dictators know better than anyone, that people-power is the greatest force for change.  We are living a difficult moment as a nation, but one that holds the potential to redefine us if we cease it as an opportunity. This crisis is already sharpening us, and there is not a shadow of doubt in my mind that the people of Burundi, particularly the women, will create the change we seek. I have full confidence in our power, creativity and resilience to chart a better future for ourselves and the next generation.

But yes, I do miss home terribly, and to be perfectly honest, I have not made enough efforts to move on. In a way, my missing home is quite deliberate. I’m a bit like the orphaned child who, in a desperate act of loyalty and love, holds on to her mother’s clothes and refuses to let go. Moving on is scary, and can feel like betrayal and desertion. And I think it’s important not to push forcefully displaced people to undo this missing, to fill this void too fast, because it is real and it is a significant stage in our grief. It’s also important to create space to discuss these things. In Canada, where I now live, I met people who have been incredibly generous, helpful and kind, going out of their way to make my daughters and I feel at home. This has made an enormous difference in our lives, it has eased the transition, made it gentler, more bearable and for that, I am eternally grateful. What I have also noticed though, is that people are often unprepared and uncomfortable discussing the pain a refugee or an exiled person lives with daily. They are not equipped to do so, and as displaced people, we instinctively sense this and withhold our feelings, keep them neatly folded inside, as we go about fitting into our new lives. There is little room for these conversations, the focus is on adapting, making you as comfortable as possible, which is essential of course, but there is an underlying assumption that you are better off here. That once you are settled, you should be fine. And yet, although I am indeed safer here, my heart hurts. Everyday. And that’s the reality of every forcefully displaced person I know.

Join us for Part 2 of Ketty’s ‘Dear Diary’ entry where she goes into detail about how we can be greater sources of support for activists in Burundi.

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Ketty Nivyabandi is a poet and writer from Burundi. In May 2015 she became a refugee after organizing and leading historic, women-only protests against the violation of her country's constitution. Ketty writes, speaks, and advocates regularly on the power of women in conflict zones, human rights and displacement.

One Comment

  1. je me reconnais tellement dans tes écrits, et mon pays me manque tellement...