My life as a Burundian activist in exile (Part 2)// 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 Part 2 of Ketty’s ‘Dear Diary’ entry, we asked her to talk about how we can help support activists and where she finds her strength to stand up against injustices in Burundi. Read Part 1 here.

I grew up believing it was not only normal, but a must, to be truthful regardless of the consequences, to challenge injustice, to be kind to others, to share resources equally, to ensure the neediest receive the most support, to respect and care for the people and the world around us. As children we were raised with a social ethic, we left our seats in church for the older folks, when we met a hungry person on the street, not only would we buy them a meal, but also welcome them home, listen to their story, support them beyond a plate of food.

There’s been a shift in our societies. It seems ‘brave’ and ‘exceptional’ to take a stand for justice, when it should really be the most ordinary thing in the world.

Ketty Nivyabandi

I was raised with this social consciousness, and the illusion that this is how the world operates. So it continues to be inconceivable to me that someone in a position of power and responsibility would use it to exploit and oppress. It goes against everything I know to be true, but also against our cultural understanding of the world as a people. Like most African countries, Burundi’s societal values are rooted in the philosophy of ubuntu: the core and intimate understanding that my well-being is connected to yours, that we are responsible for each other, and that individual well-being is meaningless without collective well-being.

Today, social justice and human rights sound like western concepts, but in reality, they are fundamentally African (with a few exceptions of course). Ubuntu was the foundation of my grandparents and my ancestors’ world, and to a lesser extent my parents’ too. Both my grandfathers were traditional judges, and there was actually a tribunal right outside my maternal grandfather’s home. I grew up with a very clear sense of truth and justice, simply by observing the values of the people around me. I was also surrounded with beautiful, strong, stylish women, who never thought twice about doing ‘the right thing’ and often paid the price for it, but always kept their heads held high.

Today there’s been a shift in our societies. It seems ‘brave’ and ‘exceptional’ to take a stand for justice, when it should really be the most ordinary thing in the world. It’s as if our world has turned upside down. We look at each other in terms of ‘interests’, and what people or systems could do for us. We determine our engagement based on potential personal gains. We are consumed by individualism and have moved into the “what’s in it for me” era, which I have a very hard time living with. Speaking up, standing up against injustice has always been an easy choice, the most natural thing in the world. It’s the alternative that is unbearable. My real struggle, in fact, is the sense that I’m not doing enough.

Ketty protesting in Burundi. Photo courtesy of Ketty Nivyabandi.

As an artist, I am very attuned to the world around me, the community and environment I live in. I have a deep longing for harmony, for balance, and for justice, which is the foundation of peace in any society. Art allows me to hear the humming that is often inaudible with all the noise around us today. When I write I am communing with the world: I am listening intently and voicing back what I have sensed, heard and imagined. I’m often in a contemplative mode to write, reflecting, asking questions. It’s sort of like being in another dimension. As an active citizen, however, I am very pragmatic: I address a specific problem in my society and propose or advocate for concrete solutions, which is a completely different approach.

But one feeds the other. Being an artist deepens and grounds my activism. I have realised, over the past few years of Burundi’s political turmoil, how dangerous activism can be for an artist and a human being. When you are dealing with extreme situations like the one in my country, when you are continuously confronted with unimaginable injustices and abuses, it begins to take a toll on you. Activism, by nature, often requires clear-cut positions, a sort of black and white binary which, with time, can erase the nuances of real life. If you’re not vigilant, you tend to reduce the world to the ‘bad guys’ and ‘the victims’, when the reality is a lot more complex. It’s something I struggle with constantly. I have to keep checking myself, because witnessing persistent oppression over time tends to either desensitize and harden you or break you emotionally, which are really two sides of the same coin.

Solidarity is everything. As Africans, we are faced with the same struggles, but we experience them in silos. It goes back to the spirit of ubuntu: my plight as a Burundian ought to affect you personally as a Ghanaian, a Somali or a Zambian, this is what will push us to invest ourselves beyond our borders, and through collective action, push for the change we seek. Currently, our dictators have every interest in keeping us, the people, divided, and frenzied about our individual and local struggles. Change will come when we begin to connect our dreams, aspirations and struggles, and address them together. And a big part of addressing this requires us to deal with our comfort zones.

There is a tendency, among middle-class Africans to limit our actions and demands for change to our social media timelines or our animated Friday night conversations at the bar. We have incredible individual activists in Kenya, Nigeria, Zimbabwe, Togo, Uganda, South Africa and across Africa who have put their lives on the line to agitate for a better society. But while many will share these views (or retweet them), very few will be willing to personally commit themselves and attend an organising meeting, mobilize their friends, educate their circles, and turn their convictions into concrete action.

Burundi’s leadership is sustained through the backing of other African leaders

Ketty Nivyabandi

I believe that Africa’s middle class holds the greatest potential for change. It’s also our greatest impediment. The lower, marginalised, poor class has always been at the forefront of change. It’s the people who produce our food, care for our children, mop offices and homes, those who live on the outskirts of our pretty city centers who are the first ones to go to the streets, to expose their bodies for demands many only tweet about. They have paid the greatest sacrifices when they have everything to lose. All this while the rest of us who are educated, have resources and influence, observe, from the safety of our screens. The gap between privileged and disadvantaged Africans continues to widen, and needs to be closed for us to evolve. When you look back at our struggles for independence, it was the young, intellectual elite that boldly stepped in to articulate the concerns of our people. They were determined and unafraid, and did not think twice about their individual careers or losing their advantages. We have to reignite that spirit, and be able to use our privilege for the greater good of our people. In the case of Burundi, the best way to support us is to hold your own government accountable. Burundi’s leadership is sustained through the backing of other African leaders, particularly those in the East African community. Challenge your leaders, hold them accountable for supporting and enabling repressive leadership. Let’s not limit our activism to our local issues and support each other, because I can assure you that’s exactly what our leaders are doing.

Art redeems me on this difficult journey. It preserves my heart, my soul, and gives me room to address the limits of activism. Art replenishes me and enables me to go further, and hopefully give something to people that “re-humanizes” them too, makes them consider things differently, and perhaps soften them too.

The violence I worry about the most in our world is the hardening of our hearts. Activism cannot do much about this, but art can. And that’s an incredible power.

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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. I felt this article to another level! We needed to hear this!