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A Brief Foray Into African Literature: Burundi

posted: , by Sarah Skawinski
tags: Library Collections | Recommended Reads | Adults | Art & Culture | Readers Writers

Nate, a Reference Staff member, continues his exploration of contemporary African Literature on the blog with a look at Burundi and a review of author Roland Rugero’s recent novel “Baho!”

Burundi, a nation of approximately 11,000,000 people, is nestled in the highlands of east Africa; the country became independent from Belgium in 1962. Nigel Watt has explored an overall history in his volume Burundi, while Robert Kruger and Kathleen Tobin have documented specific periods of time during Burundi’s more recent past. Kruger and Tobin illuminate how ethnic and politically inspired violence in Burundi often came to mirror events in neighboring Rwanda.  Though the populations were and remain similar in their makeups, roughly 85% Hutu and 14% Tutsi, unlike in Rwanda, Tutsis in Burundi maintained prominent roles in the military and police forces through the late 1990s. Whereas post-independence violence in Rwanda was often perpetrated by Hutus against Tutsis, the opposite proved true in Burundi.  This mirroring perhaps played out most vividly following the Rwandan genocide of 1994, when a mass migration of Hutu flowed from Rwanda into surrounding countries such as the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Burundi.  In Burundi these refugees often became victims of retaliatory acts of violence by the military and police forces.

Currently, Burundi finds itself mired in violence and governmental repression. As part of the peace process, constitutional reforms were enacted in the late 1990s which established gender and ethnic quotas in the parliament, military, and police forces in order to create more representational systems as well to discourage future unrest.  Though initially praised by diplomats such as Robert Kruger, following these reforms Burundi has been ruled by a single individual, Pierre Nkrunziza, who has been broadly criticized for seeking a third presidential term on the basis of a constitutional loophole and for his increasing repression of critical voices.  Fearing this violence and repression, many Burundians including human rights activists and writers like poet Ketty Nivyabandi, have left the country, seeking asylum in Belgium, France, Canada, and here in Portland, ME.

Author Roland Rugero is a 31-year old Burundian writer and journalist. Rugero grew up in a book-loving family, and he’s dedicated to fostering the growth of the Burundian literary scene. He’s worked as a journalist in Burundi since 2008—writing articles, for example, about innovative bicycling programs that are using people-power to generate electricity in Burundian homes—and cofounded a writing workshop that meets weekly in Bujumbura, the capital city of Burundi. Rugero’s fiction explores, among other things, conflict in Burundian society today. His second novel ‘Baho!’ was recently translated by Christopher Schaefer.

Baho! examines an instance of communal justice carried out against a mute village teenager, Nyamuragi. The above interaction begins at an area of riverbank in Hariho, the village that serves as the setting for ‘Baho!’.  Approaching the riverbank, Nyamuragi finds himself alongside a young female villager, Kigeme, to whom he attempts to indicate that he desperately needs an appropriate place to relieve himself.  Although his gestures were intended to communicate simply his wish for directions they are understood by Kigeme to demonstrate far more ominous desires.  As word spreads through Hariho, which has been plagued by a recent rash of sexual assaults, the interaction in question and following accusation prove difficult for Nyamuragi to refute or negotiate due to both his inability to speak and a rising collective anger within the community towards perpetrators of sexual violence.

As the acts that constitute the timeline of Baho! occur in no more than thirty minutes, Rugero uses much of the novel to share the background stories of Nyamuragi and Kigeme, as well as the stories of members of the mob of Hariho villagers that has formed around Nyamuragi. By exploring their unique circumstances and reasons for joining in the interrogation Rugero individualizes members of the mob, thereby adding a certain amount of nuance to a group phenomena often characterized by its lack of humanity and its inability to reason.  Though Rugero mentions ethnicity explicitly only once, the use of the mob functions as a stand-in for much of the ethnic violence experienced by Burundians throughout the second half of the 20th century.  Rugero’s use of vocabulary in explaining the mob’s actions further illustrates the connection to such past instances,

“They had to punish the vermin, because law is weaker than crime, because it allows a killer to live. The deed comes back on the man.  Eliminate the impure man and you protect yourself from evil.  Crystal-clear, the message goes down smoothly with this crowd, overheated with anger and thirsty for rain.”

The Othering of Nyamuragi, by casting him as impure and unworthy of any form of justice, speaks to the ways in which Hutu and Tutsi propagandists described each other during times of violence. In Rwanda the Tutsi were referred to as ‘inyenzi,’ or cockroaches, during the genocide of 1994.  To remove the humanity from a person or group of people is to remove a certain amount of empathy from the situation, to forgive one’s own transgressions as being insignificant due to who they were directed against.  In this situation Nyamuragi is nothing more than a mute, potential-rapist, and the crowd reserves no sympathy for him.

But Rugero does not allow for this simple understanding of the situation. We as the reader are allowed to know more, to peel away the layers of Nyamuragi, to learn his history, and to us he becomes much more than the impure vermin.  We are provided Nyamuragi’s backstory: we learn of his expulsion from primary school on account of his muteness, of his learning to read and write on his own, of his fondness for sheep and shepherding, and his insatiable appetite.  We are also told of the death of his parents, though the brevity of this revelation seems to hint at death being a common occurrence within the village of Hariho.  All of this affects the way we perceive Nyamuragi and serves as a contrast to the perception held by the mob in pursuit of him. The tragedy seeps in.

“Nyamuragi was born alone. He had never had a conversation.  Nor a discussion.  Nor a debate.  He had been born mute; speech was etched into him.  He drew nourishment from it as a matter of course.  Awkwardly.  Alone.  In isolation.  He knew no friend, and he had no family to count on.”

‘Baho!’ the imperative form of the verb “to live” in Kirundi, finds footholds throughout the characters and events that make up the book, which is full of references to Burundians’ struggles to survive. Be it through the relaying of folktales or explaining the secret agenda of one of the mob’s leaders, Rugero peppers his story with instances of life and death that add complexity to the apparent reasons for characters’ involvement in the story’s main action.  This includes an old one-eyed woman, introduced at the beginning of the book, who recounts the story of a father and his daughter’s marriage, the apparent moral of which hints at the importance of perserverance and level-headed decision making even in the face of dire circumstances.  A leading member of the justice-seeking mob’s significance is revealed when Rugero shares his story: acts he’s witnessed and participated in have left him changed, and cause him to act in a very deliberate way during the events of Baho!

Roland Rugero’s Baho! is simple and confined.  At times it reads like a play, with pauses in action filled by narration from different characters.  Yet this simplicity hints at histories and emotions grander in scope, as if both the collective sorrow and immense capacity for life held within the Burundian citizenry find release through the actions of Nyamuragi and the Hariho mob.  Rugero’s novel is well worth a read and will satisfy readers of all different types.

Montgomery’s View: Balderdash!

posted: , by Mary Peverada
tags: Montgomery's View | Recommended Reads | Kids & Families

BALDERDASH!: John Newbery and the Boisterous Birth of Children’s Books

written by Michelle Markel

illustrated by Nancy Carpenter

published by Chronicle Books

John Newbery was the pioneer of children’s books and this picture book biography revels in the birth of these books. The reader is told on page one that if they lived in 1726 there were books about adventure and travel and shipwrecks and pirates and monsters – but all of them were for adults.  Once John Newbery became a printer and a publisher, he saw a niche and aimed to fill it.  He felt that “Reading should be a treat for children” (as a philosopher had said.) Children should be offered more to read than moralistic, preachy tales and religious texts.

Businessman that he was, John Newbery created A LITTLE PRETTY POCKET-BOOK (and offered it for sale with a ball or a pincushion – a merchandising deal.)  These creations were illustrated and not as dry as the books forced upon children.  Thus began, in a very small way the creation of children’s literature.

But hopefully the reader will not be confused by the fact that these were not the children’s books of today – they were the first toe in the water.  By today’s standards they are dry and preachy – but by 1726 standards they were a treat.  Also, the reader might get the wrong impression from the illustrations – everyone was not literate nor could they all afford to purchase books.  Quibbles aside – this is a fine celebration of John Newbery and the small revolution he started.

The American Library Association established an annual award to honor “the most distinguished contribution to American literature for children” in 1922 and named it after John Newbery.  Next month, at the American Library Association’s annual conference in Chicago the 2017 Newbery Award will be presented to Kelly Regan Barnhill for THE GIRL WHO DRANK THE MOON.  

There are brief notes and a bibiography at the end.

May Staff Picks: New Nonfiction!

posted: , by Elizabeth Hartsig
tags: Library Collections | Recommended Reads | Adults | Kids & Families | Seniors

As the magnolia blossoms pile up at our feet and the apple blossoms hint of fruit to come, we start thinking of all that’s new at the library! In May our staff picks focus on new nonfiction: a new book on animal life for kids, cookery for adults, exploring the coast of Maine, inspiring personal development, the writing life and the secret lives of dictionaries, new music at the library from a few fantastic local songwriters and performers, and a fantastic new graphic memoir. Enjoy!

Youth Services New Nonfiction

Mary’s Pick

Animal books are very popular in the children’s department. One cannot go wrong with a cute kitten or puppy on a cover – it will attract readers quickly. We once had a book on our shelves called Walter Warthog with an adorable photo of said warthog looking out at readers. He may not have been the most handsome critter to many – but a beguiling photo on the cover was enough to arrest some hearts.

Lesser Spotted Animals: The Coolest Creatures You’ve Never Heard Of by Martin Brown takes a new angle on the animal book. There are thousands of different animals in the world, but the animal books on our shelves represent a very small number of these creatures. Books on bears and tigers are easily found. Elephants and pandas have paved their way to stardom. What about the animals that are seldom seen? What about the animals that are vulnerable, endangered or those that have little information known about them? In this book, you will meet more than 20 of these lesser known animals.

Martin Brown, the illustrator of the Horrible Histories series, brings his humorous writing style and captivating illustrations together in a book that you cannot put down. In each two-page spread, he includes an illustration of the animal, the name of the animal (with a subtitle), an information block that gives size, what they eat, where they live (with a small map), status and an interesting fact. There is also a brief wisecracking sketch on each beast that will often make you laugh out loud. We will probably never be lucky enough to see most, if not all, of these animals – but this book gives us a little peek at the amazing animal world that is seldom mentioned and hardly ever glimpsed.

Adult Services New Nonfiction

Sonya’s Pick

Summer is upon us so a handy guide for road-tripping through our beautiful state is a must. Where are the best spots to soak up the sunshine, breathe the fresh air and grab a lobster roll and a local craft brew? Frommers Maine Coast will set you straight! Soak it all up, for summer is fleeting.

Meg’s Picks

Ten-ish years ago, I was a broke just-out-of-college kid, new to Portland with lots of time, little money, and fewer friends. I visited PPL often to check my email, scour the basement AV room for DVDs, find a book to read for pleasure, and most importantly: one to cook from. The 641s introduced me to the worlds of Alice Waters, Julia Child, Jamie Oliver, and Mark Bittman. I spent my days off cooking and learning from their pages. And while I’m sure there were many successful meals, I still recall the notable failures…er, learning opportunities…from this era. A botched Nigella Lawson recipe for an onion supper pie that became a week’s worth of lunches remains a painful gastronomic memory. I never bothered to make it again, though I’ve done plenty of cooking since then.

One of my favorite parts of my job is selecting the cookbooks for PPL.  My May pick is Elisabeth Prueitt’s new cookbook: Tartine All Day: Modern Recipes for the Home Cook. I have one of her early books, which focuses on pastries, and also holds the recipe for a winter favorite: Gingerbread Steamed Pudding. While Prueitt’s new book has plenty of dessert recipes (30 of them are gluten free), I’m most excited to try some of the savory dishes, including the Porchetta (page 277), Savory Bread Pudding with Wild Mushrooms and Bacon (p. 237), One-Side Sautéed Salmon with Chive Butter Sauce (p. 223), the Many Bean Salad with Preserved Lemon and Herbs (p. 166) and more. The book is gorgeous and even if I only get to one of the recipes before it’s due back, I know it’s a resource I’ll come back to again and again.

And for those who love to read about food, but prefer to stay out of the kitchen, may I recommend a few favorite reads:Tender at the Bone: Growing Up Around the Table, Alone in the Kitchen with an Eggplant, My Life in France, Somethingtofoodabout, and The Apprentice: My Life in the Kitchen.

Kelley’s Pick

My choice comes from the call number 641.5, because in the Dewey Decimal world, cooking is a science, not an art.

Librarians like to say, “every book its reader,” and One Pan & Done is my soul mate. Since I started experimenting with cooking in my early 20’s, I have had an extreme fondness for casseroles and savory pies. The appeal for me is that all the ingredients get thrown into one dish which you put it in the oven looking like a total mess, yet comes out perfectly gorgeous and delicious.

Each night this week I’ve cooked with a recipe from One Pan & Done and have been delighted with the results. I was able to plan my shopping around repeat ingredients. The recipes are well written and easy to execute on a weeknight. The range of dishes are unique and refreshing while managing to hit both the healthy and comfort food sweet spots. I will be purchasing this… as soon as I return it to the library.

Brandie’s Pick

I am a personal development book junkie (my daughter is always commenting on the number of “self-help” books around the house. I prefer to call them “personal development” books). One of my go-to shelves in the library is the 150s—the Dewey Decimal classification for these books and where you can find them in the library. Lucky for me, I am also the selector for the 150s. I find it really motivating to read from a personal development book each morning before I start my day.

I just picked up Option B: Facing Adversity, Building Resilience, and Finding Joy, the new book by the New York Times best-selling authors of Lean In and Originals. This is an inspiring and practical book about building resilience and moving forward after life’s inevitable setbacks. Sheryl Sandberg, chief operating officer at Facebook, was certain she wouldn’t recover after the sudden death of her husband. Yet her friend Adam Grant, a psychologist, suggested that there are steps anyone can take to recover and rebound from life-shattering experiences. Starting is simple and only takes the commitment to begin. As the publisher notes, “Option B illuminates how to help others in crisis, develop compassion for ourselves, raise strong children, and create resilient families, communities, and workplaces…we all live some form of Option B.” This book’s aim is to help us make the most of it.

Raminta’s Picks

PPL was excited to host a May concert with Portland’s own Listen Up! Music, and we now have four of the local program’s current albums to share with our music-loving patrons. They’re a great addition to our Maine Music collection.

My two favorite tracks from the album Nothing About Us is Quite Right! by Slipstreeming Mondays are “Cat Pea Blues” and “Centipedes Don’t Rock.” “Cat Pea Blues” talks about a cat who just won’t learn to use his box. As a cat parent, I’ve been there. It’s frustrating. This song was played multiple times on repeat. “Centipedes Don’t Rock” is a truly fantastic tribute to a Led-Zeppelin-style of singing, while telling the simple story of a centipede apartment-interloper.

On the album Feelings by Smashing Kay, I recommend the tracks “I’m Sorry,” “The Dancing Song” and “Happy Daze Acoustic.”

The Listen Up Album features several of the bands and singers from the program. “Boom Boom” by The Sabotaging Cars was a track that wouldn’t be out of place on any alternative music station. “Kiss me, I’m Irish” by Slipstreeming Mondays had, in my opinion, some of the best lyrics: simple lines with great melodies.

My absolute favorite album produced by the Listen Up! Music crew is Turn Around the Tide by The Furry Ambers. In the song “Flying Yankee,” we hear a song about the historic train that traveled between Boston and Maine. It’s a folksy tune that wouldn’t be out of place beside Bob Dylan’s “Bear Mountain Picnic Massacre Blues” (sans massacre). “O Adina” is a heartfelt ballad about love and loss and also pleads with Adina to “stop insulting my mom.” “Power to the People” is probably one of the better protest songs I have heard in quite some time. Thoughtful lyrics play perfectly against the uplifting tune. The tracks “Truth” and “Get on Your Feet and Go” both felt like long lost Woody Guthrie songs both lyrically and musically.

All of the albums are professionally recorded and produced. These are fantastic albums which stand on their own and are definitely worth a listen. I look forward to more recordings from Listen Up! in the near future.

Sarah’s Pick

Merriam-Webster Lexicographer Kory Stamper takes us on a behind-the-scenes tour of what it takes to create and update a dictionary in Word by Word: The Secret Life of Dictionaries. Word nerds will relish every morsel of this book, and modern readers will appreciate its sly, witty tone. Anyone who loves language should check it out.

Abraham’s Picks

Writing is often fueled by reading- and journaling benefits from insightful prompts and essays, as well from personal experience. Here are some new books to inspire your creativity with the written word. Reflective writing accompanies our physical journeys, and writers will appreciate the variety of travels described in Michael Shapiro’s A Sense of Place: Great Travel Writers Talk About Their Craft, Lives, and Inspiration.

Journaling, whether at your desk, on your front stoop, or far afield, continues an introspective voyage unique to each writer. Style, format, and direction is entire up to you. As you make journaling your own, it becomes your practice, and your narrative. If putting words to paper gets stalled, some helpful reading ignites observations. Try Jill Jepson’s Writing As a Sacred Path: A Practical Guide to Writing with Passion and Purpose, Kate Dalebout’s Let it Out: A Journey Through Journaling, or James Finnebaker and John Evans’ Expressive Writing: Words That Heal.

Natalie Goldberg, author of Writing Down the Bones, referred to by countless writers and teachers (the book is also at PPL) wrote: “The secret of creativity is to subtract rules for writing, not add them.” Her short essays do not tell writers how to write, but they “get the wheels turning,” encouraging the reader to get writing. We’ve added her book, Wild Mind, which succeeds her first book.

Elizabeth’s Pick

Thi Bui’s graphic memoir The Best We Could Do is one of my favorite reads so far this year; it’ll easily take root alongside classics like Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis and Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home. Bui’s stories drawings of her family’s journey from Vietnam to the U.S. are fantastic: striking, memorable, thoughtful, dark, lovely. Most reviewers have noted how timely the book is, and as Bui herself noted in an interview with this year: “Periodically, conflict or natural disaster—or some terrible association of the two—force large waves of people into involuntary migration. To have lived one’s entire life free of this experience is to be very lucky. To go through it, I think, peels away some layers of the veil between life and death. You realize that the stability of your world is not to be taken for granted. That things can change, and go from bad to worse very quickly, and you must be ready to grab those important to you and run, or stay and fight, and nothing is guaranteed. In The Best We Could Do, I narrate the story of my family who fled from home in a small boat in the late ’70s, in the aftermath of the Vietnam War.”

The Best We Could Do explores that history, and is also a nuanced portrait of Bui’s relationship with her parents and their fascinating stories: Má, whose voice Bui loves and who you can hear reciting Vietnamese pronunciations of words from the book here, and Bố, who is haunted by what happened to him as a child. Thoughts and ideas about family, the past, belonging, resilience, and what it means to be free as an individual are all finely drawn here. Every page of the memoir holds a remarkable image: Má as a lively young scholar, her confident glance at the reader as she decides to quit speaking French, the language of the colonizers, outside of school; a full spread of Bố looking up at the starry night sky from the deck of the boat they’re escaping on; and finally, decades later, the joyous splash of Bui’s son in the California sea.


Looking for more new nonfiction? Explore new nonfiction titles in our catalog here, including recent arrivals and books on order.

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