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.
A: “The Criterion Collection is dedicated to gathering the greatest films from around the world and publishing them in editions of the highest technical quality, with supplemental features that enhance the appreciation of the art of film.” (from their website)
Q: Do all the Library’s Criterion Collection films come from Videoport?
A: No, the Library has been purchasing these films for years, but the Videoport donation expanded our collection considerably.
Q: Is this a finite collection? Are these all the Criterion films that there are?
A: No, the Criterion Collection adds new films every month, and the Library is committed to making these high quality films available to you.
We hope you enjoy all your reading adventures this summer.
If you want to push back against the boundaries of reality with your reading this summer, check out Stonewall Honor winning YA novel When the Moon Was Ours by Anna-Marie McLemore. Written in a magical realism style that reads similarly to works by Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Isabelle Allende, When the Moon Was Ours tells the story of Samir, an Italian-Pakistani trans boy, and Miel, a Latina girl who grows roses from her wrist. Full of powerful witch women, a forest full of moon lanterns, pumpkins that turn to glass, and magical clouds of butterflies, When the Moon Was Ours will make you think about the ways you look at gender, family, identity, community, and love.
On Trails by Robert Moor is great travel pick: it’s a nonfiction book on the nature of how trails are made through history, and how some are continuing to be used after thousands of years while others have to be rediscovered. Moor hits the trail in Morocco, Alabama, Newfoundland, Arizona, North Carolina, recording his adventures along the way…a perfect summer book to ready yourself for hiking.
My Summer Reading June Staff Pick is Looking for Transwonderland, the first book by Noo Saro-Wiwa. Saro-Wiwa is an essayist and critic who has written for the Times Literary Supplement, the Financial Times, and The Guardian. She’s also the daughter of noted Nigerian author and activist Ken Saro-Wiwa. Before being executed in Nigeria in 1995 by the regime of Sani Abacha, Ken Saro-Wiwa was a leader of the Ogoni people, whose traditional homelands lie in the Niger River Delta, a major source of Nigeria’s oil wealth. He was outspoken in his critique of the Nigerian government and the environmental degradation that resulted from oil extraction by multinational corporations.
Looking for Transwonderland chronicles Noo Saro-Wiwa’s return to Nigeria many years after her father’s death. Raised in the UK, Noo Saro-Wiwa returns to a rapidly changing Nigeria and spends time navigating historical cities such as Lagos and Port Harcourt as well as the newly constructed capital of Abuja. Noo Saro-Wiwa includes multiple reflections on childhood experiences in Nigeria, often remembering her father, his dedication to the idea of a whole Nigeria, and their excursions together. As an avid reader of travelogues, I was drawn to Looking for Transwonderland for its exploration of a truly fascinating country, as well as its literary linkage to Ken Saro-Wiwa.
I read and loved My Name is Lucy Barton last year (I’ve actually loved everything by Elizabeth Strout, I’m a big fan, but who doesn’t love Elizabeth Stout?). So when I heard about her new collection of short stories based on the characters from that book, Anything is Possible, I was thrilled to be first in the hold line. Strout said, “As I was writing My Name Is Lucy Barton it came to me that all the characters Lucy and her mother talked about had their own stories—of course!—and so the unfolding of their lives became tremendously important to me.” How many times does this happen in a book, where you want to know more about the peripheral characters but never get that opportunity? Well, here you go! It’s a perfect read for the beach and the short stories, I am sorry to say, go by as quickly as a Maine summer.
As temperatures climb and days turn lazy and hazy, I find myself drawn back to the steamy, sleepy magic of Love in the Time of Cholera by Gabriel Garcia Marquez. I could read this book over and over every summer for the rest of my life and never tire of it. This tale of bittersweet romance, drawn out over the course of a lifetime, is set somewhere near the Caribbean Sea, sometime around the turn of the twentieth century. The depth of the story’s characters and the intensity of their emotions make it seem almost real, yet something about the disjointed timeline and the too-vivid colors of birds and flowers makes you wonder if you’ve drifted off to sleep on a distant shore and started to dream this sentimental, passionate, lovesick story of blossom and decay. And then you float away to the somewhere and the sometime and get lost in the tale.
If you have ever felt a bit geeky and out of place, you may sympathetically enjoy the ruminations of Selin, the semi-hapless college student who narrates Elif Batuman’s first novel, The Idiot. Batuman’s book fits in with our summer reading travel category—at least in the second half of the book when Selin journeys to Hungary to teach English, and comic encounters ensue. (She visits France and her relatives in Turkey, too). Selin is not perfect, which will probably annoy some readers. Instead, she’s perplexed: by language, literature, love, other people, email (it’s 1995). If you’re looking for a thrilling, suspenseful plot, this isn’t for you! Read The Idiot if you have an unflagging interest in the weirdness of individual brains, swooping bike rides in the Hungarian moonlight, and writing rich with the meandering, zany pains and pleasures of one year in a life observed.
Salt Houses by Hala Alyan is a fantastic first novel, lyrical, both radiant and haunted, illuminating the complexities of the Yacoub family: Alia, Atef, their children and their grandchildren—Salt Houses passes through generations. There are so many stories here: stories of what is lost and found, of searching for home, of nostalgia for the past as the family is uprooted again and again because of war. From Jaffa, from Nablus, from Kuwait City. To Paris, Beirut, Boston, Amman. Alyan’s writing is memorable, lively, lush, as chapters switch between characters and we drop deeply into each different point of view. Karam carves a bird for his beloved sister, and paints it a vivid blue, her favorite color. Alia forgets the word for pomegranate, and so her fate is sealed. Riham nearly drowns, and is saved. Atef writes undeliverable letters to his best friend, who was killed. On his daughter’s birthday, Atef muses: “How tiny our lives are, he thinks, swelling to impossible size with love, then shrinking again.” Salt Houses is a good example of how the best books expand our own lives, too.
94 years ago. Good heavens. That’s when my earnestly proffered summer read was first published. 1923 it was when its new binding, whose board corners now are rounded and signatures compromised, was cracked for the first time by a gentle reader who, just one paragraph into the book, read this advert at the same instant that main character Lotty Wilkins did:
To Those who Appreciate Wistaria and Sunshine. Small mediaeval Italian Castle on the shores of the Mediterranean to be Let Furnished for the month of April. Necessary servants remain. Z., Box 1000, The Times.
And so the story launches from its rainy, grey London beginnings, taking dear Lotty, a collection of new acquaintances and some familiar but soon-to-be freshly experienced companions, and us if we are wise enough to join them, on a month-long sojourn out of our ruts and deep into our hearts, bathed in Italy’s April sunshine the while.
The sandy young woman is Lotty. I love Lotty. How could I not?
I read this in March, when the wind was howling and the word “snow” was very much an active present tense verb as well as an endlessly wearisome noun, when Spring seemed such a godawful long way off that I was desperate for deliverance. The Enchanted April was salvation in a compact volume which I eagerly devoured as winter pressed on and on. And even as I ate up the prose, huddled in front of the wood stove and grateful for its heat, I could see myself doing similar in a vastly different meteorological milieu: perched, perhaps, in an adirondack chair, lazily brushing an easily discouraged lady bug or two from the open pages before me; the only sweat in sight forming on my tall tinkling-iced tumbler of sweet tea. I was pretty sure it could happen in June, or maybe July, certainly August. This would be the book I would go to when my brain didn’t want to work too hard for too long. When I was hungry for something that would transport me, would forgive me dozing off, sunglasses askew; would provide just the right measure of surefire pleasure with its combination of old-timey phraseology and frail human feelings that are, it turns out, brave and timeless.
And lo! It is June and I find myself with a week off from a job that I enjoy but am content now to keep at an unaccustomed distance. True, I am more likely to be garbed in bug-netting than in the fine-woven linen shift I may have envisioned in my March reverie. Ladybugs will be cowering under cover as I swat away black flies and mosquitoes and spritz myself with deet. But I have that same battered copy of The Enchanted April in hand, ready to feel good all over again, this time with a view burgeoning like a San Salvatore spring in place of the cold white unpromising scene that drove me to this lovely story to begin with. Let’s get this show on the road!
But wait! There’s more! I have no shame and I want you to benefit from my lack: if you can’t summon enough summertime energy to follow words on a page, sentences in a paragraph… do not despair. By all means check out the 1991 movie based on this book. Its perfection of a cast, scenery obliging the most world-weary among us to sigh a sigh of monumental relief, and habiliments that will make you pine for a time when the flow of a kimono or the soft drape of a chemise could tell a story all on its own… let this film’s considerable magic toss its story-net over you without having to read a word. If you can’t live with the guilt of such effortless enjoyment, engage the closed captioning and read along.
Either way you can’t lose. You are bound for San Salvatore.