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Into East Africa

Perspectives on Burundi

View of Bujumbura and Lake Tanganyika 

I traveled to Bujumbura, Burundi during my senior year of undergrad and stayed there for about a month. The journey took one three hour car ride, and three separate flights over the course of 28 hours but we made it. I traveled with my boyfriend whose family is from Burundi and who had only visited, himself, every so often. To say I felt grateful would be an understatement. And before I get into the rest of this piece, I think it is important to note that I am no expert on Burundi. I was born lower middle class and white in Upstate New York and therefore can only translate this experience through my own lens.

Burundi is a small country in East Africa located below Rwanda and adjacent to Tanzania and the Democratic Republic of Congo. The two languages spoken most often are Kirundi and French but from my observations its seems as though English is being learnt more so by the younger generations. Similar to Rwanda, Burundi is comprised of Hutu, Tutsi, and Twa ethnicities and has had its share of conflict in the 20th century. Burundi has an equatorial climate and is made up of many hills and mountains populated by dense forests. 

Being there in December (the rainy season), it was very humid and hot everyday and rained all the time. This caused the trees and plants to bloom fully, making for a very beautiful, green country. It reminded me so much of summer in New York; that was one of the first things that gave me comfort. I had never been anywhere in Africa and thought I would feel so far away but I didn't. The mosquitos definitely helped the vibe as well. 

Though I felt at home in the climate, I felt far away in other aspects of Burundi. One of those was not speaking either official language. My French is alright, I can usually grasp a conversation based on context but my Kirundi is non-existent. So oftentimes, family members would switch between the two languages and I would feel like I had linguistic whiplash trying my best to understand both. At first I asked my boyfriend, Mike, to translate but at some point he just stopped. Even when he translated a joke and put it in a context that made sense for me, the conversation was already over and I was the only one laughing. I realized then how powerful language is to identity and culture. A joke that makes sense in Kirundi may not mean anything in French but one could tell the joke in Kirundi and respond to it in French and the interaction as a whole would make sense. In this case, an understanding of the concepts and rules which dictate both languages plus implied cultural norms is crucial to everyday interactions. 

Another thing which made me feel out of place (because I was) was my being white. Almost in every situation, I was the only white person anywhere. Until Mike's sister's husband showed up and unless we were out dining or drinking in town I was the lone white. Now, I'm not going to sit here and twist this into a scenario and try to say people were "racist" towards me because that is not the case at all. Even in Burundi, being white is still an advantage. Mike would explain that the white people who live in Bujumbura either work for an international organization or they own businesses there. Therefore, for much of the trip I myself began assuming that any white person I saw must be doing those things. And again, there were not many white people there so whenever we were out in public I often got prolonged stares and people pointing fingers saying "mzungu" or "white person." Burundians, I found, are not always the most subtle people but it is an admirable quality because at least I knew what people were thinking. It became normal for me too, to want to do those things. At some point, whenever I saw another white person I would reflexively whisper to myself "white person" or I would turn to Mike and say something like, "Oh look another white person." At first, I thought it was endearing when children would point and talk to each other about me but after a while it felt ostracizing. To go out in public and know that all eyes are on you because you appear different is something which can make you feel very alone. I think it is something that I will always consider even now that I am back at home in New York. I walk outside and see so many people who look like me, talk like me, and act like me but before this trip I had never truly considered how it must be for non-white people in New York. To be a resident in a country where people look at you like you don't belong is something I will never truly know but after this trip is something that I try to observe more and be sensitive to. 

Despite feeling out of place many times, I also felt extremely welcomed. My feeling lonely was really only a manifestation of my insecurities with attention and truly had nothing to do with how I was treated. My boyfriend's family, and pretty much any other Burundian that I met, was so warm and welcoming. Everyone tried so hard to make me feel included, I have never met such a loving group of people in my life. In the U.S. families are small and having guests over is preplanned and god forbid they stay past their welcome. In Burundi, families are big and your great-aunt comes to your house at 8 AM unannounced for breakfast and stays until the afternoon. It was almost polar opposite social interactions. 

One morning I woke up around 9 AM and had a cup of coffee. Before I could finish it Mike's aunts showed up saying we had to leave in 15 minutes. Myself, obviously not speaking Kirundi or French, had no idea where we were going or why. We ended up taking a car into one of the rural provinces in the mountains of Burundi where Mike's mother had grown up. We drove for an hour and stopped at a militia gathering where the men in charge gave a speech, then followed by Mike's aunt. We met men, women, and children from the area who only spoke Kirundi for the most part. 

Children from the Province

The children (above) were at first scared of the camera and hid from it but soon got used to it. We continued on and met Mike's extended family and shared a meal with them which turned into singing and dancing. 

I don't think I've ever seen any of my family sing and dance together, let alone improvise the song and create the music for it. This image above is one of my favorite images from the trip. The bright blue walls contrasted by the bright orange in the women's clothes. The blurriness that only happens when you're moving so fast that the camera shutter can't capture it in time. This picture I think captures the liveliness and joy that I saw so many times from Mike's family.

Overall, this trip was amazing. It was such an eye-opening experience and so many things happened that I could go on and on which I won't do because we would be here forever. Burundi is an incredibly beautiful country with such a lively and welcoming culture. I did not go so much into the issues the country has been facing in recent decades, but I highly encourage everyone to look into them. Find some reputable sources and dig deep. It truly is a remarkable place with so much to teach us. 

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