Burundians in Nairobi

By Dany Ngarukiye

Space Lounge sits on Ngong Road, just up from the Prestige Shopping Center. It’s really just a small yard covered with a tent of purple, yellow, green and red fabric. The path that leads to it is usually muddy, thanks to the steady stream of water that escapes from the Capricorn Carwash next door. The restaurant is outfitted with benches that are metallic black with red cushions. There is a row of high tables with bar stools, occupied on this night – and probably always – by men deep in conversation. But these modest flourishes conceal the place’s magic: the authentic Rwandan and Burundian food they serve is sublime – especially for patrons like me, who are hungry for a taste of our childhoods.

I have come here to reconnect with my Burundian roots, and to find out how other Burundian exiles in Nairobi feel about the unfolding chaos back home. It has been years since I was last in Bujumbura, where I was born, but I have followed its slow return to civil war in media reports: the protests over President Pierre Nkurunziza’s decision to seek a third term, the thwarted coup and the violent crackdown on protests that followed. I’ve stared at disturbing images, like those of bodies uncovered in a mass grave, or students seeking shelter jumping the fence at the American embassy.

At some point, I got turned on to the hashtag #BeautifulBurundi, which gathered stunning images of the countryside and lakeside, beauty that was usually overshadowed by the protests and political decisions being made in the capital. Looking at these images was a good way to stave off depression, and gave me a way to think about the country without feeling like I had ingested an unsavory helping of blood, conflict and despair at the start of my day.

beautiful burundi
A screen shot of #BeautifulBurundi tweets.

Still, for all the information I was consuming about Burundi, I only had a partial picture of my birthplace. Knowing that my adopted city of Nairobi was rich with a Burundian diaspora, I decided it was time to reach out.

And so, here I was in Space Lounge. I came with a Burundian friend, and our first move was to order a feast: sombe (cassava leaves) – tangy with a hint of saltiness – and some cow tongue brochettes (meat skewers) that were chewy and delicious. Then come the grilled bitoke (green banana), grilled and served dry. Finally, a little silver dish arrived with Burundi’s famous pili pili, chili pepper paste. I happily applied copious amounts of the mushed red and yellow seeds to everything on my plate.

The meal made me tremendously nostalgic for the bistros of Bujumbura; this place on Ngong Road would have fit right in on Chez Gerard, with its spicy food and whispered conversations cut with loud laughs. It was exciting to finally discover a bulwark of the Bujumbura lifestyle in the middle of Nairobi. The pieces were coming together, but until now I hadn’t realized I was doing a puzzle.

My search for Burundi in Nairobi next took me to the Java on Kimathi Street.  I was meeting Ivan, an old family friend with whom I have a lot in common. Ivan left Burundi as a one year old; I left when I was four. He has lived in three countries in the region, the same number as me. Bujumbura is a permanent fixture in our lives, but we have only made the trip there as seldom as our parents saw fit. As kids, we shared family dinners on weekends with other Burundian families in the city. Our fathers played soccer on community teams and our mothers took part in countless prayer circles  in the homes of family and other members of the fellowship.

Ivan is an artist. He writes, mainly poetry and also short stories, which he self-publishes on a personal blog (www.museedivan.wordpress.com). He also runs a Nairobi-based event and arts organization called Ink Overflow, which organizes monthly events that feature mostly spoken word and acoustic music.

When Ivan first envisioned Ink Overflow, he planned to launch it in Bujumbura. In the little Tanganyika coast city we call home, he saw  many young artists with something interesting to say but limited space to perform. However, as Nairobi slowly became Ivan’s home, it made more sense to anchor Ink Overflow there.

I ask if Burundi makes an appearance in his work. He replies that it does, but not as much as it should. His love for poetry came from his grandfather, a musician; from his father, Ivan inherited his love for theater and traditional Burundian music. Growing up, he felt it was expected of him to learn an instrument, but instead he gravitated towards the pen and paper.

Our little Central African country boasts a community of prolific and very talented artists. There is a tradition of “cow whistling,” in which a poet rhythmically recites praise to the long horned creature revered for its beauty. This tradition dates back to the days of the monarchy and is still a part of any good wedding ceremony today. In addition, the inanga – a string instrument that is not unlike Western Kenya’s nyatiti – is used to accompany lyrical story telling that is the foundation of our country’s mythology and oral history.

Despite thriving in his adopted home, Ivan suffers from a feeling of rootlessness. That feeling is compounded by the fact that his parents moved back to Burundi a decade ago, and, while Ivan is tempted by the thought of following them, he knows it would be crazy for an entrepreneur and artist like him to do that.

After our meeting, I type “Ink Overflow” into Youtube, and find a video of Ivan performing at a Kwani? Open mic event. He says: “I’m sitting here trying to write. Write a line, write a rhyme, anything that can come to mind but I haven’t written in a while so now it feels like I’ve forgotten how. I skim through my old poems trying to find inspiration lost and confused like an artist without a muse. Part of me is feeling down the other is not amused.”

On a warm Wednesday evening, I am on the back of a motorcycle taxi weaving through traffic on Thika road rushing to the Garden City Mall. I am on my way to an Ink Overflow event, and I am running late. I get to the mall’s upper level and, standing at the top of the stairs, I see rows of people listening intently to a woman walking back and forth before a white screen, speaking passionately.

The woman’s poem, a lyrical discussion of the black female body and the ways in which men try to colonize it, is magical. Another poet takes the stage and gives a moving rendition of Linton Kwesi Johnson’s “Sonny’s Lettah.” Immediately I see it: we are in an international exploration of the black condition in a globalized world with all its tragedies and triumphs. In Garden City Mall, of all places!

A few moments later, Ivan makes his way to the microphone and people cheer like great fans. He starts to speak with almost musical cadence. “Last Friday Night” he says the poem is called.

We still had our good chemistry

I could still make a fool of myself and she could still laugh at me

I figured I had a pretty good chance of ending the night together

When I noticed she still played with her hair every time I got close to her

“Just because we were meant to be, doesn’t mean we were meant to last forever.”

Those were the last words I remembered telling her

And for the life of me, I couldn’t remember why I’d left her

All I kept thinking was what a dumbass I was for giving up on what we had together

We had a good time and as the date came to its end

I dropped her off and there we stood, two attracted bodies at her doorstep

I acted all cool like a gentleman about to leave yet wanting something else

But damn, nothing in this world would have prepared me for what would happen next

“Before you leave, there’s something I need to tell you.”

As she said that, her door opened and a tiny hand stuck out with a voice saying, “Mommy you’re home.”

And before I could finish asking who the little man was, she interrupted me saying, 

“This is my son, I’m a single mother, and he’s almost seven.”

I look to the young lady on my left, who I immediately recognize as a fellow Burundian. She is suspended in a state of wonderment just like many of the other people, bathing in the deep, hypnotic talent of our mutual friend.

As I return home around 11pm, the feeling of rolling in a bubble of kinship lingers. I had wanted to complicate my understanding of my homeland, to build an image including but bigger than the depressing headlines. In the process, I gained a sense of connection while exploring the lives of other Burundians in Nairobi, people who are creative, self-reflecting, welcoming wanderers of the globe; people who, like me, struggle with the feeling of what to call “home.”

davy twitterDavy Ngarukiye is a Burunidian living in Nairobi. He previously interned at Reuters Television in Nairobi.

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