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This Voice in My Heart
A Runner's Memoir of Genocide, Faith, and Forgiveness
Deliver Us From Evil
If you were to read the history of Burundi in a schoolbook, it would tell a story very different from the story of my early years. You would read words like war-torn, genocide, impoverished, and sanctions. Despite all the violence and unrest that has plagued the country since it first achieved independence in 1962, for me, growing up on its southern hillsides and deep valleys, Burundi was truly a paradise. Beneath its lush triple canopy of forest and jungle foliage and from its rich volcanic soil, my family has made its home for generations. Like many Tutsi families, we grew our crops and raised our cows on land our ancestors settled after coming from the more arid south and what is today Ethiopia and Somalia. If you know anything about life in those places, then you can understand why most Burundians, Tutsi and Hutu alike, have such a deep love of and fierce loyalty to their fertile adopted homeland.
I do not know all of my family's history. I do know that my great-grandfather was a somewhat influential person during colonization, when Burundi was under the influence of the Belgians, who ruled it, as part of Rwanda-Urundi, under a League of Nations mandate granted in 1923 after it was no longer a part of German East Africa. While under colonial rule, the people of Burundi still had their own loose form of independent governance, and a good friend of my great-grandfather was responsible for the administration and distribution of land to the native people. This man, whose name my grandmother, Pauline Banyankanizi, had forgotten by the time shewas telling me the stories of my family's early days on our land, granted my great-grandfather the equivalent of a deed or title to hundreds of acres on the hillsides of what is known as Fuku Mountain. Since written titles and deeds and a court system to administer them and settle land disputes were forbidden under colonial rule, that amounted to an understanding among the Tutsis that the land we cleared and cultivated was ours by the mandate of our labor as much as anything else. My great-grandfather chose this hilly land for many reasons, not the least of which was, as any military strategy book will tell you, that high ground is easy to defend.
He picked one mountaintop for himself, and he and each of his three brothers built a settlement there. More land was cleared for planting and grazing, and with each successive generation the land was passed down to the male children. For that reason, I grew up surrounded by family, and while we lived in separate dwellings (at first huts and later houses), we cared for one another's land when necessary and socialized constantly. My grandfather Simeone Ndayirukiye died when I was very young, and so my grandmother Pauline served as the head of our family. In the highlands of Burundi, I was isolated from the outside world and protected from its more violent elements.
By the time I was born, my father, Sabiyumva (the oldest son), and his seven siblings all worked our land. Our huts were gathered in an oval cluster, compound-style. While individual families had small gardens, we shared and worked together our largest plots of land. We got along well with our neighbors who lived on adjacent hillsides. While we considered ourselves a community and lived in a kind of village, we had no central buildings and only a few footpaths connecting our homes; what connected us was our bloodline.
Burundi itself lies on a high plateau rising from the shores of Lake Tanganyika, which serves as much of the western border with the Democratic Republic of Congo. Our property rose to nearly 5,500 feet above sea level, keeping it relatively cool compared with the steamy heat of the Lake Tanganyika region and other parts of the country.
Is it any wonder that this cool, fertile land should be the subject of so many disputes? Who wouldn't fight for control of a place as beautiful and life-sustaining as this, a place where people from many tribes and clans settled in order to feed themselves? Like most African people, Burundians have many loyalties: to their country, to their ethnic group, to their clan, and to their family. While I was born a Tutsi in Comina Songa (the rough equivalent of Songa County) in the province of Bururi in the country of Burundi, the story has more chapters than that. The Tutsis are a Bantu people—people who speak a Bantu language—and my family is part of the Batsinga tribe and the Abasafu clan. Those names tell you much about my family: Batsinga means "strong" and Abasafu means "those people who like to own cows." In our culture we do not have surnames; your individual name is meant to convey something of your personality, your history, or the circumstances of your birth.
To name a thing gives you great power over it, and for that reason, when I was born in April 1974, my mother named me Tuhabonyemana, which means "child of God." (Later in life, when I gained some fame as a runner, I would drop the "mana" from my name because the radio announcers and the officials at the meets found it easier to say that way.) Though my mother was not as strictly religious as my grandmother or others in the family, I suppose she had several reasons for selecting this name. The months and years leading up to my birth were difficult ones—when it seemed as though a series of plagues visited us.
My parents had their first child, my oldest sister, Beatrice, shortly after independence in 1962. My brother, Dieudonné Irabandutira, was born in 1966. In the eight years between his birth and mine, much happened in our family. Perhaps most important, in 1972 a civil war erupted, and thousands of Hutus, and two of my uncles, were killed. The violence was a result of decades-long and complex conflicts going all the way back to 1966, when King Mwambutsa IV (a Tutsi) was deposed. He had reigned for fifty years, before his son Charles, aided by the army, overthrew him and suspended the constitution. Charles ruled as Ntare V, and his reign was considerably shorter than his father's. Captain Michel Micombero ousted Ntare V that same year and declared Burundi a republic. Micombero was also a Tutsi; thus his main rivals were the majority Hutus. But in 1972 the Hutus killed Ntare V, fearing that he would return to power and end the republic. In retaliation, the Tutsi military exacted revenge on the Hutus for having killed one of their own, regardless of what they felt about Ntare V previously. War ensued, and in the succeeding years, thousands and thousands of Burundians lost their lives as a Hutu rebellion was quashed. By the time I was born, this violence had for the most part ended; in Comina Songa particularly, things had been quiet...This Voice in My Heart
A Runner's Memoir of Genocide, Faith, and Forgiveness. Copyright © by Gilbert Tuhabonye. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.