Posted by: Lisa Hill | April 3, 2021

Baho! by Roland Rugero, translated by Chris Schaefer

Once again, a recommendation from the Johannesburg Review of Books has turned out to be excellent reading.  Baho! by Roland Rugero and beautifully translated by Chris Schaefer, is notable for being the first Burundian fiction translated into English, but there’s much more to it than that.

In 91 short pages this allegory exposes misogyny and the hypocrisy of ‘honour culture’; mob mentality and how it can be swayed by populists; othering and marginalisation; the harm caused by religion and superstition; and—although the 1990s genocide* in Burundi is never mentioned—the fragility of peace after war.

This is the blurb:

When Nyamugari, an adolescent mute, attempts to ask a young woman in rural Burundi for directions to an appropriate place to relieve himself, his gestures are mistaken as premeditation for rape. To the young woman’s community, his fleeing confirms his guilt, setting off a chain reaction of pursuit, mob justice, and Nyamugari’s attempts at explanation. Young Burundian novelist Roland Rugero’s second novel Baho!, the first Burundian novel to ever be translated into English, explores the concepts of miscommunication and justice against the backdrop of war-torn Burundi’s beautiful green hillsides.

When Nyamugari flees in dismay, his actions are interpreted as guilt, and the village is outraged. But they are not outraged on the girl’s behalf.  The men, all too busy ogling other women at the same time, are angry that she has been sullied, reducing the market value of investing in a dowry for her.  They consider that all women in the area have been defiled by this act, and that they—the men—are all affected.  These comments put me in mind of actual cases of ‘honour killing’, not just in places like the Middle East and Pakistan, but right here in Australia.

Nyamugari can’t defend himself because he is a loner.  Originally mute for psychological reasons, he was rendered physically mute by a charlatan claiming to offer surgery as a cure.  To make matters worse, a change of teacher who refused to teach someone who could not speak, meant that the boy—despite teaching himself to read and write—never has the opportunity to become part of the community, and after the death of his parents, lives only on the fringes of society.

But Nyamugari is also a handy scapegoat.  There has been a devastating drought, and there have been a number of unsolved rapes.  Mob violence escalates and superstition comes to the fore when the mob leader claims that if he is killed, it will rain.

Each chapter is prefaced by a proverb in Kirundi, such as ‘akatareste kaba gasema‘ and its translation: cursed is the one who does not heed the warning; and there’s a reminder that these proverbs derive from real life: umagani ugana akariho means ‘the proverb moulds what exists.’

There are also Kirundi words sprinkled throughout the text, always accompanied by their translations, as when Nyamugari’s mother tells him to accept what is:

Nyamuragi had a principle: never waste time explaining to others what is difficult for him to understand himself. A practice consciously cultivated.  Since his expulsion from primary school, he had scarcely tried to make himself understood.  He could communicate with gestures.  Actions such as convincing, seducing, and discussing, however, were unknown to him.  Since then he had conceived of them as futile obligations to a community that had confined him to a sub-human category since birth.

Born incomplete, he had settled for living out his inadequacy.  Just for himself.  Without making it a tragedy or a question of resisting an accursed fate.  One must not fear what is.  His mother would tell him “Ibuye riserutse ntirimena isuka,” “The pebble that peeks out of the dirt cannot split the hoe.”  As soon as a farmer sees a pebble starting to show in the ground, he stops and probes at it with his hoe, goes to the trouble of picking it up, throws it a long way off, and then calmly settles back into his labour.

What is already is: you must disregard it and continue your life in peace. (p.56)

Not all of us, of course, would agree with this advice.  It’s not always wise counsel when there’s something that needs to be changed.  And there’s a convincing argument that truth-telling is an essential ingredient in reconciliation.  But Rugero’s story is an allegory which is specific to its time in Burundi and its culture.  Needing to restore peace after the genocide that’s never mentioned in the book, Burundians, he says, need first to move on from the past.  I think that what he may be saying is that Truth and Justice Commissions or Nuremburg Trials may perhaps be better deferred for another time, when memories are not quite so raw and people are not so trigger-happy.

This is explained best in the entry for Baho! at Wikipedia

The primary allegory that Rugero utilizes in Baho! ties Nyamuragi to the natural spirit of Burundi that is trying to live on despite the country’s past. However, due to the violence instilled in the people, simple misunderstandings are brought to nearly kill the boy.

The many themes elicited in Baho! create a collection of conflicting elements that resemble the dualities that exist in current Burundian culture. As Rugero observes, Burundians are constantly striving to do better as a people, but are also quick to spite one another because of their differences. “Living in Burundi is to be constantly ready for a fight…” To Rugero, this in itself creates another duality in how the outside world views Burundi, as many observe Burundians to be entirely peace loving at face value.

This message is reinforced by the work’s title, which translates as a command to “live”, referring to Burundi’s need to move past its violence and distrust and just live peacefully into the future.

It appears from what I’ve read at Wikipedia, that the UN has done some good work in establishing power-sharing among the warring groups  and the peace is so far holding.

* There was not just one genocide in Burundi.

Bouts of ethnic cleansing and ultimately two civil wars and genocides during the 1970s and again in the 1990s resulted in hundreds of thousands of deaths and left the economy undeveloped and the population as one of the world’s poorest. (Burundi – Wikipedia)

Author: Roland Rugero
Title: Baho!
Publisher: Phoneme Media, 2016, first published 2012
ISBN: 9781939419620, pbk., 91 pages
Source: personal library


Responses

  1. This looks very interesting. Thanks, Lisa.

    Like

    • It’s always interesting to read something from a country we’ve never encountered in literature before:)

      Liked by 1 person


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