On Surviving a Childhood Marked by Civil War
For Pacifique Irankunda Looking Forward Sometimes Means Looking Back
I find it hard to look back to Burundi, because I have always tried to look ahead. Always. Even as I think these words, looking out my window in Brooklyn, I realize I am nevertheless looking back.
I live in a spacious apartment, with six windows facing the water of New York Harbor. It is on the top floor of an apartment building so large it occupies the entire block between Shore Road and Narrows Avenue, next to the Verrazano Bridge. Below Shore Road lies the Belt Parkway. And below the Belt lies the Shore Promenade, and then the harbor, and across the harbor, Staten Island. I like to sit by my living room window, six feet wide, and gaze at the view. I gaze at it every day of the year, and not once have I tired of it.
When I lower my eyes, I look at a rose garden and water fountains and trees, and when I lift my eyes, I watch cruise and cargo ships pass by. These ships are enormous, and they come from all over the world—from Europe, Asia, Africa, Australia, and the Caribbean—bringing people and merchandise to New York. Local ferries and small boats and yachts go by faster than the great ships, which move slowly toward the harbor and slowly seaward toward the Narrows. Every cruise ship that passes grabs my attention. When there are no boats or ships out there, I find myself gazing long and longingly at a distant view. Instead of New York Harbor I see a view from the hilltop in Kigutu, my native village in Burundi.
I look out over Lake Tanganyika—the world’s longest lake and second deepest—toward the peninsula of Ubwari, in the dark mountains of eastern Congo. I stare at the distant view and begin to journey back in thought. Then a cruise ship passes in front of me, grabs my attention, brings me back to Brooklyn, and makes me realize, as if awakened from a dream, that I was looking back. And I hear a voice stored somewhere in my mind, telling me not to look back.
It is the voice of my brother Honoré, telling me, as if I’d never heard it before, the story of Lot’s wife, who looked back and turned into a pillar of salt. Hearing Honoré’s voice in my mind takes me right back to Burundi, when I returned there during my winter break from Williams College. I still see the image of Honoré, standing in the yellow savanna grass dotted with small eucalyptus. He is telling me not to look back.
Years before, our mother, Maman Clémence, had given me the same advice more gently, saying to always look ahead. However, my older brother drilled “don’t look back” into my psyche, so much so that it has disturbed me, causing a mixed effect: neither steadily looking ahead nor daring to fully look back, as if I have become a pillar of salt. Vladimir Nabokov wrote in Speak, Memory that time is a prison, and I sometimes feel as if I am one of its inmates.
I find it hard to look back because most of what I see when I look back is painful. One doctrine of Western psychology has long held that the cure for the pain of memory is a return to the past itself. Burundian culture holds an opposite view. I now realize that each approach has its own wisdom. But for me the past is inescapable.
In the late afternoon, the view from my window in Brooklyn brings me a feeling of peace, which reminds me of looking after cows. I liked to sit at the hilltop and watch the view of Lake Tanganyika while watching my family cows. I would gaze at the water in the lake and then gaze at the cows grazing.Vladimir Nabokov wrote in Speak, Memory that time is a prison, and I sometimes feel as if I am one of its inmates.
I didn’t know then that the cows of Burundi were unusual, because I didn’t know that there were other kinds of cows. Ours were tall and long-legged and had enormous horns that could reach a span of ten feet from tip to tip, rising like cathedral arches above their peaceful-looking faces. They were called inyambo, and they were the most ancient of domesticated cattle, descendants of the biblical ox. Historians claim that these cows were present in the Nile Valley some four thousand years before historic times. Drawings of them were found on cave walls and ancient Egyptian monuments. Inyambo were known as the Cattle of Kings, although ordinary people owned them.
One of my siblings had named himself Beninka, which means, literally, To Whom the Cows Belong; and my father was named Buhembe, the name of their long horns. Out of those long horns people made trumpets called inzamba. When I am asleep in Brooklyn, I sometimes hear a foghorn from departing cruise ships in New York Harbor; it makes a beautiful sound in the night, sad and distant, and it always makes me think of trumpets, of war, and of ancient times.
Like a person, my country had a name and a surname. If in bureaucratic American English I am “Irankunda, Pacifique,” then my country is “Burundi, Milk and Honey.” In the past, there had always been plenty of milk and excellent honey there. Beekeeping and the uses of honey had a place of importance in my country’s traditions, and so did cows and their milk. As a child, I assumed this was my country’s real name. Had I been asked, at that time, where I came from, I would have innocently said, “Milk and Honey.”
That country no longer exists. It was the old Burundi, a country of storytellers, of people who invented myths and systems of justice and a set of traditions that had become folklore. Cows were a living relic of this old time, and in my family they were still treated and loved the way they had always been in the time of kings. Imana, God, was often referred to as “the creator of cows and children”—the two most adorable, precious gifts from Imana. When expressing shock or an exciting surprise, some Burundians invoked Imana, saying Yampaye inka we—“God who gave me cows!”
In many ways, our cows were part of our family. Each new one was named at birth. Some were named after kings. It didn’t matter that they were female. I remember we had a cow named Mwambutsa, named for one of Burundi’s kings, and every single one of her children and their descendants were also named Mwambutsa. We had another cow named Bwami, literally the Kingdom, and every one of her descendants was also named Bwami. Some of our family cows had names used in philosophical discourse—for instance, Jambo (the Word). Some had celestial names. I remember Juru (the Heavens), Zuba (the Sun), Gicu (the Sky), and Kwezi (the Moon). We had a very sweet-tempered cow named Buki—Honey. Other cows were named for their beauty, such as Kirezi—Pearl. She was indeed beautiful, but what impressed me most was her sense of fairness.
Pearl grew up an orphan. I remember my brother Asvelt telling me the story of how she lost her mother when she was still a baby and had to be nursed by another cow named Maza. Pearl eventually grew up and gave birth to her own baby. Around the same time, another cow named Ndava fell sick and couldn’t nurse her calf. Pearl accepted this calf and nursed her as her own. At milking time, we’d let the calves out, one by one, and would escort each calf to the kraal where the mothers awaited. They were protective of their babies and would compete in lowing, and would push each other and even the calves of other cows, forcing their way to their own calves. But Pearl would never allow her own baby to touch her teat until her adopted calf arrived. She would kiss one and turn and kiss the other as she nursed them both.
I was fond of Pearl, but the cow I loved most was named Bigeni. When I was little, I would suck on her teat as if I were her calf. The milk was sweet and warm. I caressed her long neck, and she’d kiss my forehead and comb my hair with her tongue.
Although our cows were part of our family, bulls and aging cows could be sold away. I didn’t know this as a child until, one morning, I heard my father say that he had sold Bigeni to our neighbors, who liked cows only for their meat and ate them as if a cow were just an impala! By evening I had plotted an escape. I whispered to Bigeni all the details. She and I were to embark the next morning to live in the forest where we would remain in daytime, hiding from the neighbors. I was scared of wild animals but Bigeni would protect me with her enormous horns. In the evening, we would come out. I would take her to graze in green pastures. I would feed her fresh grass and she would feed me fresh milk, and we would live together forever after.
By the time I woke up, the neighbors had arrived and taken Bigeni. I lay where she used to lie and cried all day long. We should have escaped in the night! I grieved over Bigeni for days. I often dreamed about her and I would wake up with my heart racing. Sometimes I dreamed I was living with her just as in the escape plan.
Looking back, those dreams seem prophetic. Soon after Bigeni was sold, the civil war broke out. It began in 1993 and lasted thirteen years. When it began, escape became my family’s planning. During the years I was going to school, I took Maman Clémence’s advice to heart: to always look ahead. The past meant struggles of family problems and a country falling apart in war. Present time was more of that. Looking forward was looking beyond past and present to whatever undefined thing lay ahead. But though I didn’t realize it, looking ahead meant also carrying the deep past as my companion to the future.It is said, fresh fire was passed from neighbor to neighbor, like gossip, throughout the kingdom of Burundi.
For centuries, until the late 1800s, the king would send a delegation throughout the hills and villages of the country of milk and honey: they collected cattle and grain for the yearly eight days of our national festival. The cattle were brought to Muramvya and were led in a procession through the precincts of the royal court, wearing aromatic white flowers around their necks. Women followed the cattle, balancing tall baskets of sorghum flour on their heads. Fresh honey and an alcoholic drink made from fresh honey accompanied these offerings. Histories say that everything had to be of the best quality, even these baskets—you can see examples of those in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.
The bulls in the procession were assembled on a hill for sacrificial offerings to God. Each bull was made to drink milk from the king’s herd. There was a long process of selection before a bull was declared pure enough to become a burnt offering to Imana. The bulls that were not selected for sacrifice were eaten by the soothsayers. Legend has it that before a bull was slain, a soothsayer gently touched it three times with a magic wand called ireba, and the bull was immediately entranced, so that it remained calm and neither moved nor moaned even while being killed. There were precise instructions on how to dispose of the blood of the slain bulls and of their internal organs, which were thoroughly examined and washed, and then buried inside an enclosure called urusha, built with the trees of God.
The soothsayers prayed over the offerings to God in a small temple. When the signs showed that the offerings augured well—as they usually did, apparently—a joyful and prolonged voice called impundu resounded in the temple and beyond. Then the soothsayers invoked Nyange, the cattle egret and guardian of the ox, also known in Burundi as the bird of God and the king of birds. It has milky white wings and golden plumes. They also invoked God’s other creations, including the hills, the views, and dawn, essentially invoking God, through God’s creation, with a melodious chant of “May you have milk.” Then the fathers and mothers placed their little children on mats woven from papyrus and gave the children milk in polished wooden pails made from flame trees. This was the time to present the first fruits of the harvest for the communion celebration called the Consumption of the Virgin.
The communion was followed by a silent nighttime procession. The following morning came the fresh-fire ritual. “The flame keeper” made the sacred fire using wood from the tree of God, and it was her duty to keep that flame burning throughout the year. It symbolized the eternal flame—an everlasting light. According to custom, everyone was supposed to extinguish the old fires in their houses and start every new year with a fresh one. The flame keeper used her sacred flame to light her neighbor’s new flame, and that neighbor did the same thing for another neighbor. And so, it is said, fresh fire was passed from neighbor to neighbor, like gossip, throughout the kingdom of Burundi.
On the eighth day of the festival a horn was blown at dawn, and the soothsayers prayed for peace and prosperity in the kingdom. The ceremonies ended with a water rite called gutota, which was a sprinkling of the sacred water, using a leafy twig from the tree of God, to bless seeds and the cattle.
When I grew up, I was told of the festival, although not the details. I was also told that inyambo cattle, the Cattle of Kings, dwelt in the three old kingdoms of East Africa: Burundi, Rwanda, and Ankole, which is now the southwestern part of Uganda. My grandfather owned a large herd, more than 150, the largest herd in Mahonda (the land of sorghum), where he lived with three of his siblings who also had big herds but smaller than his. He had a field of tobacco, a substance he never smoked but only sold, in order to buy more inyambo cattle.
His wife, my grandmother, complained that he loved his cattle more than he loved her—and knowing her, I could well believe it. I heard stories of how he would decide to sell an aging cow and then would go into hiding, chagrined, when butchers came to take it away. When he heard the cow mooing, he would be consumed with guilt. One time he ran after the butchers, throwing their money at them and even offering more to buy back his beloved aged cow.
When I heard these stories, I wished my grandfather had been with me when my father sold Bigeni. Maybe he would have given me money to buy her back. Certainly he would have sympathized with my escape plan and would have understood my grief. When my grandfather died, my grandmother sold his cattle one by one until they were all gone. Afterward, the family herd contained only cows with medium-size horns— which, because of their puny horns, were considered a different species of cattle altogether. So in my grandfather’s family, the Cattle of Kings disappeared at the hands of a small angry woman. Elsewhere in Burundi, war was mostly to blame.
Excerpted from The Tears of a Man Flow Inward by Pacifique Irankunda. Copyright © 2022. Available from Random House, an imprint of Penguin Random House, LLC.