There is a certain romance to poetry of witness, poetry of prisoners and the oppressed, scrawled with fingernails into Styrofoam cups in Guantanamo. But that romance, in my experience, is just that. Most of my people, the Batwa, don’t engage in any way with the type of poetry published in this magazine—because when it comes down to poetry and food, survivors choose food.
Most Westerners are familiar with the Hutus and Tutsis as a result of the media blitz that followed the Rwandan genocide of the early nineties. Fewer are aware that a third tribe exists, mine. The Batwa are the original inhabitants of East Central Africa, first colonized by the agriculturalist Hutus at the turn of the first millennium, later by the cattle-herding Tutsis in the 1400s. Commonly called pygmies, a term we now reject as derogatory, we share ancestry with other indigenous populations of Africa, like the |xam of South Africa, who left behind a notable body of poetry, transcribed by their diligent friend Wilhelm Bleek, a Prussian linguist and pioneering ethnographer. Like the displaced |xam, we too are landless, forced to move at our government’s whim from squat to squat of unfertile land.
The Batwa are not a people without poetry—that is far from true—but we have been forced by the socioeconomic realities we face to articulate our poetry differently. The primary barrier between literary poetry and us is the problem of our overwhelming illiteracy, at an international high of at least 90%. Still, we are a people of singing and dancing, and we sing at every opportunity: while hunting, fishing, while selling our pottery at the market, and even more so at occasions calling for great ceremony, like weddings and births—especially twins! Our poetry is in that way much more communal, much more essential than any written verse, and we could not survive without it.
One of my favorite poems from childhood exemplifies our oral poetry. Political in the sense that it accurately reflects our forced engagement with poverty and social injustice, the poem is well known in our communities:
I want to sing to the memory of my beloved father
who gave me a beautiful, special cow
so I could walk slender-hipped like a handsome prince
before my unjust murder.
There are a few of us Batwa who have finished secondary school, and seven of our one hundred thousand have attended college. I was born in 1964 in Ruziba, a rural province of Burundi thirteen kilometers from Bujumbura, along Lake Tanganyika. I began school at age seven, but in my second year of primary school, in 1971, an ethnic crisis brought on a full civil war. During this time I fled to the Democratic Republic of the Congo, where I lived alone as a refugee for three years. As a young child, I survived on the street, doing the small jobs I could find. During that time I clung to a particularly poetic song for refugees, often sung at churches in the original Kirundi:
Tamba Imana Yawe
Tamba Imana Yawe
Aho wabunda mu bisaka
which in English goes:
Dance to your God
Dance to your God
Who else helps you
when you languish in the bushes?
Eventually I was able to return to my home country and reunite with my parents, four brothers, and two sisters.
Though I was able to return to primary school at that time, I faced intense discrimination from my Hutu and Tutsi classmates, who believed I belonged in the forest as a sort of sub-human being, hunting and gathering as my people did for thousands of years. Most Batwa children couldn’t bear the discrimination against them and dropped out; this continues today.
In sixth grade I found Christianity, and the poetry of the Bible has accompanied me ever since. Though most Burundian churches use the French Bible, I prefer the Kirundi, as its poetry resonates most resoundingly for me. I love the poetry of David, son of Jesse, especially his psalms of hope in the face of despair. I also am drawn to the Bible’s poetry of despair over injustice, passages like Psalm 38, Lamentations 2–4, and the book of Jeremiah, which articulates the prophet’s sadness because of the injustices of war that resulted in so many orphans.
Despite our communal despair, I still have faith in poetry, which I believe can make things happen, especially as an articulation of our deepest heartaches and longings, but also in a more direct way. Recently, a Burundian president instructed a provincial governor to give a Batwa community a parcel of their own land—the first step toward our alleviation of poverty. In a shrewd act the governor complied to the letter, by allotting us a barren plot of land, useless for agricultural activity. As a form of protest, the Batwa community gathered at a large party with the president in attendance, singing:
Thank you, Mr. President
for giving us a plot
of dust and stones.
In response to the poetry of illiterates, our president addressed the situation and came to our aid, helping us acquire productive land.
Translated from the French and Kirundi by David Shook