Traditions and Presence

By Alyssa

After two years in Burundi, it still feels like we're just getting started learning about the Burundian culture. I experienced a new cultural event last weekend when I attended a baby presentation for the son of our hospital's medical director. In many ways, Burundian culture is more formal than ours. Burundians seem to enjoy ceremony, protocol, speeches, tradition. This was evident in many ways at the "fĂȘte" ("party" in French) last Saturday. I had heard mixed things before attending the event regarding the purpose and what would happen, so I was interested to see how things played out. (NB I'm still not completely sure I have all the facts right, so take my observations below with a grain of salt!)

"Where are you from?" Burundians answer that question very specifically. Even if they have moved to the city and been away from their childhood home for years, they are "from" the rural hill where they grew up, and usually their relatives still live there. For official family events, they return to the "urugo" (homestead). So we traveled almost 2 hours on dusty roads to the province of Rutana, stopping en route to meet relatives coming from Bujumbura and Makamba. After exchanging greetings, we continued in a caravan and arrived together at Jeanine's parents' urugo. This was evidently the first time she returned with her husband and child to her traditional home since her marriage. The "dot" (French) is the first big event between the two prospective families. At that event, the family of the groom negotiates with the family of the bride for the dowry (cows, money, etc.). And they evidently promise to bring the bride back someday to visit. So the firstborn baby presentation is the culmination of that promise.

The kids in this rural area were pretty curious about the cars and the muzungu driving (me)! 

 Baby Jolison - our neighbor at Kibuye and the guest of honor at the fĂȘte
 Preparing the gifts for the family
 Fantas (Kirundi word for all sodas - like Coke in the South!) are obligatory for these events

 Dad, Mom, and Baby in the center of the room - they seated me in the chair just to the right of them! Always hard to know what to do with the "Muzungu Status." But guests are certainly considered a blessing and are given respect and honor as a result. 

 Family of the wife on the left - being photographed individually

 Family of the husband on the right with the ubiquitous cameras

 Fantas - I love that tradition - especially as being enclosed in a tarp tent on a hot day is pretty dehydrating! Citrus Fanta is key to these interesting but long events! 

 The grandfathers each made multiple speeches with humorous repartee across the room at each other. And the maternal grandfather invited Wilson to visit Jeanine's childhood bedroom - a symbolic expression of an enthusiastic welcome. 

The grandmother on the left of me was the other guest of honor at the event as the baby was presented to her

As I participated in this cultural ceremony, I kept asking myself, "What am I supposed to be doing? What gift should I bring? Do I need to make a speech? Am I dressed right? Should I talk more with the person seated next to me? Or less? Should I finish the food on my plate or leave some behind? Should I accept a second Fanta or decline? What should I say to the hosts in greeting and in leaving?" 

It slowly dawned on me as I sat in that honored seat in the hot tent, that I didn't actually need to "do" anything. It wasn't about "doing;" it was about "being." My presence was what spoke to the family. Many folks thanked me for coming and expressed their genuine welcome and gratitude for my participation in the event. This is contrary to my personal culture where I struggle with the idol of productivity. Sitting there for hours didn't feel productive to me - shouldn't I at least be developing relationships with folks in conversation? But, as it turns out, I was developing friendships - in the Burundian way - by being present at this momentous family occasion. Obviously there are pros and cons for each of the different cultural styles of friendship, but in this case I can certainly learn something from my Burundian hosts and value being present with friends more highly than my personal agenda. As Jim Elliot said, "Wherever you are, be all there!" 

Beautiful scenery at the end of the dry season in Rutana

1 comment:

Cindy said...

So interesting. What an honor to attend. I appreciate your insights and connections that can apply to all of us.