Friendship, à la Burundaise

By Karl-Chris R Nsabiyumva
Photo by Hervé Cishahayo

One of the things I love about Burundi is the people… So complex and intruiging by the way we live and interact with each other. Two Burundians may hate each other but still be able to sit together for a drink, to converse and even share a “laugh” or two. I heard that observers at the Arusha negotiations got so confused when they witnessed opposing parties in the meeting room sharing a joke at the bar during breaks. Some people call us hypocrites but in my opinion we just happen to be gifted with an art de vivre… ensemble. I like to say that we’re natural diplomats. Forget that we have killed each other over things that don’t really make sense multiple times, and look at how this ability to bear with each other, despite our differences, can have a few good things about it…

First of all, it encourages dialogue… For instance, I may not be particularly fond of, say, Daniel, but through “diplomatic” discussions I may realise that he’s not that much of a bad guy after all. It has happened to me a few times actually. Like there’s this one guy I’m friends with though initially he wanted to humiliate me for having “heard” that I had been “gossiping” about him (I really only made a comment about some unpleasant thing he had done and he acknowledged to have done it). When we actually met (each trying to be as diplomatic as possible – him preparing his attack) we realised that we were actually mistaken about each other and we ended up becoming great friends. But then the opposite also works hey… there are people I somehow became “friends” with, but only to realise that in reality they were douchebags… Then there are the friendships that simply broke, mainly because as we grow, we change and somehow the things that ‘connected’ us seize to exist…

This brings me to the thing I actually wanted to talk about… the types of friends (according to me) that you’ll make in Burundi… I may be wrong, and I may have missed out a few categories so I’m open to all criticism…

Ba Bakunduwukize (the opportunists)

These guys normally ignore you or have very little regard for you until they realise you are “interesting”. They are usually attracted by demonstrations of wealth, “wisdom”, power and sometimes connections; so if you’re not a show-off, they may not notice you until something (or someone) betrays your true worth. Their interest usually has motives other than genuine friendship, but this doesn’t mean that they are entirely bad people. If you’re a smart person you’ll know how to spot these guys and how to nurture this somewhat bizarre relationship. Ba Bakunduwukize usually have excellent connections so you may want to keep them close, just in case – they came to you first, so why feel guilty of “using” them? Yes, it’s a scratch-my-back-I-scratch-yours relationship with these guys; and in a country like Burundi where success almost depends on who you know, you can’t just rule out the opportunists. They are people too, and in fact they also happen to have real friends… you just don’t happen to be one of them… The good thing about them is that they’re usually good and respectful towards you… when they still need you.

Ba Berahino (the back-stabbers)

These are the worst, and unfortunately every Burundian is some kind of Berahino in the sense that we do not demonstrate our dislike for each other. It goes against our value systems. Ba Berahino will laugh with you while plotting to harm you (or already doing it) behind your back, for some valid reason or not. I personally have a hard time spotting these guys (and especially telling them apart from the opportunists) but that’s when real friends (and the opportunists, sometimes) come in handy. Burundi is a small country and everybody kind of knows everybody, meaning that news goes around fast. Hence if something is being plotted against you, through your relations, somehow you will know.

Ba Barundi

In this category, you have the “rest of the World” i.e. people you don’t have any particular ties to, and people you don’t know. You’re probably wondering why I’m classifying people I don’t know as friends… It’s because as a Burundian, the culture demands that I treat every human being as I a friend or a relative… a bit utopian for this day and age, but I was told it is how our forefathers used to live, to some extent. This is why it’s so easy to strike a conversation with a random stranger in Burundi and why Burundians are sometimes labelled as very friendly and loving people.

Ababanyi (the neighbours)

Please bear with me as this categorisation is clearly from a Umwana wo muri ville perspective, in the sense that, in some neighbourhoods of Bujumbura, you may be somebody’s neighbour but not be friends with them. However this does not exclude that you HAVE TO invite them every time you have a function or an event; which explains why the latter are always packed. Ababanyi are like upgraded Barundi, as what really links them to you is just the neighbourhood, the school, the office or the friends (or relatives) you share. This category may also include reformed opportunists and back-stabbers.


The true sense of this word refers to family; but I’m going to use it to point out that some friendships are so real that the friends become like family; and that relatives don’t always have to be friends (in my experience they can also be opportunists or back-stabbers). True friendships can blossom from the blue or from any of the categories mentioned above, just like Incuti can – sadly, but it happens – slip into the Ababanyi category, or at worst, the others.

Sometimes it’s a real headache to navigate through this social mess – i.e. telling who is what – especially if you’ve spent time in and evolved in environments where communication and relationships are much more “straightforward”. But trying to look at the bright side, this “mess” leaves you with excellent social skills; it teaches you how to live with people; it teaches you respect (somehow); and above all (at least for me) it teaches you the value of true friendship. This is one of the things I love about being Burundian.

… But hey, why hasn’t anybody thought about opening a diplomacy school around here?

Karl-Chris currently lives and works in Bujumbura. You can check him out at and follow him on Twitter: Mr_Burundi

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