The Status divide

By Karl-Chris R Nsabiyumva

It used to be about schools. We were still kids so we didn’t care about “abana bo kwa…” things yet. In primary it was simple: there were public schools and private schools. Well, there were one or two good public schools (Stella Matutina peeps, this one is for you), but the general rule was that some colour (not kaki) in your uniform made you cooler. It’s in secondary school that differentiation became more “complex”…

As far as the quality of teaching was concerned there were “excellence” schools that always had the highest grades at National exams (yes, that’s you Lycée du Saint Esprit *rolls eyes*), “good” schools, “okay” schools and “ghetto” schools. Then these were divided into “high status” and “not-so-cool” schools. The “high status” schools used to run the show – that’s where most of the cool kids studied – and there were just three of them really: Ecole BelgeEcole Française and Ecole Internationale (almost, Indépendante, almost…) These weren’t the schools with the smartest kids (let’s be honest), but they were the most expensive. Ecole Belge and Ecole Française had ridiculously high fees, so not many kids studied there… and most of those who did lived in a world of their own. Internationale was where “the magic happened”, well, up until parents started sending their kids to boarding schools in Uganda, then kids who went to those schools gained cool status as well (duh, aba arrivages!).

The cool kids were generally more knowledgeable about the cool things in life than the rest of us. They were always well dressed (Belge and Française kids didn’t even wear uniform to school), the first to see new movies and to know the lyrics and choreographies of new songs. They spoke excellent French and generally better English, and the girls were allowed to relax and braid their hair… they were the prettiest. When mobile phones and SMS first arrived, we boys used to get their numbers and “anonymous” text them. In public, we kids on the wrong side of the divide used to hate on them cool kids; but deep down we wanted to be with them… some wanted to be them.

There were ways to cross the divide though, even if you weren’t enrolled at one of the “high-status” schools.
If your dad was “somebody” it was easy. In fact, I take back what I said earlier – being “umwana wo kwa…” gave you a special position in the society, regardless of what school you went to… (it was kind of a shame when “umwana wo kwa…” went to some “random” school though…)
If your dad wasn’t somebody but you lived in a good neighbourhood, it meant you were neighbours with cool kids, so you could hang out with them and be friends. Although some neighbourhoods were obviously better than others, living in a good neighbourhood made you cool (umubabilon, “from babylone”, is the correct term) in the eyes of those who lived in other parts of town, regardless of what school you went to.

Befriending a cool kid (or being related to one) gave you access to their parties, to their friends, to their world. There were always kids at school (I mean the not-so-cool schools I went to) who were popular because they were buddies with a lot of cool kids and knew so much of what was happening on the other side of the divide. (They are also the ones who’d give us the phone numbers of the pretty girls). It was very likely that these kids were at some point members of ‘Top Shaka’ and ‘TA1″ (nice try ‘United Generation’): the cool clubs (do they still exist?)

And then there were the special ones: aba arrivages – the kids from outside countries who would grace us with their presence during the holiday season. Even the cool kids admired them and wanted them in their circles.
Former arrivages (who had returned home for good) could maintain their cool status if they put in the required efforts. The easiest was to get enrolled in the “right” school. If that wasn’t possible, there were other ways… the same used by those who had gained access through cousins and friends. One of them involved being present at most if not all the parties. Cool kids loved (they still do) to organise parties, events and gatherings for cool kids nyene. One also had to be up-to-date in the clothing and gossip department. These rules haven’t really changed…

And then came University…
Status became about where one went to study after high school. The further you went from Burundi, the cooler you were likely to be. The divide began to shift. Former somebodies became nobodies and the other way around. Some of the cool girls started dating guys they would have never talked to in high school, guys who weren’t even from cool neighbourhoods.
Status was further emphasised by the quality of one’s Facebook updates i.e. trips, social life, friends, etc. In Buja, the cool kids would hang out in packs, going to the same (expensive) places, the same parties and speaking some variant of Kirundi that has a lot of English (and/or French) words in it (Igisuédois? Oya reka ntaco, we get the point… na wewe nyene muchinois!). This hasn’t really changed either…

The cool kids who returned home after schooling abroad still enjoy some sort of status, although after a few years of not doing enough to maintain it (see how above), one just becomes a random person yigeze kuba hanze. If you have to pay to get into Toxic, then you are not cool. If you aren’t seen hanging out at popular spots or you aren’t invited to cool parties then your status is debatable… unless you have a cool job and make “good” money, but even still, usohokera he? Abagenzi bawe ni bande? The answers to these questions are essential to define how cool (or vain) you really are
Furthermore, there is another element that has become important, especially when chosing a life partner: your family name! “Abana bo kwa…” are more demand, which is why it is not rare to hear somebody at a wedding ask: “yarongoye/we (n’)umwana wo kwa canke umu anonyme?” Ibaze hemwe ngo umu anonyme?! *LOL! SMH*

Disclaimer: The author was born in 1987 and lived in Bujumbura between 1997-2007 and 2009-to this day. Therefore the opinions expressed in this text reflect that period. Furthermore, some opinions may be untrue or biased: As he was schooled at Ecole Saint Michel Archange, Lycée Vugizo and Lycée SOS, and does not have a face the bouncer at Toxic would recognise, it is very likely that he may have missed some very important aspects of life on the other (cool) side of the divide. Corrections and additions are welcome in the comments section. Thank you.

(Photo credits: Brice Ntwari)

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

You can Follow This Burundian Life on twitter and Facebook

24 thoughts on “The Status divide

  1. I’m sorry but is Toxic really only for the cool kids? There are some major randoms that go there from qartiers like Bwiza and Buyenzi. And those security guards that hardly know how to read or write is handling the door and not letting in people that are actually from the upper class? Oya, this place needs to do some serious revamping. And fuck those ugly ass new lights in that club. Ughhh I hate that place. Sorry, for the random venting… There’s a hate/hate relationship with me and that place.


  2. This is so true my God and it still exists mu Burundi for sure. (La photo ntibaho… iri plusqu’expressive)
    Birababaje but I guess we can’t help it.
    Le plus etonnant n’uko even at a same school (cool or not-so-cool) hama hariho des sortes de groupes/clans based on the same “differences”.

    P.s.: “Cool” kids where/are seen as “Abana bishima” as well! Lol

    (Perfectly wrote by the way. You may not have covered every single detail mais le gros est dit. Good Job)


  3. Well stated. It is funny how life in Tanzania is a bit different. From year 2.5 to 11, I lived with my grandparents in Kabanga, Ngara, Kagera and we often shopped I n Kobero or my uncles went to Muyinga with cars or motorcycles. I guess because I was a Kid in the village from Dar es salaam, I was cool to friends though I never really swallow or feel it.
    In Ngara, I was taught an useful lesson: never envy anyone, through working you can achieve anything in life that is be honest to yourself if you are a school person, “kaza mkanda na soma sana” for universities are built for he who works hard and wants to contribute something positive for his country. Or if you are not a school person, farm, raise n’ga (cows), goats (or in general cattles) and sale some when your kids needs tuition and you must always strive to have a nice house or better Muhia for no one is coming to like your home if you don’t put your own efforts. That ninde azokunywela amazi if you live in unattractive environment? Furthermore whether you can do school or not, farm and raise cattles on the side for you could be selling few animals to get capital to start businesses or buy a car and generally we were taught that to be a proper Muhangaza you must have at least two mafiga, work and farming/raise cattles, that never rely on one thing because if you happen to get fired at work, you will remain with the other mafiga to keep you going as you search for means to replace the lost figa. So the more mafiga one had, the more respect earned from the society. That envying and day dreaming that you wish you were someone cool or to be with someone would not be beneficial to you. That Muhangaza is proud when he has something and should hang out/be friend someone who is smarter/have more than he has.

    Another thing I learned in Ngara was that Rwandese were good with keeping your cattles and farming as well as staying with young children were fkr Burundian. As a resumt, I learned pottery from Burundian and Burundian kids were smarter than me when it came to pottery and cooking. I learned to read Kiswahili from Burundian kids who schooled in Tz. As I grew older I joined Rwandese to tend my grandfather’s cows. They would take cows from home at 7am and return them at 6pm. During this long shift I learned how ntebu (digging a hall and backing potatoes and bananas underground, creating an underground oven where we would light up fire, put the goods to be baked, cover the hole with dirt and simply wait). Also I learned how to fish n’gege, eating fish raw or backing them. Also I learned how to catch n’geregere, (swala, or deers) kwale, and inuma, how to search for eggs from various birds. I learned how to milk and how to assist animals when giving birth. How not to let the snake run away but to man up and kill him. How to use bow and arrows to hunt or defend yourself. Another thing that I would shamefully admit is how to steal. We lived very close to the border of Burundi and the Burundian soil was so good for sugarcane. So at times we had to swim through a pond to get across to Burundi. Before older kids came to cut sugarcane they would send two young kids to survey if there is anyone close the farm. So the older kids would come with knives cut sugarcane and we would transport as many as we could through the pond. At times the Burundian farmers would catch us and beat us up. We could not swim as fast as the older kids. But then when they hear that we are Tanzanian kids, they would let us go without beating us. If they are Burundian kids, they would whip them and bring them to their parents. It was shameful to be brought to your parents for stealing. Kids would cry. Now the Burundian farmers would set up land mines in order to catch the older kids. So we would Un do the land mines and bring them over to the Tanzanian side. The Burundian would be made for they would have to buy more land mines at the Tanzanian market. … The older kids of course kept the money. I was too young to understand the value of money.

    Another thing I learned in Ngara, you always partner with someone who is smart as you or who is better than you. My uncles partnered with Burundian and Rwandese business people. They tricked/bribed Tanzanian policed to get goods shipped to Burundi. Police who did not want to accept bribes got beat at at times got hurt. Most people purchased cars and motorcycles from doing businesses or selling cattles. It was a sin for your wife not to be dressed new clothes at major holidays and it was utterly unacceptable for your children to be returned home for school fare not to have been paid. In short a man had to take care of his mess and this was mainly dine by farming, cattles, and running a shop or having a job. Life is so much easier in Tz, especially in the village.

    Thank you for the article on the Burundian teenage life and perspective. “Cooler kids went to prestigious schools abroad or at home”.

    Thank you,


  4. This article is soooooo on point! Loved it! Ndisanzemwo muri ayo ma categories n’abagenzi benshiiii.. And I miss Buja du coup!!! 😀


  5. u r killing with ur article.NDGAKUNZE GOSEEE. Harukuntu rero binyibukije ingene harabana twashaka kuba abagenzi ku nguvu a tout prix nama effort menshi menshi.. 🙂 nibaza ko nubu hariho ingene yo kwipima sana ku bandi . Comme si aho wewe ugeze bidakwiye vyonyene. Thanx to write it.


  6. Now that you mentioned various schools, am not surprised that you didn t mention the one I attended which is Athenee Primaire. It used to be just fine when growing up as a kid and we took pride in it. Last time while visiting, the place looks like it belongs to a different millenia. Run down, broken and out of shape. I felt ashamed of its state! May be one day I will be able to do something about it. Meanwhile, nimba warahize, uranyakura tugure akarangi basi!


  7. Mr Kris u just made my sick day… I’m liiiiving… You just threw some biggest shadezzz in burundian history.. I died #uratuganiriye…LOL “ngo former somebodies became Nobodies…” Uranyisheeee


  8. Coup de chapeau Kris! C’est une bonne analyse que tu as fait là! Il y a un film “Love don’t cost a thing” ya Christina Milian na Nick Canon sorti en 2004 je crois, ça résume toute notre adolescence kndi si mu Burundi gusa, partout c’est pareil 🙂


  9. Hahaaa haaa ego kweri bien écrit Kris. Les anonymes ntabo narinzi, ariko nahora numva “abana bo mu… pour désigner ceux de l’autre côté par rapport au “cool kids”


  10. C’est drôle mais en lisant le texte, ça me rappelle d’un concept en Théorie du developpement qui s’appelle théorie du centre/périphérie. Dans ce cas si on l’applique au comportement des jeunes burundais, ceux qui sont au centre sont «the cool kids», ceux qui ont les moyens, vont dans les meilleures écoles , etc. Alors que les autres gravitent en périphérie en attendant que ceux du centre daignent les intégrer dans leur groupe. J’ai beaucoup aimé le texte et surtout il est bien écrit! 😀


    • Hahahahahahaha Michou.. Urumva ww kwiga st esprit, ukaba the smartest, en plus ukaza wit ur car nawe wararonse status nibaguhe prix hahahahahahahahahahaha


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s