The Heart

By Jheri St. James

The earliest inhabitants of the area were Pygmy peoples, followed by Bantu tribes; then came colonization by Germany, then Belgium, later a U.N. Trust Territory. Until the downfall of the monarchy of Rushatsi in 1966, kingship remained one of the last links that bound Burundi with its past. From independence in 1962 until the elections of 1993, Burundi was controlled by a series of military dictators, all from the Tutsi minority. These years saw extensive ethnic violence including major incidents in 1964 and the late 1980’s, and the Burundian genocide in 1972. In 1993, Burundi held its first democratic elections, but a few months later, Melchior Ndadaye was assassinated, which resulted in a vicious civil war between the Tutsi and Hutu peoples. Hundreds of thousands of Hutus were massacred by Tutsi-dominated armies. After years of such instability, another in a series of cease-fires was signed in 2006. Since independence, Burundi has known these kinds of cycles of violence, assassinations, and coups d'etat. Political extremism latched onto ethnicity, creating fear, mistrust, and panic among the population, shattering ethnic harmony and coexistence.

(Palpitations are unpleasant sensations of irregular and/or forceful beating of the heart. In some patients with palpitations, no heart disease or abnormal heart rhythms can be found. Reasons for their palpitations are unknown. In others, palpitations result from abnormal heart rhythms (arrhythmias). Arrhythmias refer to heartbeats that are too slow, too rapid, irregular, or too early. Rapid arrhythmias (greater than 100 beats per minute) are called tachycardias. Slow arrhythmias (slower than 60 beats per minute) are called bradycardias. Irregular heart rhythms are called fibrillations (as in atrial fibrillation). When a single heartbeat occurs earlier than normal, it is called a premature contraction. Abnormalities in the atria, the ventricles, the SA node, and the AV node of the heart can lead to arrhythmias.)

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“The goal of life is to make your heartbeat match
the beat of the universe, to match your nature with Nature.”
  Joseph Campbell

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But not everyone succumbed to the madness. Burundi's heroes are ordinary people who did extraordinary things. Studio Ijambo, a radio studio set up by USAID-funded Search for Common Ground, has produced a weekly program called Pillars of Humanity since 1999. This program has highlighted the stories of Burundians who, during moments of extreme crisis and ethnic violence, risked their own lives to save people of a different ethnic group.

A new generation of Burundians celebrate their elders who forged new ground so their children could live in peace. Photo Credit: Stephane Mora/Search for Common Ground

In 2003, Studio Ijambo decided to invite all those Burundians who had featured in their radio programs to participate in a “Heroes Summit.” The Summit gave a voice to these heroes by facilitating a forum for sharing and discussing their experiences as well as their collective vision of the future. The events were broadcast live on radio. One of the Summit activities was a “Playback” Theatre, in which stories of individual bravery were retold by actors. A Hutu woman told about hiding her Tutsi neighbors in her field under branches to keep them from Hutu militia. After the militia left the area, she had her younger brother escort their neighbors to the safety of a Tutsi army outpost. Along the way they met with an angry Tutsi mob, who overpowered them and killed her brother because he was a Hutu. Since then the woman has been ostracized as a traitor by her family. After seeing the playback troupe retell her story, the woman said through tears that she has believed in her heart that she did the right thing. Now that she has been recognized as a hero, she hopes that her family will come to believe it too.

But some emotions don’t make a lot of noise.
It’s hard to hear pride. Caring is real faint—like a hearbeat.
And pure love—why, some days it’s so quiet, you don’t even know it’s there.

Many heroes whose stories were shared in the Playback theatre found the experience to be cathartic, as they too had been ostracized by family and neighbors and experienced tremendous guilt despite their bravery. Over the course of the three-day summit, hundreds of such stories were shared, giving voice to these heroes by facilitating a forum for sharing and discussing their past experiences, as well as their collective vision for the future. The forum recognized and reinforced the potential leadership role of these Burundians. The summit encouraged the sharing of experiences between the Burundian heroes and those from Rwanda, Congo, Nigeria, and other exemplary peacemakers and leaders. It promoted discussion, debate, and recommendations for strategies around peace and reconciliation. Studio Ijambo Deputy Director Adrien Sindayigaya offered this view: “There is an inspiring face of Burundi that has been hidden from the world. The Summit has been a celebration of humanity.” Eugene Buhinta, a 23-year-old student from Bujumbura, reflected that “We the young, we will live on now having seen these examples of such courageous people and that can give us hope for a better future.”

“There is nothing better than adversity. Every defeat, every heartbreak, every loss, contains its own seed, its own lesson on how to improve your performance the next time.” – Malcolm X

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Burundi is a landlocked country with an equatorial climate. Called “the heart of Africa”, it lies on a rolling plateau with Lake Tanganyika in its southwest corner and is located in Central Africa, east of Democratic Republic of the Congo. It is slightly smaller than the state of Maryland in the U.S. Geographically isolated, facing population pressures and having sparse resources, Burundi is one of the poorest and most conflict-ridden countries in Africa and in the world. Its small size belies the magnitude of the problems it faces in reconciling the claims of the Tutsi minority with the Hutu majority.

The birth rate is 42.22 births/1,000 population; infant mortality rate is 63.13 deaths/1,000 live births; life expectancy at birth is 50.81 years. Estimates for this country explicitly take into account the effects of excess mortality due to AIDS; this can result in lower life expectancy, higher infant mortality and death rates, lower population and growth rates, and changes in the distribution of population by age and sex than would otherwise be expected.

“You're not supposed to be so blind with patriotism that you can't face reality. Wrong is wrong, no matter who says it. – Malcolm X

Cultural life in Burundi is much like that of neighboring countries and its prominence has been limited by the civil war, but the Master Drummers of Burundi are the most famous internationally famous performing group from the nation, and football (soccer) is the most popular sport.

The Royal Drummers of Burundi have performed in the same way for centuries, passing down traditions and techniques from father to son. The members of the ensemble take turns playing the Inkiranya, dancing, resting, and playing the other drums, rotating throughout the show without interruptions. At the start of their performance, the drummers enter balancing the heavy drums on their heads and singing and playing. There are some extra members two carry ornamental spears and shields and lead the procession with their dance. Their performances were traditionally a part of particular ceremonies, such as births, funerals and the enthronement of Kings. In Burundi, drums are sacred and represent, along with the king, the powers of fertility and regeneration. The origins of their performance are shrouded in ancient legend and mystery.

“I'd like to think that when I sing a song, I can let you know all about the heartbreak, struggle, lies and kicks in the ass I've gotten over the years for being black and everything else, without actually saying a word about it.” – Ray Charles

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(The normal resting adult heart beats regularly at an average rate of 60 times per minute. How fast the heart beats (heart rate) is governed by the speed of electrical signals originating from the pacemaker of the heart, the SA node. The electrical signals from the SA node travel across the atria and cause these two upper heart chambers to contract, delivering blood into the lower heart chambers, the ventricles. These electrical signals then pass through the AV node to reach the ventricles. Electrical signals reaching the ventricles cause these chambers to contract, pumping blood to the rest of the body, generating the pulse. During rest, the speed of electrical signals originating from the SA node is slow, thus the heart beats slowly. During exercise or excitement, the speed of signals from the SA node increases, and heartbeat quickens.)

On July 20, 2006, we received a letter from Patricia N. Moller, Ambassador from Bujumbura, Burundi, thanking us for our letter of June 15. “On behalf of the US Embassy in Bujumbura, I would be delighted to contribute to this innovative art project. Our Embassy’s Facilities Maintenance Assistant, Mr. Pascal Jumatano, has accessed your website and will send you a sample of Burundian soil as soon as we receive dthe appropriate packaging materials. I am happy to assist you and wish you good luck in carrying out this endeavor.”

In a later email: “Mr. Pascal Jumatano and I took a soil sample for you today (7/24/06) from a location called ‘Livingstone Rock’ about 10 miles outside of Bujumbura, Burundi. We are sending the sample back to you by DHL right now. In the package we included some historical information about Livingstone Rock. On behalf of our Ambassador, Patricia Moller, and the entire US diplomatic mission in Burundi, I wish you good luck in your art project. Sincerely yours, Matthew Blong, General Services Officer, US Embassy Bujumbura.”

Gary wrote back: “Thanks to the both of you for participating in the art project. At a time with so much conflict in the world, it is comforting to meet such good people willing to help in my effort” on 7/25/06.

Then it took a month of tracking the little box of soil from there to its final destination in Hawthorne, California. Apparently the paperwork was bad or missing, then the carton got lost, and many more communications passed between Gary and DHL: “We are still searching for 7709767354. There was a package believed to be from Mexico that Rina is checking into. Look on the bright side, each time we’ve misplaced a package or delivered it late . . . We are helping you save some money on your project (smiley face). I can find a silver lining somewhere!!! I’m not making light of this, I’m just playing back with you (smiley face). I’m sure you can appreciate that (smiley face). I’m still waiting for more info too. Anita J. Holquin, Telesales representative, DHL Express, Tempe, AZ.” Dated August 17th.

Later, on August 23, Anita wrote: “Good morning, Gary. That would be a “YES” that you are still waiting for 7709767354. (frowny face). I was hoping that this package magically appeared since the last time we talked (smiley face). I am still searching for it. You are a lot of fun to work with, even in the face of these bumps and bruises. To quote Joi Ito (with modifications): ‘This email reflects my thoughts and opinions. It does not reflect the thoughts or opinions of my employer, my husband, my kids, my dogs, my cat, my mouse, my bird, my car, or my computer.’ Hope you’re having a great day so far!!! Anita J. Holquin”

Finally, August 29, over a month after shipment, the tiny little container of precious Burundi soil arrived, Gary having paced the floor at nights, spent much time on the telephone and computer, tracking his latest little baby.

This is the process at Common Ground 191; and Gary endures it every single time with every single package of dirt that comes from every single country. Surely some are more easy than others, but this one was nerve-wracking.

By the way, big thanks to our team of soil collectors from Burundi.

The Site: In a vague way, everyone knows that M. Stanley found David Livingstone in the African jungles and greeted him with the famous remark, “Dr. Livingstone, I presume?” Livingstone was already a famous explorer when he set out in 1866 to find the source of the Nile river, a question that had agitated the scientific community in England and elsewhere for many years. He had not been heard from for several years, and his absence had become a matter of international concern. In 1869, the New York Herald sent journalist and explorer Henry M. Stanley to search for him. He finally found him in November 1871 in a small southeast African town. He greeted Livingstone with the famous words. “Yes,” replied the pale, weary, grey-haired missionary. “I thank my God I am permitted to see you,” said Stanley, and to this came the reply, “I feel thankful that I am here to welcome you.”

It was a glad day for Livingstone. Letters and supplies were abundant and appreciated. He forgot his ailments and became overjoyed in this Good Samaritan act. Together the men spent four months exploring Lake Tanganyika. Stanley became a hero worshipper of his companion. Once he wrote, “I challenge any to find a fault in his character . . . The secret is that his religion is a constant, earnest and sincere practice.”

Two places claim to be the meeting point between Livingstone and Stanley. It appears to be Ujiji (situated on the eastern shores of Lake Tanganyika, about 10 kms at the south of Kigoma in Tanzania, an Arabic settlement during the slave trade, the terminus for the old caravan route from thecoast. Ujiji has also a historical significance for explorers. It is a place where Burton and Speke first reached the shore of Lake Tanganyika in 1858, and the palce where Dr. Livingstone met Stanley in 1871. A monument known as Dr. Livingstone memorial has been constructed to commemorate the meeting.

The other is Mugere (11/25/1871) at 10 kms from Bujumbura (Burundi) would have been also the place where Dr. Livingstone encountered Stanley. The two men walked alongside all the bumumbura coast to the rusizi Delta, stopping near the actual site of Nyanza, Rumonge, Rsha, Mugano, Magara, Kubezi and on the right bank of the Mugere mouthpiece (in front of the place where La Pierre de Livingstone had been erected). The photo is taken from the Tanganyika Times, a newsletter of the American Embassy in Bujumbura, Burundi 9/21/05 with another group of visitors.

Bujumbura has a choice location, sprawling up the mountainside on the northeastern tip of Lake Tanganyika, overlooking the vast wall of mountains in the Democratic Republic of the Congo across the waters. Swaying palms fringe the lakeshore, giving it something of a coastal feel. The Burundian capital is a mixture of grandiose colonial construction - with wide boulevards and imposing public buildings - and the sort of dusty, anonymous suburbs found in many African cities. Buj, as many foreign citizens refer to it, is also one of the most important ports on Lake Tanganyika.

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What is the heart of the story of Burundi? As the organic human heart has many parts, so the Burundi story has many parts—the good hearts of the heroic, everyday collectors, the almost inverted heart-shape of the Livingstone Rock, the heartbeat of the Royal Drummers of Burundi, calling out across the earth that Burundi lives, that the “Heart of Africa” is beating with electricity, optimism and hope in spite of its challenges. No arrhythmias here! Common Ground 191 shares this positive idealism and hopes to memorialize it in the final 196 ft. fresco, which will include the soil of the heart of Burundi.


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