‘Greetings’ in Burundian Culture

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This article originally appeared as a blog post on February 6th, 2009 during AFJN’s trip to Burundi and Uganda. Reposted here April 14th, 2009.

Hearing Burundians greet each other and greet us in Kirundi got me curious about finding out the meaning of these daily greeting rituals. The finding is, astonishingly, a good ground on which Burundians can build bridges of reconciliation and recovery from the hurt caused by years of war.

In fact, greetings in Burundi are full of expressions of wishes for peace for individuals and for the whole community. In the morning, you say mwaramutse. It literally means ‘did you wake up?’ It can also mean ‘did you survive?’ This question is about surviving the unexpected challenges that can happen in the dark of the night. Mwaramutse is mostly used in plural form even if you are addressing one person. The Burundian culture values individuals, but also strongly values the community. So, while you may ask how one person woke up, or how they survived the night, be ready to hear anything about anyone and everyone, be it about oneself, one’s family, or neighbors. The answer to mwaramutse is almost always ego turaho which means either ‘yes we are here,’ ‘yes we still are alive,’ or ‘yes we still existing.’ Mwaramutse comes from the verb Kurama which means ‘to live long.’

At any time of the day, it is common and appropriate to greet others saying amakuru (‘what’s the news?’). Amakuru comes from the verb gukura which means ‘to grow,’ or ‘to become big.’ Consequently, you are not asking about just any news, but the headlines, the big news. The answer is n’amahoro (‘it is peaceful,’ or ‘it is calm’). Amahoro comes from the verb guhora which means ‘to keep quiet,’ ‘to stop either crying or speaking.’ The Swahili-speaking Burundians in Bujumbura, particularly the youth, have different forms of greetings, but the following are most common: Mzima (‘are you alive?’ or ‘are you healthy?’) The answer is either mzima (‘I am alive,’ ‘I am healthy’) or powa (‘I am the strength,’ or ‘I am strong’). Mzima comes from a Swahili noun uzima which means ‘life’ and powa comes from the English word ‘power.’ Another common greeting is Salama! (‘Peace! Calm! Quiet!’) and the answer is salama to mean that all is peaceful, calm, and quiet.

In the traditional Burundian setting, greetings are not just mere daily rituals to express care and politeness in the family setting, but a strong expression of genuine concern, wishes of peace, good health, a long life, strength, and care for the other. As a cultural element, greetings are meant to build good neighbor-to-neighbor relationships, among other things. The war in Burundi destroyed many cultural values, even in the rural areas where tradition was still kept. But the desire to recover these values is gaining some popularity. Using tradition is one of the ways to build a unified Burundi where being a Hutu, a Tutsi, or a Twa will not matter anymore.

The challenge for Burundian peace and reconciliation activists is to revive these meaning-filled cultural elements mostly taken for granted and capitalize on them for reconciliation between Burundians. Africa Faith and Justice Network is interested in joining in the effort to underscore the importance of using Burundian traditional mechanisms to rebuild a safe and a peaceful Burundi under the umbrella of restorative justice.

Posted by Bahati Jacques

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