Roland Rugero explores the concepts of miscommunication and justice against the backdrop of war-torn Burundi's beautiful green hillsides

Roland Rugero, Baho!: A Novel, Trans. by Christopher Schaefer, Phoneme Media, 2016.

In Baho!, the first Burundian novel ever translated into English, the 28-year-old Roland Rugero uses elements of fable and oral tradition to explore the themes of miscommunication and justice in his war-torn Central African nation.                   
When Nyamugari, an adolescent mute, attempts to ask a young woman in rural Burundi for directions to an appropriate place to relieve himself, his gestures are mistaken as premeditation for rape. To the young woman's community, his fleeing confirms his guilt, setting off a chain reaction of pursuit, mob justice, and Nyamugari's attempts at explanation. Young Burundian novelist Roland Rugero's second novel Baho!, the first Burundian novel to ever be translated into English, explores the concepts of miscommunication and justice against the backdrop of war-torn Burundi's beautiful green hillsides.

“In measured sentences of understated enigma, steeped in poetry and African wisdom, Baho! leads us through the twists and turns of a country reinventing itself.” —Fiston Mwanza Mujila

A recent article from The New Yorker begins with the Burundi saying, “Where there are people, there is conflict.” As the article continues, it’s easy to see how this saying rings true. A small country nestled beneath Rwanda in the heart of Africa, Burundi has a tumultuous history. Formerly a Belgian colony, it was the setting of two genocides, first in 1972 and then in 1993, as its two principle ethnic groups, the Hutus and the Tutsis, continued their fight for political power. As the article goes on to discuss, Burundi’s struggles are far from over, though its division is no longer down strictly ethnic lines. It seems that after decades of fighting, the violence has left a lasting trauma on the people and things left in its wake.
It’s astonishing how little we Anglophones know about Burundi. Although it’s easy to see why. Until this year, no single Burundian novel had been translated into English. Not a single one. Lucky for us, this year Phoneme Media published Baho! by 28-year-old Roland Rugero, translated beautifully from the French by Christopher Schaefer.
The novel tells the story of a mute young man named Nyamugari, who becomes the scapegoat for a town suffering from drought, violence, and debauchery in the Burundian countryside. When a young woman mistakes the mute boy’s gestures as an attempt to rape her, Nyamugari is frightened and runs off, seemingly confirming his guilt. Pursued by a growing mob of irate townsfolk hungry for revenge, the boy contemplates the life that has brought him to this moment, as a one-eyed old lady and a mysterious stranger look on.
Though written primarily in French, the language of the colonists, each chapter begins with a saying in native Kurundi, followed by its translation, and the book is saturated with Burundi oral folklore and wisdom.
Baho! is a cry for life amidst so much drought and death, a slim book carrying with it the weight of Burundi’s perilous fate. This fate lies heavy over the landscape itself, as Rugero describes on the very first page of the novel:
Kanya’s hill is still draped in the eucalyptus of the National Forest. Dry, prickly leaves, countless, dense, and towering, spread over the earth. Without water, the sky has become spiteful.
Or rather, men have committed too many sins. It is God’s punishment for this country’s great evil.
An old woman is standing at the foot of the hill. She rests her age-worn cheek on a shepherd’s crook. With it, she tends to a couple of skinny kids foraging in the pebbles and the weeds trying to find something to round out their scrawny bellies.
The earth’s drought meets her eye. She understands: Times have changed.
Like the drought oppressing the land, mistrust and debauchery have taken over the town. Men drink too much and cheat on their wives. Women live in constant fear of being raped. There isn’t enough water to grow food, and so people are hungry. We see how these forces are intertwined with Nyamugari’s fate, and how they feed on one another endlessly.
We can only hope that this year brings us more translated literature from those talented authors around the world who are, unfortunately, unacceptably, missing from our bookshelves. -

Born in 1986 in Burundi, Roland Rugero grew up in a family where reading was a favorite pastime. He has worked as a journalist in Burundi since 2008. His novels include Les Oniriques and Baho!, the first Burundian novel to be translated into English. Rugero has held residencies at La Rochelle and at Iowa's prestigious International Writing Program. In addition to his work as a writer, in 2011 he wrote and directed Les pieds et les mains, the second-ever feature-length film from Burundi. Rugero is active in promoting Burundi's literary culture, co-founding the Samandari Workshop and helping found the Michel Kayoza and Andika Prizes. He lives in Kigali, Rwanda.