Umurundikazi Part 1

Exactly a month ago today, I arrived in Burundi to begin my yearlong Global Health Corps Fellowship. The thing about traveling that I love is that you get to witness so much, share so much, and grow so much. But that also means that you are often witnessing so much and growing too quickly to explain. Enter this blog. I want this blog to be a place where I can keep my family and friends updated during my fellowship year and potentially beyond. But more importantly, I want this space to be an open and thoughtful place for debate, reflection, connection, and for finding our own definitions of community because Lord knows I’m trying to figure that out and it’s no fun to do alone.

So, a little bit about myself. I am Burundian. Burundian through and through or Umurundikadzi in Kirundi. I was born in Canada and raised between Canada and the United States. Almost all of my extended family lives right here in this beautiful heart of Africa. Last time I came here was in 2009 but not for very long. I understand Kirundi but don’t speak it. French was my first language but when I learned English I lost a lot of my grammar and vocabulary skills. Today, my French is decent and sometimes surprisingly fluent with a Primus beer on hand. But I’m on my way to speaking French and Kirundi fluently one day soon.

Did you get all of that?

I am a Burundian-Canadian-American woman that understands Kirundi and speaks French. That sentence as of late has been the condensed version of my intersecting identities that I have used minimum five times per day since I’ve arrived here.

To me, all of that makes complete sense.

To many people that I’ve met, it ranges from completely understandable to confusing as all hell.

To some, its complexity negates me from even being Burundian.

And that is frustrating, hurtful, and intriguing all at the same time.

I wish I could say my first night here felt like coming back to a home away from home but to be frank, within a few hours of landing I felt upset- scratch that uncomfortable- scratch that angry- at my identity. The first night I was here I suddenly felt so alone once I finally laid my head down to bed. The sounds were new, the room was new, the loneliness was new, the lack of light polution in my room was new; Burundi was new and that made me so mad. I didn’t expect Burundi to feel like this. I’ve traveled before but this yearning for geographic comfort was completely foreign to me. I missed my family in a way I hadn’t felt before and I desperately wished I spoke Kirundi so I wouldn’t feel like such a Burundian fraud.

People are still trying to figure me out just as I am with them. I’m eventually going to get used to my identity elevator speech and maybe with time it will become briefer and briefer. Eventually, I’ll enjoy people frustratingly deciding between speaking English, French, or Kirundi all within one sentence once they meet me. And eventually, I’ll laugh at what I hear about me when people don’t know I understand Kirundi because they heard me speaking English with my friends.

Eventually, things will make sense. I already came to Burundi with the worries of not feeling Burundian “enough.” But I also arrived here with a deep commitment to reconnect with my identity or at least the parts of it that couldn’t be cultivated within my community of maybe five Burundian families in my quaint land of Pacific Northwest suburbia. I’m tired of not feeling like I know my many, many, MANY cousins beyond small conversations about “how school is going” for them via international phone calls. I’m embarrassed of not having Burundian memories. I’m fed up with the all too familiar gulp of tears that collect in my throat each time I wish I could speak Kirundi on the phone with my grandmother, my nyokuru.

It’s time for me to reconnect with Burundi. Scratch that. It is time to reconnect with one of my many homes.



5 thoughts on “Umurundikazi Part 1

  1. Katie Tu says:

    Karen, I’m so excited for your adventure! You have always been an inspiring person and it’s so great to see you continue to strive for more and be filled with ambition. Wish I could have hung out with you and reached out to you more when we were in college, but I’m glad I clicked this link and got to read your post and I wish you a great year! 🙂 Much love.

  2. Matt vB says:

    My first night living aboad, In Cambodia, I freaked out big time, because everything was so new. I didn’t know how to handle it. Today, I distinctly remember my biggest concern was, “I don’t even know how to ask for toilet paper.” But, I got over over that by the next morning. Still, I was lucky to feel the discomfort, and the many others that followed. That’s what makes life interesting.

    • Oyyy, toilet paper! Strangely, that was one of the first things I wished I knew how to ask once I got here too. But you’re absolutely right about being lucky to feel this discomfort – wish we all had the privilege of embracing that feeling.

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