Learning to Look Up

I’m finally learning to look people in the eye in Bujumbura. And it’s been one of the most challenging, necessary, and thrilling tasks I’ve pushed myself to do as of late.

With almost every interaction, my inability to speak and only understand Kirundi has confused people to no end. What often hurt the most was when my high expectations for connection with some people seemed to be shot down when they’d say something like “well then, you are NOT Burundian” with some impressive finality. And it takes more energy than I know I have to convince them otherwise in one conversation. But usually I’m so shocked by the negation of my identities that their words silence me and only manifest into emotions by the time I lay my head down to bed.

So I began avoiding the stares in what I thought was an effective defense mechanism.

It was not.

Until three weeks ago, the end of my nights in Burundi left me feeling defensive, overanalyzing my interactions, and were beginning to make me an angrier person.

That began to break my heart. It hurts to become a version of yourself you don’t always recognize.

That new version of my self didn’t write as much, didn’t hold enough eye contact with passing bike riders when walking around town with her boyfriend, and felt resentful for not wanting to hold his hand around town for fear of more stares to avoid.

That woman is not me but she is who I have been as of late and I’m trying to change that.

I’m trying to bottle that version of myself and tuck her away into a corner of my heart where I hide memories of all my former selves. I’m trying to be with my whole heart and take in as much of Burundi as it will allow me to absorb.

I’m learning to be stronger and I’m trying to grow.

That has manifested in many ways as of late.

One way has been through love. Orion, said boyfriend, and I started taking Kirundi lessons together. Let me tell you, this guy was MEANT to speak Kirundi and he doesn’t give himself enough credit for the progress he’s making.

During our lessons, I’m internally fighting with myself between my impatience and frustration for struggling with grammar. But when I pull myself out of the mess of my self-analysis, I notice his excitement at the process of learning and mastering a new language. Our instructor, Vianney, seems fascinated to have me as a student because I understand the language he is trying to teach me but I have the hardest time having conversations. I see him notice my frustrations and he endearingly challenges himself to think of new ways to push me to keep trying.

Vianney, our dynamic Kirundi instructor.

Vianney, our dynamic Kirundi instructor. Photo: © Karen Maniraho

When Orion (check out his blog here!) and I walk around and he laughs at some of the truly impressive feats he notices around town, such as the defiance of physics at some of the goods bicycles can transport, I find some motivation to stop being afraid of judgment from my peers. I find motivation to look up and experience my time here more fully.

And when I can’t find the motivation to look at people on my own, I hide behind my camera.

For work, my co-fellow and best friend here, Joanna, and I traveled to parts of Bujumbura Mairie Province for the International Day of the Girl. Our goals were to share the dreams these girls had for themselves and then hold a day for the girls to see a photo exhibit of their stories and see each others aspirations. We also paired them with strong, female role models in the Burundian community so they could see for themselves their dreams were indeed possible.

Joanna as she interviews women of an Ishaka solidarity group. Ishaka (“courage for the future) is a CARE Burundi initiative aiming to empower adolescent girls socially and economically by proving it is possible to generate savings and income from their own resources.

Joanna as she interviews women of an Ishaka solidarity group. Ishaka (“courage for the future) is a CARE Burundi initiative aiming to empower adolescent girls socially and economically by proving it is possible to generate savings and income from their own resources. Photo: © Karen Maniraho

At first, all of the feelings of discomfort I was too familiar with surged forward as soon as I pulled out my camera out (THAT’s a whole other conversation). But as we carried on our interviews, it overwhelmed me to see how much pain and joy came from these girls as they shared parts of their stories with me and excitedly began volunteering for me to take their photos. They were especially excited that I’d be providing a copy to them afterwards.

“You want to give us our photos?” they asked me, in Kirundi.

“Ego…”

The women looked knowingly around to each other and whispered for a while.

“Eh, me first, then!!”

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Photo: © Karen Maniraho

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Some camera shyness pre-interviews. Photo: © Karen Maniraho

And then it didn’t matter so much that our conversation was limited – what mattered was the honour that came with hearing the story of Liliane, who, on the hardest of days, dreams of becoming a car dealer and providing a better future for her young daughter.

Liliane and her daughter. Liliane dreams to one day be financially independent  as a future car dealer.

Liliane and her daughter. Liliane dreams to one day be financially independent as a future car dealer. Photo: © Karen Maniraho

Or from Anita, who beamed with every caress and kiss she gave to her child as she told us how due to her participation in an Ishaka solidarity group, she’s realized the importance of building up her own capital. Ishaka (“courage for the future) is a CARE Burundi initiative aiming to empower adolescent girls socially and economically by proving it is possible to generate savings and income from their own resources.

Anita as she cares for her child. Anita is thankful for everything she's learned through Ishaka and hopes she's on her way to becoming a dynamic female entrepreneur.

Anita as she cares for her child. Anita is thankful for everything she’s learned through Ishaka and hopes she’s on her way to becoming a dynamic female entrepreneur. Photo: © Karen Maniraho

Or how much joy comes from the giggling of kids trying to sneak into every young woman’s portrait. Or the bigger bursts of laughter from a surprise shot that makes you forget to focus because of the surprise of your own joy.

I dare you to not smile. Photo: © Karen Maniraho

Faster than I am prepared for, I know these moments will shape me into the woman I imagined I could grow into from being here. And so much of the credit of that change will come from these interactions. It will come from lifting my head up to look someone in the eye and say, I am here to listen and learn. It will come from the great honour of experiencing the rarely heard stories of brilliant people and then, seizing my privilege to do something bigger than me.

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