By Susan Koscis, Communications Director – Search for Common Ground
Six years ago I traveled to Burundi to work with Search for Common Ground’s local staff, to help them organize a four day Peace Festival. For decades Burundi experienced cycles of violence between Hutus and Tutsi – the same ethnic groups involved in the Rwandan genocide. When I was there during 2004 there was neither all out war nor peace. Sporadic outbreaks of violence were normal occurrences.
The Peace Festival brought together musicians, writers, poets, storytellers, master drummers and dancers from across the country. Violent conflict forces culture underground, and so the Festival’s goal was the symbolic return of culture, joy and hope.
Prior to the festival, a woman’s dance competition was held in six provinces. Burundian women’s dance is graceful -- they use swanlike arm movements and hand gestures. Working with local women’s organizations, SFCG travelled to remote villages auditioning women’s dance groups to select the best group from each province that would appear in the Festival.
Many of the women had never been away from their parent’s or husband’s homes, had not taken a day off from field work, had never ridden in a car, and almost all needed permission from their husbands to participate. Burundi’s capital city, Bujumbura, might well have been another land.
For over four days, the women were housed altogether in university dorms. Hutu and Tutsi women from different regions recognized that they had much in common. They all wanted education for their children and an end to violent conflict. And all had the same complaints about their husbands’ drinking and money habits!
One of the groups danced to the stories of an elderly blind master storyteller. Bujumbura sits on Lake Tanganyika, and the storyteller’s wish was to stand and feel the cool wetness of the lake and the breeze against her legs, for the first time in her life.
Later that day I met her with the help of a translator. We shook hands but she didn’t let go. As she held my hand she said, “I’ve heard of America, but I never thought I’d touch it. I’m so happy because I’m touching America.”
The Festival closed with a concert by the country’s most popular musician, drawing 10,000 people – Burundi’s largest peaceful gathering in decades. The image of thousands of people swaying in rhythm was memorable, but it’s the memory of two hands touching across unimaginable divides that stays with me most.