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Touching America

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.

Comments

Carri Pence's picture

divided but still joined

This seems like it was a great event. It is nice to know that it didn't only provide dancing but learning experiences for everyone. It opened up the eyes of so many, leading to hearts becoming open and more vulnerable as well. Thanks for this encouraging story and if you look at the Hutu and Tutsi history you'll be fascinated that they were never divided prior to colonization and the people that brought tension were the German and then Belgian colonists. Colonialism made the idea 'divide and conquer' popular and still is bringing negative consequences to this day.

Frances Faulkner's picture

sight through hands

Dear Susan,

I imagine in that moment of holding the blind storyteller's hands, that all of your work came to a grounded resting place, at least for a peaceful moment of connection. These are moments that inspire, and keep us all going, so it is wonderful to hear your story. Thank you for sharing it.

Warmly, Frances

jadefrank's picture

Hands in Burundi

Dearest Susan,

It's beautiful to picture your story in my mind, of the Hutu and Tutsi women coming together in peace and finding common ground, of the dancers fluid movements, of the woman's hand in yours as she "felt" America and of thousands of people holding hands in peace and feeling united as one moving body together.

Thank you for sharing this story and please continue to share the work of SFCG with our community. I am a big fan of your organization, and a community of women from over 150 countries, we can all learn from you work in conflict resolution and finding peace amongst us.

In friendship,
Jade

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