Spotlight On: Burundi

For many, dance is purely an expression of concentrated movement – energy, action, and artistry working in tandem. Far more than that, however, dance acts as a platform through which stories are told. In her first Canadian exhibition – currently on display at Leslieville’s Yogathletix – humanitarian-turned-photographer Marie-Andrée Robert explores the evolving histories of traditional Burundian dance, as told through her camera’s lens.  

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The Dances of Change

A native of Beauharnois, Quebec, Marie-Andrée moved to Burundi over a decade ago to work with non-governmental organizations including Oxfam and CARE International. Having served in conflict zones, refugee camps, and areas marked by uneven and evolving security risks, Marie- Andrée is no stranger to change. On a cold, snowy morning in January, Solar Ship spoke with the photographer about movement, politics, and coming to terms with the inherent transformations of the human experience.  

There are at least eighteen different forms of dance in Burundi, which, for those unfamiliar, is a landlocked East African nation sharing borders with Rwanda, Tanzania, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Mari-Andrée’s current exhibition showcases five traditional forms of Burundian dance, each with a specific meaning, purpose, and history. The Amaka dance, for example, is typically performed by young women in imitation of Burundi’s most prized commodity – the cow. Intore, on the other hand, is a masculine dance performed by warriors whose acrobatic movements showcase their courage, agility, and skill in combat.

Despite their rich histories, Marie-Andrée revealed during our interview that these dances are far from static – indeed, they constantly evolve with the upbringing of new generations, while lyrics and movement change to fit the shifting circumstances (both political and otherwise) of Burundi’s socio-cultural landscape.

Conflict and Controversy

Like its neighbour, Rwanda, Burundi has had longstanding experience with civil conflict. In 1993, ethnic divisions between the Tutsi and Hutu – two rival groups whose differences had been exploited throughout the country’s experience with colonialism – came to a fore. The resulting war lasted seventeen years and claimed an estimated 300,000 lives. Today, Burundi’s political landscape remains turbulent – it is a part of daily life that seeps into culture, language, and dance.

In April 2015, Burundi’s ruling party, the National Council for the Defense of Democracy – Forces for the Defense of Democracy (CNDD-FDD), announced that Pierre Nkurunziza (the incumbent President) would again run for office in the 2015 presidential election, in direct opposition to the state’s constitutional provisions surrounding fixed presidential terms. This announcement sparked widespread demonstrations in the capital, Bujumbura. In response, the government shut down the country’s internet and telephone network and closed universities, while officials publicly labelled dissenters as “terrorists.” Throughout this time (and in the months following) over 100,000 Burundians fled the country, seeking asylum in neighbouring states.

In May of the same year, Major General Godefroid Niyombare declared a coup d’état, which ultimately failed following military-sanctioned violence in the capital and surrounding areas. Burundi’s highest court eventually approved Nkurunziza’s right to run for a third term.  This charged climate affects nearly every aspect of Burundian civil life. People are unwilling – and very often afraid – to speak disparagingly of government officials.

Paradoxically, change comes both swiftly and slowly to Burundi. While violence, political turmoil, and shifting interests create instability, ongoing experiences with corruption, exploitation, and power-seeking political factions remain constant.

Marie-Andrée captures the essence of this paradox in her photos. Tambourinaires – Abanyangoma (Royal Drummers who traditionally performed for the king and other noble elite) have become a symbol in modern-day Burundi, representing the nation’s rich cultural legacy and traditional roots. Typically, these Royal Drummers dress in Burundi’s national colours – green, red, and white. However, the particular troupe shot by Marie-Andrée were subtle dissenters, identifying themselves as traditionalists by wearing colours typically worn at a much earlier point in Burundi’s history, when clothing was crafted out of the bark of a Ficus tree. Today, their blue and orange robes also represent the colours of an alternative political party. However, whether or not this is intentional remains vague.

Danses traditionnelles du Burundi. Nom du groupe est : Komeza Akaranga, le groupe est originaire de la province de Karuzi, commune Bugenyuzi, colline Bugenyuzi.

Danses traditionnelles du Burundi. Nom du groupe est : Komeza Akaranga, le groupe est originaire de la province de Karuzi, commune Bugenyuzi, colline Bugenyuzi.

Dance thus provides a kind of liberty – though implicit – to daily life. Through small changes and subtle movements – a new word here or an altered move there – Burundi’s stories are being retold and reshaped.

In a place so complex, marked by extreme violence and instability, Marie-Andrée provides just a glimpse of the beauty, resilience, and strength of Burundi’s people. Indeed, it is something her husband (and Solar Ship co-founder) Michel Rugema focuses on when discussing future missions.

When asked about the role (if any) that Solar Ship can play in alleviating violence, nurturing innovation, and providing essential provisions to Burundi, the photographer smiled.

“Jay is not afraid of conflict – if anything, he embraces it. He’s not afraid to change the narrative and do things differently – to bring actors together, even those who seemingly have little in common.”

United by a common goal – the desire to make things better – Solar Ship continues to look for opportunities to collaborate with creative thinkers, disruptive innovators, and those brave enough to face change.

As for Marie-Andrée, this continues to manifest itself in concrete terms – such as navigating life in her new city and finding new passions – and in more existential ways, including embarking on new photography projects and finding her own niche.

Her next project will focus on the memories held and left behind in furniture. More details will be provided in the months to come.