I left Burundi, my country, to go to South Africa in the year 2000 when our country was still experiencing sporadic civil war and conflict. I was then a teenager. That period, we had no visas; we traveled by road and connected country to country by crossing borders illegally. It was the most uncomfortable and daring trip- an adventure that took me through other countries such as Tanzania, Zambia, and Zimbabwe. I got exposed, for the first time, to life outside my country. I had so much fear for the unknown world, I was an alien, but not as much fear as I felt about staying in my country and dying young as a victim of war.
As soon as I arrived, I immediately experienced two emotions: I felt nostalgia for my home and those I had just left behind and delightful to be in a safe place. South Africa became my second home for 18 years. I can say I managed to integrate into the local community where I lived in Pretoria. Still, I longed in my heart to find anyone from my country to associate myself with, someone who spoke my language, someone who shared my roots. I was constantly reminded that I am in a foreign land because I did not speak the native language and had to apply for asylum and be granted legal papers to be able to stay. Other aspects of everyday life (infrastructure, language, lifestyles, culture, etc…), which were different from where I came from, reminded me that I was indeed far away from my origins. I had both my three children born in South Africa, they had never seen my home country, but I wanted them to come and see my country and my extended family.
My reason for returning home was a personal decision. I didn't consult many people as they also had their own opinions. My decision had been coming over the years because I never fancied being called a foreigner all my life. I was never comfortable or relaxed to call South Africa my home for good. Finally, in February of 2018, I took some of my belongings and returned home. I deeply longed to contribute to the social and economic development of that said small and poor country. I did not feel the need to contribute to the development of an already developed land. I wanted to be useful to my country as an economically active adult, now a different person than I first left. I had faith that somehow, as the daughter of my country, I would not fail here. I had seen a lot, had acquired the necessary knowledge that gave me an upper hand than other people who never left. I would be respected. I would be trusted.
Now, it has been two years since I got back. The feeling of belonging here is my piece of heaven. The simplicity of life here overwhelms me. I never doubt myself. I am more confident that I am achieving a lot despite the reintegration process I have to go through.
The social reintegration is happening slowly. Burundians who never left the country remain quite conservative, except for a few open-minded and young people who have been exposed through media of the liberal lifestyle from abroad. I still get judged for dressing short clothing (mini dress) or exposing rather intimate body parts (thighs). I am too open and outspoken as a woman, a Burundi woman is supposedly quiet and doesn't engage a lot of conversations with men in society. Yet I still remember the mannerism of handling myself in front of people.
Sitting like a lady, talking with a hushed voice, saying thank you, etc. Burundian time is elastic. People socialize a lot rather than doing work. I get judged again that I don't have time to attend a million everyday functions or see extended family every day. With my line of work, I don't have much time to pause. Burundians gossip a lot, and I am no more into that. The reality of people, in particular of women who come back home from abroad, is that they struggle to find significant relationships because we fail to relate to the traditional gender roles that the Burundian society has set. We come with a blurred culture from developed western, liberal, society. I am now making a difference in my society because my line of work allows me to give back to the vulnerable communities in my home country.
So much have changed since I left - Peace has returned. I look forward to catching up with the pace and lifestyle of others here in this beautiful land full of untapped potential, resources, and opportunities for every individual who has resided abroad to utilize and grow. My advice to anyone who is seeking to return home is to expect change. To come with an open mind and be ready to face social and cultural traditions with which they do not believe. Most importantly, they need to come prepared to integrate.
By Dalilla NIMPAGARITSE.