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74. Magic in Burundi during 1939 to 1945

JUN. 27, 2024


This week Pete and Ryan are off to The Republic of Burundij, a tiny landlocked nation in the central part of Eastern Africa.

Bordered by Rwanda, Tanzania, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Burundi is one of the smallest countries in Africa - covering roughly 28,000 sq km (or 12,000 sq miles) - about 5% the size of France.

Despite its small size though, Burundi is one of the most densely populated countries in Africa, with a population of around 12 million people – although it’s worth noting that the average age over those 12 million people is just 16 years old.

So, what does Burundi look like? Well, head into the country and you’re going to find a land of rolling hills and lush dense forests, being deforested to make way for banana groves and coffee plantations – so much deforestation in fact, that only 600k of natural forest remains.

In the towns and cities, you'll find vibrant communities living in a blend of traditional and modern architecture, with pockets of bustling markets, and a vast network of roads which, unlike a lot of other African countries, mean that you can get pretty much everywhere by car.

There are two capital cities: Gitega, which has been the political capital since 2019, and Bujumbura which is their capital of commerce and industry.

Agriculture is the backbone of the economy, with coffee, tea, maize, bananas, and sweet potatoes being the major crops.

But they don’t generate a lot of income for the country, in fact, as economies go, Burundi is considered the poorest in the world, with a GDP of just 3.5 billion US dollars a year – which, for comparison, is roughly 937 times smaller than a France’s GDP.

The most common language is Kirundi, the official language French, the predominant religion is Christianity, and the national animal is the spotted hyena.

The flag consists of a white diagonal cross dividing red and green panels, with a white circle at the centre containing three red stars outlined in green.

The national anthem is "Burundi Bwacu" which translates to "Our Burundi. Composed in 1962 by a school teacher named Marco Barengayabo, the lyrics were written by a group of writers, led by Jean-Baptiste Ntahokaja and a Catholic priest.

It was adopted as the national anthem during their independence. The music incorporates the traditional Burundian rhythms and melodies associated with the traditional music of their Royal Court.
The lyrics reflect a strong desire to overcome the divisions of the past and build a cohesive nation and my favourite lines are, “Wounded and bruised, you have remained master of yourself. When the hour came, you arose, Lifting yourself proudly into the ranks of free peoples”

There is a version that uses traditional Burundian musical instruments, but it is rarely played and I couldn’t find it, so if you have a copy, please let us know!

You don’t want to go running in Burundi.

In 2004, the Burundian government banned jogging. Why? Well.. During Burundi’s long years of conflict, local people started a tradition of going on Saturday morning runs in demonstration of their frustration with the government’s tightening control.

The president considered the running a cover for subversion and banned it. So, if you live in or want to visit Burundi today, and want to go for a run, you’ll need to register with the government, join an official jogging club, and choose from one of nine approved venues. And even then you’ll likely undergo some questioning from the police

Also, you don’t want to go swimming in Burundi.

Burundi has a large network of rivers and nd living within these rivers are Nile crocodiles. The largest of these is said to be Gustave - a huge male croc that is over 60 years old, 8 metres long, and a notorious man-eater.

Rumoured to have killed as many as 300 people, he was officially identified and named in the late 1990s.

A documentary was made about Gustave, called ‘Capturing the Killer Croc’, which aired on PBC in the USA, in which an international team of croc hunters try to catch him, and spoilers: Fail.

So, it is unknown if he is still alive, although nile crocs are known to live for around 100 years, so it’s possible he’s still out there.

And if you do happen to go for a dip, you’ll instantly recognise Gustave by a large bullet-hole in his head.

Side note.. You might not even have to go swimming to get attacked!

Frequent flooding in rural areas means that local people are sometimes surprised by crocs and hippos which swim straight into their homes looking for food.

So, sleep well, eh?

History of Burundi

This was a tricky one. More high level histories start Burundi history with the identifiable start of the kingdom of Burundi, which was during the 16th century, but obviously there were people there before that.
And indeed there were, but exactly how it all fits together is a bit obscure.
One version says that the first people in the area were the Twa people – pygmy hunter gatherers we met in our Congo episode.
They were followed in the 9th century by Bantu peoples. The Hutu apparently came later from Central Africa and introduced agriculture.
Then the Tutsi are believed to have arrived in the 15th and 16th century and raised cattle.
Although I’d note that we have also talked previously about fluidity between these groups.
But I also found that from between the 5th century BCE through to the sixth century CE, during Africa’s iron age, there was a culture of people living in the area of Burundi and the surrounding nations, known as the Urewe/
This culture is identified by a distinctive style of earthenware as well as sophisticated iron work/
Honestly, I was confused, so let’s just say there were people in the area, including urewe culture, and hurry on to the bits we do know about.
So now we’re in 1680 and oral history suggests this saw the emergence of the first king of Burundi Cambarantama.
Or, to give him his full name, Ntare I Kivimira Savuyimba Semunganzashamba Rushatsi Cambarantama.
He presumably formed the kingdom and ruled it between 1680 to 1709.
Over the years it expanded, competing with Rwanda.
One of its greatest periods was when the kingdom doubled in size under King Ntare IV Rutaganzwa Rugamba.
The kingdom was organised along fairly familiar lines. The king, or mwami, had an aristocracy or ganwa which owned most of the land and required a tribute, or tax, from local farmers and herders.
1856 saw the first contact with Europeans.
And in 1899 that Burundi became a part of German East Africa, not entirely voluntarily. In fact king Mwezi IV Gisabo opposed the Germans, so the Germans backed one of the King’s sons in law, Maconco into a revolt which saw Gisabo then agree to bend the knee to Germany, at which point Germany swapped sides and helped Gisabo put down Maconco’s revolt.
In 1916 in World War 2 Belgian troops took over the region.
After the war in 1923 the League of Nations mandated the territory known as Ruanda-Urundi to Belgian control.
The Belgians ruled indirectly, relying on the Tutsis to run things, but also cementing the categories of Tutsi and Hutu that had previously been relatively fluid.
And it wasn’t an ethnic division either but a social one – anyone with more than ten cattle was classified as a Tutsi.
After World War 2 the country became a United Nations Trust territory. This meant they were still under Belgian control, but they were supposed to be being prepared for independence and majority rule.
It wasn't until 10 November 1959 that they legalised competing political parties, so they didn’t seem to be in a great rush.
But they did have elections in 1961 and the Union for National Progress party or UPRONA won just over 80% of the electorate's votes.
And on July 1 1962 Burundi officially became independent.
Although UPRONA was a multi ethnic party, there were still divisions between Hutu and Tutsi.
And when on 15th January 1965 the Hutu prime minister Pierre Ngendan-dumwe was assassinated, it started a series of Hutu revolts, which in turn resulted in increased repression.
The Tutsi for their part, had a reason to be edgy. Between 1959 and 1961 next door in Rwanda Tutsis were being mass murdered by a Hutu government.
So, it was a tense situation.
In the 1965 elections the monarchy refused to recognize gains by Hutu candidates and instead just appointed a Tutsi prince as Prime Minister. This triggered a failed Hutu coup attempt against the Tutsi monarchy which in turn triggered reprisal killings of Hutus.
It all becomes a bit chaotic with everyone deposing everyone else until a military regime emerged, which still didn’t calm things down as civil unrest continued throughout the late 1960s and early 1970s, including one coup in 1966 that resulted in the removal of the monarchy.
All this fighting between groups reached a disastrously tragic peak in 1972.
On April 29, in the south of the country groups of Hutu started attacking and killing Tutsi civilians, as well as some Hutu who refused to join in the murderous rampage.
The Government response was no less savage, described as “a hideous slaughter of Hutu civilians”. In fact, It’s estimated 200,000 to 300,000 Hutu were killed and about 300,000 became refugees.
In 1976, another year, another coup, this one bloodless although the subsequent regime did advocate land reform, electoral reform, and national reconciliation, but as time went on, it too became increasingly repressive.
So in 1987 it’s coup time again, this time the new government and suspended the constitution resulting in 1988 being a year of tension, unrest and violence between the various groups, with an estimated 150,000 people killed and again tens of thousands of refugees.
And it gets worse.
In 1993 the Hutu president is assassinated by Tutsi extremists, and this again triggers reprisal violence by Hutu peasants on Tutsis, followed by Tutsi army massacres of Hutu people.

Truly an eye for an eye leaves the whole world blind.
So begins a decade of civil war in which hundreds of thousands die and an astonishing 9% of the population is displaced.
Eventually, though the various rebel groups came to peace agreements, with the Civil war finally coming to an official end when the last rebel group signed a treaty in 2006.
2005 saw the first post-war government, but again signs of repression were evident.
Although in 2007 the UN ceased its peacekeeping operation and began to focus on rebuilding a country devastated by 12 years of civil war.
The 2015 election saw more unrest as president Nkurunziza announced that he would seek a third term. Problem was the constitution limited him to two terms, although his supporters said his first term didn’t count because he’d been appointed by parliament instead of elected, which is a hell of a loophole.
This was followed by a constitutional referendum in 2018, when 79% of people voted to approve an amended constitution that would let Nkurunziza stay in power until 2034, which is pretty generous.
But then oddly Nkurunziza declared he didn’t want to stand again and a new president would be elected in 2020, which was lucky because in June 2020 Nkurunziza died.
So now the president is Évariste Ndayishimiye.
And I wish I could say this means things are looking up, but Human Rights Watch said in an article “Ndayishimiye did release some human rights advocates and journalists from jail and lift some restrictions on the media and civil society, but his government continues to use repressive tactics against its opponents”.
So, who knows when things will look up for the people of Burundi, all I can say is I sincerely hope there can be reconciliation and a time come when Tutsi and Hutu people realise that they have more in common than that which separates them.

The drums of Burundi
We’re talking about Magic Ryan, and to me that includes the magic of the divine – power beyond the human.
So to be sacred is to possess some special quality above the mundane – to be magical.
So we’re going to look at the sacred drums of Burundi.
Now, our time period is World War 2, and the tradition of the sacred drums, and indeed the families of people caring for and playing the drums stretch back hundreds of years, so definitely including our time period.
The origins of the drums are a little cloudy, I read one version in which The practice of drum was initially reserved for a clan called “Abanyagisaka,” who could be found in Gitenga, Central Burundi.
It’s not clear to me why nobody else was allowed to drum at that time.
In the beginning, though, men and women alike would drum.
After the first king of Burundi was crowned - Cambarantama if you recall – he apparently asked that these drums be played only at the court and only for the king.
And so a particular kind of drum became ‘Royal Drums’ and only this clan could play them.
Which was a pretty sweet gig because rules were made that said the drums would be brought out once a year around November in a royal festival called ‘Umuganuro’ (aka the festival of seeds) which is a sorghum festival which is kind of grass the produces a starchy grain – so kind of a celebration of fertility and agriculture.
Before the festival, apparently people would head off into the woods in search of the special trees that they made the drums from and it could take months.
But there was a problem.
Apparently, whilst out an about there were reports of inappropriate conduct between men and women, so a rule was eventually passed that only men were allowed to play the drums that became a feature of the court and a symbol of Burundi.
And playing the drums also became synonymous with the events in the lives of Burundi’s royal family. Elvis Vyizigiro, a historian said, “Drums were played to mark the beginning and the end of the daily royal activities. Drums were played to mark important events, such as the “umuganuro” party, the party of seeds when the King blessed his people and opened the season of cultivation. Other rituals include marking the death of a king and inauguration of a new one. The drums were played to show that a new life started at the royal palace.”
In fact, the identification of the drum, known as a karyenda drum, with Burundi and its royal family continued right up to modern times. When Burundi became independent in 1962 to the national flag of Burundi included an image of karyenda in the centre of the flag and when a coup resulted in the toppling of the monarchy in 1966, the drum was removed from the flag.
The drums themselves are around a metre high with || the wooden body of the drum made from the trunk of a tree, usually the umuvugangoma which translates roughly as “the tree that makes a drum noise. Although apprarently they also use umurama or umusave trees.
Over the body is stretched an animal skin, which is held down with pegs.
Possibly related to drummers only being male, the drums themselves are female – with various bits of them said to correspond to a woman’s body. The Skin of the drum is the Icahi – Skin in which the mother rocks her baby. The Pegs are Amabere – the Breasts. The Thong Stretching the Skin is Urugori – the crown of motherhood. The Cylinder is Inda – the stomach and the foot of the Drum is Umukondo – the umbilical cord.
So on ritual occasions, when the drums were allowed to be played, you need at least ten drummers, and it must be an odd number – so at least eleven then, really.
The drummers form a semi circle around one drum in the spotlight known as the “Inkiranya” drum.
When play starts, some drums called “Amashako” drums provide a continuous beat, whilst “Ibishikiso” drums follow the rhythm of the central “Inkiranya” drum.
The drummers play not only with their sticks, but with their whole bodies, jumping, swaying, and leaping around – all in all its pretty athletic.
And as well as announcing royal news, welcoming visitors and honouring the sorghum seeds, the drumming is said to awaken the spirits of the ancestors and drive out evil spirits. So they are magic.
And as you might expect of magic, it’s not available to just anyone.
The drums are stored and cared for in special hilltop locations called drum sanctuaries. Apparently as well as storage for musical instruments, these were centres of political and religious power in pre-colonial Burundi.
They were guarded mainly by Hutu families, who were given the special role of looking after and playing the drums - called abatimbo, which apparently means drummers "who hit hard".
The role of the guardians of the drums was passed down the generations from father to son.
The most famous of the drum sanctuaries that is still in action today is the Gishora drum sanctuary. This is located along the top of the hill about 7km from the capital city of Gitega. It was built in 1903 by King Mwami Mwezi IV Gisabo Bikata-Bijoga after his victory over the rebellious chief Ntibirangwa. After the victory, the King commanded the construction of the site as a thank-you to an old man named Nyabidaha for saving his life when he was being chased by his enemies. And today it is a popular sight for tourists after a taste of the sacred and magical Burundi drumming.
In fact Burundi drumming is so much a symbol of the nation and the culture that in 2014, UNESCO declared it an Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity.
And in an effort to keep it special, by which I mean male, in 2017 Burundi passed the Presidential Decree No.100/196 which states that only male performers would be allowed to perform the drums in the future. So it is now, in fact, illegal for a woman to drum in Burundi.
They’re serious too, in 2022 2022 Burundian authorities condemned what they called ‘misuse of the country’s traditional and sacred drum’ at a festival in Uganda because women were playing.
Now if you want to hear the drummers but can’t afford a ticket to Burundi, you can have a listen to the Royal Drummers of Burundi, a band originally from Burundi.
Since the 1960s, the Drummers have toured the world and they have recorded at least three albums - Batimbo,The Drummers of Burundi and The Master Drummers of Burundi.
Which brings me to my final point, about the magic of music
In 1967 two French ethnomusicologists, Michel Vuylsteke and Charles Duvelle, made field recordings of musicians in Burundi.
The following year in 1968 they released the music with the title Musique du Burundi.
Three years later, 1971, a French musician named Michel Bernholc took the sound and released the song as “Burundi Black”
They can also be heard on the Joni Mitchell song from from her 1975 album The Hissing Of Summer Lawns
And into my childhood – “Kings Of The Wild Frontier”, released in 1980, had drums that sounds like this, bringing the Burundi beat into the modern world.

Dr Esther Kuhn
In Cincinnati, in the United States, on October 14th 1895, a little baby girl was born called, Esther Kuhn.

She grew up in a family that held strong a strong Christian faith. At school she became increasingly fascinated with medicine, and together with a passionate desire to serve her community, she pursued a career as a doctor.

She gained a bachelor's degree in biology, chemistry, and physics, which got her into medical school, at which she spent two years learning basic medical sciences and then another couple of years in specialist fields.

After medical school, she joined a local hospital where she was given the opportunity to train under the supervision of several experienced physicians, before finally passing the necessary licensing exams to practice medicine legally as a doctor.

To be clear, this might all sound easy enough, but remember that this was the early 20th century, a time when medical schools had strict limits on the number of female students they would allow - if they accepted women at all.

It was an education system that was costly, hostile, and with few women mentors or role models.

And yet, despite all the odds, miraculously, having disappeared into the education system, she had magically reappeared as a licensed medical doctor.

ut her story doesn’t end there, because despite spending the next couple of decades working within the community to help save lives, Dr Kuhn felt the pull to do something even more miraculous.

As a member of the Free Methodist Church, she was familiar with their work in evangelical outreach involving humanitarian missions to help those in need across both America and internationally.

By the 1940s, the church had sent a small army of representatives to places like China, India, Japan, and Latin America where they helped dig wells, build schools, and run orphanages.

As part of her local congregation, Dr Kuhn heard about these different missions every week, supporting them through prayer and contributions in cash.

But eventually, in her forties, with no husband or children to consider, she felt the call to undertake a mission of her own.

And so, driven by the desire to improve the lives of those living in the most remote regions, in 1941, Esther Kuhn left the United States.. for Africa.

It was a journey that was as long as it was challenging – travelling by train from Cincinnati to New York, then by ship to Europe, and from Europe to East Africa, before making an overland journey over rough and unpaved roads through Tanzania and Rwanda to reach Burundi.

It took her 3 months, during which time she faced the dangers of U-Boat attacks in the Atlantic, air raids and bombings in Europe, rough seas, infectious diseases, vehicle breakdowns, predatory wildlife, colonial tensions and supply issues.

And yet, despite the odds, she arrived in the capital city of Bujumbura no less motivated than when she left.

She found a city under Belgian colonial rule, with a basic infrastructure that was installed only to serve the European population. The local African communities being governed with significant controls and forced to live off the land with limited and restricted supplies.

Leaving the city behind, Dr Kuhn headed off into Burundi to find the place where her help was needed most.

And in a rural community about 100 miles from Bujumbura, in a landscape of rolling hills and dense vegetation, with homes made of mud bricks and thatched roofs – Dr Kuhn found her new home.

Here, in a place called Kibuye, she found a group of people living with no running water or electricity, surviving off the little food they could grow or hunt, and who only had a basic and rudimentary knowledge of modern medicine - relying on traditional healers known as "abavuzi ba kinyarwanda," instead, people who used herbal remedies and spiritual practices to cure illnesses that they believed were caused by malevolent spirits or ancestors.

And so, here among these people, Dr Kuhn felt that she could make a difference.

But being a newcomer to the village, a white-skinned foreigner, and a woman - she received something of a mixed reception. Because given their experience with the Europeans so far, the locals were unsurprisingly suspicious of her attempts to introduce western medicine.

But slowly, over time, as she learned not one, but two of their local languages (Kirundi and Swahili), respected their customs, worked alongside traditional healers, and started to introduce basic healthcare principles, she started to be treated with respect and gratitude – often waking to find small gifts of woven clothing, clay pots, and baskets, left on her doorstep by patients who were grateful for her help.

And so, as she ingratiated herself into the community, Dr Kuhn was able to expand her services, building a simple hospital to provide more structured healthcare - with basic facilities, and local people trained to become nurses, and medical supplies secured from the colonial government – an almost miraculous thing to do - the hospital was able to provide treatments for a variety of common ailments, building up a pharmacy that included antibiotics, anti-malarials, pain relievers, and medications for parasitic infections.

They gave out vaccines, and had disinfected rooms specifically for surgeries. Epidemics of typhus, which had previously devastated the region, were reduced to just the most extreme outbreaks.

Quickly, Dr Kuhn’s mission hospital gained a reputation in the community for trustworthiness, and by 1946, the building was formalized as Kibuye Hospital, with brick-and-mortar buildings replacing thatch huts.

The hospital grew, a wider range of medical services were provided, and patients from all over Burundi came to seek help.

Dr. Kuhn didn’t stop there, she used her time in Kibuye to develop innovative methods for storing blood by using simple cooling systems, and discovering that doxycycline could effectively cure typhus - a discovery which led to a collaboration with the big pharma company ‘Pfizer Laboratories’, which manufactured the medication and helped disseminate her findings worldwide.

After the war, Dr Kuhn continued to work in Burundi, and years later, even after retirement, she remained involved in the hospital's growth and development.

This is a legacy which sees Kibuye Hospital today as a vital medical centre in Burundi, offering specialized care to a broad number of people, and serving as the primary teaching hospital for Hope Africa University.

Dr Kuhn and her hospital have made a lasting, some might say magical impact on healthcare in the country, helping to inspire generations of medical professionals in and outside of the country.

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