a poem from africa
One of the highlights of our trip to Africa was a quick visit to a Batwa village in Bubumba, Burundi. We had hoped to bring the whole group there - I wish we could have - but the road to Bubumba passes through an area where the last Burundian rebel group had been active (with gunshots fired the previous night), and we felt that a bus full of mazungus (whites) might have been too big a temptation for them. So just a handful of us went.
I tried to capture the experience in this poem ...
They dance and sing as we arrive.
Dust rises ‘round us like rusty smoke.
Our dancing crowd moves like a swarm
Up the hill, through the village, to the center.
Short men smile and clap their welcome.
Women sway in tattered skirts.
One old woman leaps and spins,
Breasts flapping like out-turned pockets,
Arms arcing out like wings.
She dips, leans this way, that,
Eyes wild and alive as a dare.
Boys around me fuse like pistons
Into an engine of percussion.
They jump and stomp, rise and fall,
Feet in complex rhythms
Beating the earth-drum with themselves
We share the ecstasy of tribal and tribeless finding one another
After a thousand centuries
Led by the hand, I stoop down, crawl sideways, fingerprinting red dust,
Into a Batwa hut of sticks, vines, mud, grass.
I, a visitor here, a stranger welcomed, strangely warm,
Adjust to the dim and humane light:
Reed mats, a torn mosquito net, dirt floor, three stones,
A cooking pot and gray embers from the morning fire.
I turn, push out, and squint, delivered back into stark midday sun.
A baby cries in fear,
Mine the first white face his eyes have ever seen.
In light of what has happened, he is right
In this, his sad world, and mine, of light
These little people, small as splinters in the palm of Africa’s pain -
Their poor neighbors despise them: smelly, dirty, poor, simple.
They have too little water to drink,
None to spare for washing.
They sleep on dirt, in huts,
On land they do not own.
When it rains, they get wet.
Unowned, they even lack the value of slaves.
They do not count.
In school, Tutsi and Hutu alike make fun,
Reconciled in their shared disdain,
And so Batwa seldom last more than a year or two
The chief, named No-Name by his parents,
Gathers us beneath a kind of trellis.
Speeches are made. People clap.
Eyes meet eyes. Shy smiles form.
Gifts exchange. My eyes brim.
Somehow they know I am here
To keep a promise and save
They sing and dance again as we depart.
For a while I join them stomping in the rising dust,
Wishing I could stay.
What are they singing? I ask.
The translator by my side leans toward me:
They are singing a good-bye song, he says.
The Batwa sing and dance when guests arrive
And when they leave.
They sing when they have food, he says,
And when they hunger they sing.
They survive, he says,