Soap opera on Burundi radio turns a force for evil into a force for good

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The Independent Online

With Burundi's civil war swirling violently around them, a young couple fall head over heels in love. But their peoples are enemies – one is a Hutu, the other a Tutsi – so angry relatives wreck their marriage plans.

Then the man, Mbazumutima, is captured by rebels and taken to the bush. Months later Natalie, thinking him dead, is betrothed to another, this time a tribally correct suitor. Her family is delighted; the weeping fiancée is heartbroken.

But on the eve of this miserable union, Mbazumutima escapes his captors and rushes home to halt the nuptials. But will he make it to the altar on time? Romance, hatred, tribes and tribulations, such is the stuff of Our Neighbours, Ourselves, Burundi radio's hit soap opera. An EastEnders set in the dirt tracks and banana groves of central Africa, it has captured the imagination of a nation in the clutches of war.

Drama, village politics and sidesplitting humour are skilfully interwoven in gripping 20-minute episodes. And behind it lies a noble aim: to hold a mirror up to Burundi's ethnic divisions, and to shine a light on possible solutions.

"The war drove Hutus and Tutsis apart," Michel-Ange Nzojibwame, the director, says. He is seated at the microphone at a Bujumbura studio. "We want to show what they have in common."

The show was started by unemployed actors six years ago (fear of grenade attack had forced their theatre to be closed) and it has become a runaway success. Twice a week at 8pm, households and roadside bars across the country hush as battery radios are powered up for the latest soap fix. The programme makers say 85 per cent of adults tune in.

Such reach is possible only with radio, Africa's most powerful medium. Yet it can be a force for immense evil as well as good. During the 1994 Rwandan genocide, presenters on the notorious Radio Mille Collines encouraged the slaughter with cries of: "The graves are not yet quite full. Who is going to help us fill them completely?" By the end, more than 500,000 Hutus and Tutsis lay dead.

Now airing episode 520, Our Neighbours, or Umubanyi Niwe Muryanga in Kirundi, has the opposite aim. The plots are inspired by stories and gossip picked up on street corners and barstools, and forwarded to Marie-Louise Sibazuri, a Burundian exile living in Belgium. She skilfully mixes them with political developments to craft the now-famous scripts.

Lena Slachmuijlder, manager with Studio Ijambo, which produces the soap, says: "It's not moralistic, in terms of someone doing something wrong. The humour is subtle and perceptive. It's about rumour, stereotypes and prejudice."

By now, the cast has swelled to a confusing array of 60 characters. But which ones are Hutu or Tutsi is deliberately kept obscure. Rose Marie Twajirayezu, who plays Mukamunwa, the village gossipmonger with a taste for beer, says: "In daily activities, there is no separation between Hutus and Tutsis. They go to church together, trade at the market or sit in buses. It is difficult to tell one from the other."

Sometimes the action cuts too close to the bone for the sensitive authorities. Police once tried to arrest the director after an episode depicting corrupt police.

Later, a powerful civil servant, who recognised himself being portrayed as a character, tried to block an episode mid-broadcast. And because the show is on national radio, it is also subject to state censorship, although the last cut was made a year ago.

Success has made national stars of the actors. There is no Hello! magazine, but the fans recognise their heroes only by voice. "Even in a disco or a bar, people can know you," says Adolphe Ntibasharira, who plays a scheming politician.

Hopes for a peaceful resolution of the 10-year conflict came a step closer last week, when a Tutsi president peacefully handed power to a Hutu, Domitien Nzayizeye. The cast, like most Burundians, are only cautiously optimistic.

"We are waiting to see. There are so many maybes, but nothing is sure," Michel Ange Nzojibwame says.

Happy endings are few in Burundi; and so it is with Our Neighbours. In the original love story plotline, Mbazumutima arrived too late, alas, to stop the wedding of his love, Natalie. "Just like in real life," Mr Nzojibwame adds.

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