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

Declan Walsh
Wednesday 14 May 2003 00:00
Comments

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.

Register for free to continue reading

Registration is a free and easy way to support our truly independent journalism

By registering, you will also enjoy limited access to Premium articles, exclusive newsletters, commenting, and virtual events with our leading journalists

Please enter a valid email
Please enter a valid email
Must be at least 6 characters, include an upper and lower case character and a number
Must be at least 6 characters, include an upper and lower case character and a number
Must be at least 6 characters, include an upper and lower case character and a number
Please enter your first name
Special characters aren’t allowed
Please enter a name between 1 and 40 characters
Please enter your last name
Special characters aren’t allowed
Please enter a name between 1 and 40 characters
You must be over 18 years old to register
You must be over 18 years old to register
Opt-out-policy
You can opt-out at any time by signing in to your account to manage your preferences. Each email has a link to unsubscribe.

By clicking ‘Create my account’ you confirm that your data has been entered correctly and you have read and agree to our Terms of use, Cookie policy and Privacy notice.

This site is protected by reCAPTCHA and the Google Privacy policy and Terms of service apply.

Already have an account? sign in

By clicking ‘Register’ you confirm that your data has been entered correctly and you have read and agree to our Terms of use, Cookie policy and Privacy notice.

This site is protected by reCAPTCHA and the Google Privacy policy and Terms of service apply.

Register for free to continue reading

Registration is a free and easy way to support our truly independent journalism

By registering, you will also enjoy limited access to Premium articles, exclusive newsletters, commenting, and virtual events with our leading journalists

Already have an account? sign in

By clicking ‘Register’ you confirm that your data has been entered correctly and you have read and agree to our Terms of use, Cookie policy and Privacy notice.

This site is protected by reCAPTCHA and the Google Privacy policy and Terms of service apply.

Join our new commenting forum

Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies

Comments

Thank you for registering

Please refresh the page or navigate to another page on the site to be automatically logged inPlease refresh your browser to be logged in