Amahoro —by Jinny Batterson
“Amahoro” is a traditional greeting in some of the languages of central Africa, where I lived about 30 years ago in Burundi’s capital city, Bujumbura. The greeting’s meaning is hard to translate, somewhere between “How are you?” and “Peace be with you.” The area’s two main ethnic groups, the Hutu and the Tutsi, have periodically been decimated by large-scale violence, the most infamous being the Rwandan genocide of 1994. Perhaps the best known chronicle of the area’s suffering and redemption is Tracy Kidder’s 2009 biography of “Deo,” a Burundian caught in the midst of violence in both Burundi and Rwanda who later finishes medical school in America and returns to his homeland to start a rural medical clinic. This poem (which a friend has since set to music) tells parts of the story of a neighbor who shared greetings and a garden with me there during a relatively peaceful time.
I greet you, ‘amahoro:’ I’ve now four children grown,
A pleasant life, a loving spouse, grandchildren of my own,
Yet always there’s a part of me that finds this world disjoint–
With help from friends and mentors, I have finally reached this point.
The culture that I come from reveres calm and reserve,
My husband paid three cows for me, a bride he well deserved,
We’ve traveled wide and deeply, global service was our choice
Long years since my young world collapsed, this story finds its voice.
When I was finishing lycée, our country, newly formed,
Drowned in a sea of violence, death came to seem the norm.
My father was a Hutu, my mom a Tutsi proud.
It took a lot of courage then to say their love out loud.
We had a family compound in the capital’s green hills.
My father was a doctor, among the highest skilled.
He left for work one morning, before the dawn’s first light.
The streets were filled with soldiers, he did not come home that night.
I’ve grown skeptical of labels, too often they divide,
They can mask our human failings and feed our human pride.
I’ve long since left my country, there life still for most is grim–
Where lots of blame and fighting mar the beauty born within.
My story’s one of many, still, it’s hard to find the tone
To share this tragicomedy with those who can’t have known
The hole losing my dad made for all he knew and loved–
We gather strength in what remains to conquer hate with love.