Review: Baho! by Roland Rugero

It’s hard to believe that there has never been a Burundian novel translated into English before. But the good people at Phoneme Media thankfully decided to change that and published “Baho!” by Burundian author Roland Rugero earlier this year: a spare, slim novel exploring how one small miscommunication can result in a community turning against one of their own. More of a fable than a traditional novel, “Baho!” is a cautionary tale perfect for these divisive, politically fraught times, challenging us to take a step back from the mob and consider both how did we get here, and how can we stop?

Nyamugari is an adolescent mute from a small, fictional village in rural Burundi; a silent, quirky young man who loves food and spending time in the company of other community members — particularly since his parents were murdered. When he attempts to ask a young woman for directions to the latrines, she mistakes his gestures as an attempted rape. The villagers, weary from a series of unsolved rapes as well as a drought, quickly pin their pent up frustrations on Nyamugari and chase him into the hills.

Nyamugari transforms, with terrifying ease, from a neighbor and friend into a scapegoat. If he were killed, the mob leader chants, it would rain. If he were killed, their women would be safe.

A beautifully written work with a remarkable twist, Rugero’s powerful message is just as at home here in the United States as it is in Burundi. And while his spare, clean language results in a remarkable story, the structure of Rugero’s tale also deserves attention, as the shifting point of view and sometimes repetitive nature remains faithful to traditional Burundian conversation styles.

There is one important aspect of Burundian culture Rugero chooses to omit from his narrative: characters are never identified as Hutu, Tutsi, or Twa; rather the focus remains on the actions and internal debates of both main and side characters alike. This omission, coupled with the fictional rural location, results in a universal feel, reminding us that situations like this can — and do — happen everywhere.