The great lakes region of East Africa is renowned for its pristine beauty. Within it, lies the small, landlocked country of Burundi where its inhabitants; the Twa, Hutu and Tutsi people, lived in relative peace for centuries until the arrival of the colonists.
Colonial rule intensified social differences and even independence in 1962 did little to quell the tensions between the usually dominant Tutsi minority and the Hutu majority. With time, these tensions culminated in violent and bloody ethnic wars from which not a single civilian was exempt.
Born in the looming shadow of war
In 1985, on a day like any other, a little girl called Nouvelle was born in the capital city of Bujumbura, popularly known as Buju. Nouvelle remembers her parents as incredibly loving and kind. Her father had two wives. He had seven children with his first wife and and one child, Nouvelle, with the second. They were a large, happy family, with each member supporting the other. She remembers cooking in big pots, visiting her grandfather, feeling loved, happy and safe within the confines of her family.
Nouvelle’s mother was a nurse in the true sense of the word. She saw to the wellbeing of all people who sought her out, regardless of ethnic allegiances. In fact, Nouvelle’s father was Hutu and her mother was both Hutu and Tutsi – an interesting balancing act in a polarised society. Nouvelle’s parents made a point of instilling in her and her siblings a tolerance of all people amid a climate of extreme intolerance.
The year that everything changed
Nouvelle was classified as Hutu because her father was Hutu. She went to school in a neutral area attended by both Hutu and Tutsi children. Everyone got along at school but in 1993 everything changed. While some areas had always been predominantly Tutsi and others Hutu, with the onset of war there was an unspoken agreement that you didn’t cross ethno-geographic lines.
Friendships, families and communities were split. Everyone was suspicious. Even at school, break time became an invisible line with Hutus on one side and Tutsis on the other. The hatred, anger and fear wove through every aspect of Burundian society.
The streets were no longer recognisable. It wasn’t unusual to walk to school in the morning with the roads lined with the carnage of guns, machetes and the rocks used in the massacres of the night before. Every corner revealed fresh atrocities, some of which happened right in front of you in brought daylight. There was so much anger and hatred with one group intent on completely wiping out the other. It was overwhelming.
The stains of war stay forever
As a little girl and because of her parents, Nouvelle sensed that what was going on in her country, on her doorstep, wasn’t normal. She knew there had to be something better. Every building, every road, all that was and is still familiar to her became forever tainted with the horrors of what she had seen and would continue to replay over and over in her mind. There were so many instant orphans, homeless and destitute people. There were children at her school collapsing from hunger.
When the war ended in 2005, Nouvelle was a young woman, She was traumatized but strong and determined to make a better life for herself. She says:
“It’s not like reading a book when you imagine the characters and they linger in your mind. No. You live it everyday, all the time. This is real.”
Coming to Cape Town
Years of war had left the country in economic tatters. People put down their arms. Some of the perpetrators became contributing members of society, businessmen and priests even. People began to realise that the wars had never really been about ethnicity, but rather about greed, politics and power.
Still, she craved inner peace and because Zambia and Burundi share a lake, it was easy to go from the one country to the other, so she headed for Zambia and stayed for a year. She says:
“The war was over but passing by the places where it had happened … it was hard to be reminded constantly. It was almost impossible to replace these memories with something else. I had to go.”
Continuously treated like an outsider, and always reminded of being a foreigner, she decided to head to Cape Town, South Africa to stay with her aunt. On arrival, Nouvelle immediately set about carving out a life for herself. She didn’t want to rely on her aunt’s generosity and took a job working in a hair salon. The problem was that it gave her too much time to think and her mind wandered constantly to everything that had happened in Burundi.
Working with hair really was just a means to an end. She wanted to do something where she would be fully occupied, something that would keep her constantly busy. On her aunt’s recommendation, Nouvelle decided to try the hospitality industry where she would have little or no time to think about her gruesome past.
Joining a Cape Town restaurant
Nouvelle started off as a runner in a restaurant in the Cape Town suburbs. Even though she couldn’t communicate properly in English her boss recognised her enthusiasm, her willingness and her desire to be in the hospitality industry.
Within a short period she had learned the menu by heart, started studying English part-time at a refugee centre, and within a couple of months had applied for a waitressing position at an African restaurant. One of the chefs told her about another restaurant that employed people from all over Africa, some of whom spoke French and Swahili. So she carted herself and her CV off to GOLD Restaurant and had a life-altering interaction with Cindy, the owner.
That same day, Cindy asked Nouvelle to come back in the afternoon to meet her restaurant managers. Nouvelle was employed right then and there and started the following Monday. She says:
“For the first time in my life I was truly excited. I couldn’t wait. I immediately felt welcome.”
A passion for traditional African food
In 2011, Nouvelle enrolled for a part-time cooking course and spent three months in the GOLD kitchen learning how to prepare Cape Malay cuisine and traditional African food. In 2012, she left to learn other techniques, methods and dishes at The German Club. When she was offered the assistant chef position she realised two things. Firstly, she didn’t feel that her skill was quite yet at the level she demanded of herself and secondly, she was yearning to go back to GOLD Restaurant.
In August 2015, Nouvelle will have been with the GOLD Restaurant family for seven years. Being part of this very special team has opened her mind to the fact that she is not the only one who has suffered. All her colleagues at GOLD come with different stories and experiences from all over Africa. Cindy takes the time listen to us. She says:
“Every workplace has stress but there is something about Cindy that makes her special. She has a big love and gives equal parts of herself to each and every person here.”
Looking back at her life in Africa
Nouvelle says there has never really been any justice in her country. Burundi is behind Rwanda in that regard. She says:
“The Rwandan president said enough is enough. But perhaps forgiveness is the only thing that matters. Anything else might stir up another war.”
She maintains that if she walked the streets that are so familiar to her in Buju she could still identify neighbours and community members as some of the perpetrators who committed the atrocities. She can still see them, as they were when she was younger with weapons in their hands and hatred in their eyes. She says:
“One of the saddest aspects of the war is that it was often the women and the children who suffered most, the defenseless civilians, those who didn’t pick up weapons to fight.”
That said, Nouvelle is a strong woman. She has a true sense of who she is. While she will never forget what happened entirely she is working to forgive.
For many years Nouvelle thought of men as killers. As a little girl, that was her main frame of reference. In Cape Town she met a very special Congolese man. He changed her views on men and she married him recently.
Nouvelle is in love with him and the hospitality industry. If she hadn’t come to Cape Town, she says she wouldn’t have been able to deal with what she went through there. People who have visited Burundi often say it’s as though it is frozen in time. The war did that, but now there is hope, and not just for Nouvelle, that change is coming.