You Don’t Know Anything, Try to Learn Something: Reflecting on My Time in Burundi

Story by Peter Vaselkiv

On my flight to Bujumbura, I had so many things going around in my head I was almost numb from trying to figure out what to expect. Looking back on my time in Burundi, it occurs to me now that trying to frame something before having feet on the ground is counterproductive. I am now convinced that the entirety of time spent abroad can be shaped by what you hear beforehand and subconsciously prohibit you from fully investing in a rare opportunity. My experience was uniquely mine, something I think few people afford themselves the chance to participate in. Over the span of four months I felt scared, confident, lonely, embraced, awkward, welcome and most importantly- uncomfortable.

To get a better understanding of where I was, let’s back up to Burundi in 2015. After serving two terms, President Pierre Nkurunziza decided he would run for an unconstitutional third mandate (unsurprisingly enough, he won). Political leanings aside, citizens were furious because they felt the democracy they worked so hard, and lost so much for had been violated. The consequence of the President’s decision was rebellion and violence that brought Burundi to the brink of civil war, creating problems that still exist today.

I landed in the tiny Bujumbura airport two weeks before the “election.” I was traveling with an entrepreneur named Dan (who would later become a dear friend and one of my few inspirations) who was starting an energy company. He had lived in Burundi for several years during his childhood, so he had a pretty strong grasp on the language. The first time I heard people speaking the local tongue, Dan and an airport security guard were pointing at me and exchanging what seemed like heated words. Dan later explained that after he ensured the guard we weren’t with an intelligence agency, he had to convince him we weren’t crazy. Why would a Mzungo want to be in Bujumbura during a rebellion if he wasn’t a spy or psychotic? The paranoia that surrounded me in that moment felt so tangible I could almost reach out and touch it. It took all of three days for me to realize that caution was necessary- but I had no need to be paranoid.

What followed were some of the most challenging and extraordinary times of my life. Rather than tell you every little detail of my experience (it might be yours someday, I don’t want to spoil it) I will try to frame what I learned in a few paragraphs, at least what seems most important.

Number one: you don’t know who you are until you are surrounded by strangeness. On so many occasions I learned something about myself by making decisions in situations I had never been in. It’s easy to “know” yourself in a routine, but who are you when the circumstances change? Giving yourself the opportunity to react in unbeknownst settings allows you to identify pieces of your being that you didn’t know were there. If you ever get the privilege of doing something like I did, write down what you discovered about yourself- its amazingly easy to forget once your back in your comfort zone.

Number two: don’t reject an opportunity because you’re not sure how it will play out. Before I went to Burundi, I spent so much of my life being anxious and I missed so many opportunities because I was scared they would go poorly. Sure, things could go terribly and you could fall into a heap of humiliation. But honestly, how often does that really happen? Chances are things will go well and you will have a great time. Don’t waste your life fretting over worst-case scenarios that are probably impossibly unlikely in the first place.

Number three: I don’t ever want to hear someone come back from a trip and say “wow, it’s amazing, they have so little, yet they are so happy.” Assuming someone’s joy is related to a lack of possessions is essentially the same as saying, “People who have more than others are miserable.” The notion inherently gives materialism the power people so desperately want to take away from it. Just because someone is happy doesn’t mean they wouldn’t want the security of having food, water, a roof over their head. Maybe the people I had the honor of getting to know in Burundi seemed happier because they understand the value of family and the blessing of being alive. Inherently, when people describe this situation, the subjects of the debate have significantly less privilege. Maybe these people are happier because their experiences have exposed what is really important, and what is actually worth being upset over. Don’t waste time being unhappy about petty things- common traps we can all fall into, while studying in America.

I can’t possibly fit all the good, bad and everything in between from my time in Burundi in the columns of these pages. What I can do is encourage everyone to go out, make an experience for themselves and let the knowledge present itself- don’t create it beforehand. Make friends (it’s amazing how close you can get to someone without speaking a word of their language), take risks, do something that scares you and try your best to carry it with you long after. It’s remarkable how often I am reminded about my time in Burundi through mundane things, especially in the classroom. If there is one thing I want people to know it’s that I am enormously grateful for those four months and I hope anyone reading this can have a moment that is as impactful.