Translators are faced with the difficult task of reconstructing meaning across languages and cultures. Christopher Schaefer undertakes this task in Baho!, Roland Rugero’s second novel (originally published in French) and also, according to the publisher, the first novel from Burundi to be translated into English.
Baho! puts the spotlight on the people of Hariho, in the fictional region of Kanya in Burundi, who, after a war, now grapple with its fallouts: barren lands, drought, rape menace, anger and fear.
In comes 26-year-old Nyamuragi. A mute and an orphan who unwittingly puts himself in a difficult position when his plea for help is misunderstood as an attempt to rape a young girl. Due to his defect in speech, Nyamuragi is unable to explain himself out of trouble, and on their part, the people of Hariho are in no mood for explanations. Nyamuragi is seized after a brief chase, beaten, and a verdict is quickly reached by the mob: he is to die by hanging!
Interestingly, as if a justification, Nyamuragi’s imminent demise is elevated to the symbolic.
Interestingly, as if a justification, Nyamuragi’s imminent demise is elevated to the symbolic. The people, “overheated with anger and thirsty for rain”, are in one accordance with the mob leader, Jonathan, who decrees that Nyamuragi’s death will not only serve as warning to potential rapists, but also as a ‘sacrifice’ to appease the supernatural forces who will look down on the people with kindness and return their lives back to normal. Nyamuragi is suddenly both scapegoat and Messiah.
But Baho! isn’t all about Nyamuragi. There are other characters who make the book a memorable one: the unnamed one-eyed old woman who provides valuable insight into the lives of the Hariho people; the mob leader, Jonathan, who interestingly has a card up his sleeves; Corneille Mugabo, lover of worldy pleasures; and Inabwiza and her father, both slaves to love.
Humour is one of the book’s strong points, it lurks in the prose and jumps at you when you least expect. For instance:
“The silence was broken, but this time, by the sound of feet trampling down the slope of Kanya as dozens hurtled to safety. They did not know who had fired or who was firing. But that was to be determined later!” (Pg. 77)
Flashbacks are also employed as the reader is pulled from the present to the past, either to illuminate the occurrences of the present or as stories in themelves. And there’s the sprinkling of local terms like urwarwa, intangos, mupfumu, etc. that pulls one into the rustic and communal life of the Hariho people.
The only setback in Baho! is the sometimes confusing shift in points of view. Christopher Schaefer addresses this in his Translator’s Note when he said he sought explanation for this from the author and Rugero told him that “Burundians will often overwhelm their conversation partners with a barrage of sometimes contradictory information.”
Rugero and Schaefer have done a good job birthing Baho! in the English Language and I’m certain someone has less headache now. Right, Schaefer?