It’s approaching 10 on a warm Sunday morning in Bujumbura, Burundi’s lakeside capital. Women are heading towards the centre from all directions, walking in small groups to help sneak past the government roadblocks across the city.
Their secret target is Independence Square, where they’ll assemble to protest President Pierre Nkurunziza’s illegal attempt to seek a third term in office – a move which has triggered a wave of bloodshed that’s forced a quarter of a million into exile.
The clock strikes 10 just as the women-only group congregates near the statue of Burundi’s independence leader, Prince Louis Rwagasore. As the crowd swells into the hundreds, the security services realise what’s happening and descend on the square.
Their brutal reputation for cracking down on rallies instils nervousness among the protesters. And since some of Burundi’s most prominent women failed to show, the group lacks a clear leader.
Ketty Nivyabandi, a 37-year-old poet, realises that someone has to take charge. To stop her own hands shaking in fear, she calls out to the crowd to join arms and leads them in singing the national anthem.
As the police advance, she instructs the group to sit down with their arms raised in passive resistance.
Ketty’s writing, which has appeared in the likes of World Literature Today, had always been socially engaged but never quite political.
That changed when she joined Twitter, where her eloquent commentary on President Nkurunziza’s power-grab made her a central figure in Burundi’s peaceful resistance.
“I initiated and organised the march but I never intended to be a leader,” Ketty explains.
“A lot of the time we were extremely afraid, but you make the choice not to let fear win. What you are fighting for, what you believe in must be stronger than what you’re afraid of. I felt like I was immunised against fear that day.”Three days later, on May 13, 2015, Ketty helped organise another protest. Even more people came out into the streets and succeeded in locking down the centre of town – but this time it was repressed with tear gas, water cannons and rubber bullets.
As Ketty sheltered from police fire in a petrol station with other protestors, they learned that a coup had been launched against Nkurunziza.
When it failed, he responded with increasingly violent crackdowns on opposition – targets both real and perceived – which forced Ketty to flee for her life.
After going into hiding for several days, Ketty was smuggled through the roadblocks around Bujumbura in an expatriate’s car, then she drove to the Rwandan border.
“I looked back at the sign that said ‘Welcome to Burundi’ and I wept,” Ketty remembers. “I just couldn’t believe I was no longer welcome in my own country.”
She sought sanctuary in Kigali, where she was reunited with her children, before moving on to Kenya together and finally claiming asylum in Canada.
Since her departure, Burundi has slipped even further into chaos: death-squads have attacked opposition neighbourhoods; desertions from the army are wearing down its ability to maintain security; the government has begun spouting the same divisive ethnic rhetoric that sparked genocide in previous decades.
Speaking from her new base in Calgary, Ketty explains that her role as an exiled artist is to bear witness, raise international awareness and respond to the government’s hate and negativity with light and hope.“Being silent was never an option,” she says. “I feel lucky to have left with my life, so I have a duty to keep raising my voice and speaking for those who are not able to be heard. But I don’t want to just talk about the horrors that are happening.
“The only way to dispel darkness is with light. I try to voice that through art, with poetic tweets or short poems, to paint a picture of what is really happening to human beings – beyond the numbers, beyond the appalling news.”
Ketty calls out the “disgusting” lack of response from the international community, who have so far done little to stop Nkurunziza’s violence. No sanctions have been implemented, no peacekeeping forces deployed. He still chairs committees at the UN and African Union.
If an unstable person tries to take over a bus and crash it into a wall, Ketty says, there are mechanisms in place to prevent that from happening.
Yet if a head of state attempts to run a nation into the ground, it seems impossible to stop – even though the impact is much greater. It can feel like the whole situation is written off as just more bloodshed in a small country most people have never heard of.
But Ketty knows that small matters; that every single voice counts. “Ultimately, I think the way out resides with Burundians,” she says, exasperated.
“The damage that is being done to people – this climate of fear and the feeling that you cannot express yourself – that’s what needs to be broken. That’s the real enemy.
“What really interests me is breaking the fear that stops human beings from defending what is theirs. That’s where I think hope is.
“If each human being was aware of their worth, and was not willing to let anyone step on that, leaders like Nkurunziza would never get to where they are. If we have that inner freedom, then the problem of such tyrants will easily subside.”