Written by Clare O’Shannessy
I had awoken to an alarm that morning and donned an African head scarf as I left for the Burundian Independence Day celebrations. I swiftly made my way to the South Melbourne Town Hall. Upon arrival I asked a friend as to when I could expect the proceedings to begin. His answer was simple, ‘Oh we’re on African time now buddy’.
And from that moment on I knew I was going to experience an afternoon of warmth and camaraderie played to a festive beat on that day of celebration in July.
A spirited young African man takes to the stage to address the Burundian people and their friends. He is the leader, the President of the Australian Burundian Community of Victoria, Mr Fablice Manirakiza.
At the age of 21 years, Fablice has spent the last 7 of those in Australia. Although he still considers Burundi to be his homeland, he gladly sings the Australian National Anthem and the Burundian National Anthem while both flags are displayed with him on stage, side by side, prominent and proud.
When I asked Fablice’s nephew and second half of their hip hop duo, FLYBZ, Young G-Storm about his perception of his president, he said he saw him as a ‘big brother’.
He also said that Fablice has lots of ‘patience and potential’ in the mature way he conducts himself in his elected position. And, as Young G quite simply said, he ‘promotes love’.
Such great responsibility may be difficult for the average man of Fablice’s age however Fablice is no average young man.
Growing up in Burundi, he was orphaned at age 8 and forced into a battle of which he did not choose, becoming a child soldier at 11 years.
One day when he was in school the rebel army came and took him along with the other tall boys, giving them a bag of rice, a gun and some pellets thus declaring them child soldiers.
Luckily he escaped after a few weeks and made it to a refugee camp.
Since arriving in Australia he has collectively formed FLYBZ and works part time. He works under a scholarship at Multicultural Arts Victoria and studies International Business at RMIT University.
He is a very busy, happy man living a balanced life. Or in his own words from the FLYBZ song Child Soldier, featuring Paul Kelly, ‘my life is a wonder, because I have found the freedom in a land down under’.
Fablice works hard in his role. He could be seen throughout the day’s merriment engaging with many of the performers while they were on stage and directing them behind the scenes.
He was rapping with Young G, leading the drummers in a ceremonial extravaganza, joining the Black Roots band and dancing along with a female dancing duo too. He is a man of many talents.
However it was the males drumming that shone through as the brightest performance of the day.
From my front row position, I watched the men huddled at the back of the stage. They then crouched behind their massive hand-painted, home-made drums. Fablice was the centre of attention, positioned centre front holding two wooden drum sticks, arms poised, waiting.
There was a silent moment, a pause for effect. And then with the first strike of the drums they ignited!
They wore their national colours of red, green and white; surging as sweat glistened on the Burundian drummers exerting all their power into the resounding rhythm of those iconic drums.
There was a rotation of drummers as they moved amongst themselves. Some advanced to the front of the stage cracking their sticks and revving themselves up.
Then all at once the drumming builds and the men shout as those at the front jump and thrust their hands and feet away from their body in a synchronised movement. This happens many times with different jumpers, different drummers and different rhythms.
Eventually Fablice makes the call for the closing sequence and the crowd are left applauding in awe.
Although the men may have energised and invigorated the crowd it was the women who brought flow and elegance to the audience.
Women play very important roles in the Burundian community as well. Evelyn Mibura, a senior female member, was described by her son, Young G, as ‘an important person in the (Burundian) community… a director, a mentor’. She was ‘so proud of the women’ at their Independence Day celebration.
Her contribution and preparation for the day went far beyond caring for her immediate family. She directed the women’s dance group in rehearsals and performance, and could be seen encouraging them and keeping the beat by clapping in time.
She was also one of the main cooks for the day’s special Burundian feast which was delicious!
There were delights for all the senses and the aroma of spices filled that bustling room. People queued and their eagerness to try the food was only overtaken by their genuine compliments later passed between diners.
Evelyn stood out as a great role model for the young members of the Burundian community and all who attended.
As the day wound down and the performances passed the harmony and connectedness grew and blossomed.
Fablice sang a final song in the Kirundi language and I got up and danced with all the other enchanted celebrators feeling a part of something that goes beyond the tangible. A new friendship had been nurtured.
When asked what kind of impression he wanted non Burundian people to get from the day, MC Belthrand Habiyakare said he ‘hopes that through the songs, through the music, through the enthusiasm … people got an idea of what Burundi (is) and all the circumstances Burundi has gone through’.