Burundi’s Secret Language

The indigenous language of Burundi has a surprising secret – it has a hidden code which not every Kirundi speaker can decipher. Burundian-born translator Cédrick Irakoze shares his insider knowledge of the language, including why it’s a compliment to compare a woman to a cow!

Many Kirundi speakers have a secret way of communicating with their friends and family.

Burundi-based translator Cédrick Irakoze explains: “There’s a kind of codified language that is used by Burundian friends talking among themselves which hides the meaning of what they are saying from people who don’t belong to their specific group. Interestingly, it’s not the Kirundi words themselves that are different, just the meaning.”

For instance, he says:

  • Friends having a drink together in a bar may say ‘reka turahire’, which literally means, ‘let’s take an oath’. But what they really mean is ‘let’s order/eat a steak’.
  • If I want to send a message through a third party reminding someone called Joseph that he owes me money and I don’t want the messenger to know, I tell the messenger, ‘urambwirira Joseph uti uramubarira ya nkuru’. This literally means ‘please say to Joseph to tell me that story’. When Joseph hears about the message, he’ll understand that I’m asking for my money back.
  • When a mother sends a kid to a shop to buy something she urgently needs, she may say, ‘genda uhereyo’, literally meaning ‘go and never come back’ or ‘go and spend ages’. A Burundian child would instantly know that they had been warned to return as fast as they can!
  • To say goodbye to a friend or relative at night, Burundians say, ‘turaye hamwe’, which literally means ‘we stay together’, even though they will be going their separate ways to separate places.

Cédrick speculates that the codified language may have developed because, in the past, there were frictions between different social groups who lived side by side in Burundi.

“There have been times when people who are not in good relations with each other, according to their social group, have had to live in the same places using the same language,” he explains. “But, by using codified language, they were able to connect with their friends without letting others understand the meaning of what they were saying.”

Cédrick, who co-founded Rundi Language Hub, a translation and interpreting company based out of Bujumbura, Burundi, also hypothesises that the codified language may even date back to the former Kingdom of Burundi (1680-1966), whose territories included modern-day Burundi.

“Even in the Kingdom of Burundi there were social classes, and people with different responsibilities were not allowed to be familiar with each other,” he says.

“But – nowadays – codified language is much more to do with close relationships than with social groups. People from different groups are going together, studying together, and doing business together,” he concludes approvingly.

A compliment of cows

Kirundi is one of three official languages of Burundi; the others are French, which is spoken in schools and administrative settings, and English, which is spoken primarily by academics.

But it is Kirundi that is spoken by the majority of people in Burundi. And, as the country’s economy is reliant on farming, it follows that cows have a special place in the local language and culture.

For instance, the expression ‘have cows and children’ (‘urakagira inka n’ibibondo’) means that you are wishing someone good fortune. (Although, if a woman is past child-bearing age, this comment would be considered inappropriate.)

If someone is called ‘a cow in a field’ (‘inka n’imirima’), it means they are even-tempered and have good judgement.

If you say to a woman ‘you have eyes like a calf’ (‘ufise amaso y’inyana’), you are complimenting her on her beauty. In fact, in a traditional wedding service, the bride is also called ‘a cow’ (‘inka’) because she is beautiful and of great beauty.

Cédrick explains: “Cows represent financial value and are also highly regarded culturally. They are traditionally given as a bride price and in the dowry ceremony, people say they come to ask for an ‘inka’, meaning the bride.

“The idea of beauty is also linked to a ‘calf’s eyes’; they are very beautiful and telling a female partner she has ‘eyes like a calf’ really counts as appreciation or a compliment here. Also, for dowry, people who offer cows as a bride price don’t offer just any cow – they can’t give a male cow or an old cow, they give a female calf or something slightly older than that,” he adds.

The friendliest country in the world?

Cédrick, who lives in Birundi’s largest city, Bujumbura, and whose parents are teachers, grew up speaking Kirundi and French from birth. He has since learnt English, Kinyarwanda (spoken in neighbouring Rwanda and mutually intelligible with Kirundi), and some Swahili. He is also learning Arabic and German.

Yet, despite travelling widely in his job as a translator, he has yet to find anywhere as friendly as his home country.

“In Burundi, it is very much encouraged to say ‘good morning’ or ‘hi’ (‘mwaramutse’ or ‘amahoro’) if you meet someone, even if you don’t know them, and if you don’t do that, it’s not good,” he explains. “But when I first went abroad, it was strange for me, because people didn’t do that and were just passing by, minding their own business without seeming to care.”

Being sociable is part of Burundians’ nature, he says. There’s even an expression in Kirundi describing how friends like to chat over food or drink, which translates as ‘ants talk while on a bone’ (‘ubunyegeri buyagira kwi gufa’).

Cédrick explains that the words ‘turi kumwe’ (‘we are together’) also have a deeper meaning than a simple ‘goodbye’.

“It’s an emotional thing – the words describe how you can feel a person is around and share a sense of unity with them, even when they’re not there,” Cédrick says. “In the same way there is a belief that a mother can sense when her little baby is not feeling well or is hungry even when they are not in the same place.”

While, if a friend on a different continent has lost a loved one, he said, “You would say ‘we are together with you in these trying moments and share what you are feeling.” (‘Turi kumwe nawe muri ibi bihe bigoye.’)

And being a good neighbour is highly valued, as expressed in the saying, ‘umubanyi niwe muryango’ (‘a neighbour is the true family’).

“This is because neighbours can watch out for each other and be the first to intervene if something bad happens to you, while distant family members may delay,” Cédrick points out.

While the Kirundi saying ‘out of sight out doesn’t mean out of mind’ (‘kure y’amaso si kure y’umutima’) shows that friends are never forgotten, even when far apart.

Translators Without Borders

A sense of friendship and community is very important to Burundians and one of the things Cédrick is most proud of is how he and his colleagues have volunteered their translation skills to help humanitarian efforts.

Much of this work, undertaken when they were university students, has been for the non-profit organisation Translators Without Borders (TWB – now CLEAR Global), which aims to ‘close the language gaps that hinder critical humanitarian efforts worldwide’.

Cédrick’s own role with TWB was as a recruitment intern responsible for liaising with a worldwide pool of translators to support victims of:

  • Ebola in the Democratic Republic of Congo
  • Cyclone Idai in Malawi, Mozambique, and Zimbabwe
  • The Rohingya refugee crisis in Myanmar

He also helped translate TWB education materials for Burundian refugee children abroad and worked for the East African Interpreters and Translation Society to promote publich health messages about Covid-19.

He says: “I was proud of how hard it was for me and my team to work on the documents, sometimes borrowing laptops and internet at the same time as writing our university exams […] Totally for free because we believed in the cause […] To help someone else access basic needs like public health awareness or education, it has no cost!”

Fittingly, there are two closely-linked Kirundi sayings that express the same sentiment: ‘ndagupfuka nkipfukura’, and ‘ndagukwikira nkirotsa’, which literally mean, ‘I cover you and stay naked’, and ‘I give you a shoe to wear, but my feet are bare’.

According to TWB’s website, there is a shortage of translators working in English to Kirundi so the volunteer team’s work was particularly appreciated.

Since leaving university, Cédrick has set up the Rundi Language Hub translation agency in Bujumbara with two of his friends. One of their driving forces, he says, was the fact that, “Kirundi has no presence online and technology was like a fairy tale to Burundian linguists.”

The agency is now carrying out translation and interpretation projects, as well as doing linguistic research.

How difficult is it to learn Kirundi?

Cédrick, who acts as a translator and guide to people visiting the country, says Kirundi is a “very easy language to learn”, although different nationalities have different learning experiences.

English speakers, he says, can struggle with some of the consonant clusters that don’t exist in their language – like ‘cw’, ‘pf’, ‘mbw’, and ‘mvy’ – but most would be able to understand the spoken language after around six months.

Chinese speakers, on the other hand, find the language quite hard, but Japanese speakers have an uncanny knack for it.

“The way Japanese is spoken, the tongue is just like Kirundi,” Cédrick says. “If you can’t see them, you think this may be a Burundian speaking!”

Incidentally, he continues, the prefix ‘ki’ in Kirundi – and most other Bantu languages – means ‘the’ and although Kirundi is known by the name ‘Rundi’, Rundi is more commonly used by linguists and Westerners.

Bantu languages, he says, tend to be mutually intelligible to some degree.

“With Chichewa I do not understand everything, but I might grasp some words of what they’re saying. And, even thought I don’t speak Luganda, if someone who did got lost, I think I could help up to a point,” Cédrick explains.

This interconnectedness is particularly helpful between Kinyarwanda and Kirundi, as the language on Cédrick’s smartphone is set to Kinyarwanda – it doesn’t support Kirundi.

“I set my phone to Kinyarwanda when I want to type in Kirundi. Otherwise, the keyboard remains in English,” Cédrick explains.

Which languages have influenced Kirundi?

Although the two languages you need most to get around in Burundi are Kirundi and French, there are also places where Swahili is spoken, particularly in commercial settings.

Burundi has a legacy of French-derived words because it was a French speaking Belgian colony between 1916 and 1962.

Swahili, on the other hand, is a lingua franca across East Africa. The word ‘Swahili’ derives from the Arabic word سَوَاحِلِىّ (sawāḥilī) meaning ‘of the coast’ because the language evolved from the contact of Arabian traders with the inhabitants of the east coast of Africa.

A handful of Kirundi words were even introduced into the language by English missionaries.

These linguistic influences can be seen in Kirundi words such as:

  • ‘Ishati’ (shirt) and ‘uburengeti’ (blanket) are derived from English.
  • ‘Ikawa’ (coffee) and ‘ikaramu’ (pen) are derived from the Arabic words ‘quahua’ and ‘qalam’.
  • ‘Ifurusheti’ (fork) is derived from the French word ‘fourchette’.
  • ‘Ikiyiko’ (spoon) comes from the Swahili word ‘kijiko’.

The Kirundi word ‘ingoma’ – meaning drum – is fascinating in its own right because it also means ‘kingdom’. The two words are synonymous for a reason.

Cédrick explains: “Drums were historically owned by a king or someone very highly ranked in the kingdom. They could only be beaten on important national days or when a prestigious person visited from another country or culture. So, they were considered a symbol of the power of the kingdom under the monarchy.”

Depending on where Cédrick is in the country, he will variously speak in Kirundi, Swahili or French when he goes into a local shop. But Kirundi is the most widely spoken tongue, particularly in rural areas.

Interestingly, the Kirundi (and Kinyarwanda) word ‘ejo’ can mean ‘tomorrow’ or ‘yesterday’, depending on context.

For example, ‘I will come tomorrow’ is ‘nzoza ejo’ in Kirundi and ‘nzaza ejo’ in Kinyarwanda; while ‘I came yesterday’ is ‘naje ejo’ both in Kirundi and Kinyarwanda.

And, in common with other languages found near the equator, both Kirundi and Kinyarwanda share a different way of telling the time.

Instead of the new day starting at midnight, the day starts at six in the morning. So, what Westerners would call seven o’clock is one o’clock in Burundi because it’s the first hour of the day. Eight o’clock is two o’clock – the second hour – and so on.

“In both Kirundi and Kinyarwanda, we both count one at 7am,” confirms Cédrick. “However, the date changes at midnight as elsewhere.”

Burundi is a melting pot of different languages and cultures.

Although French is the only non-indigenous African language to be routinely understood by urban dwellers, people in the cities are also learning a diverse range of languages. For example, in Ngozi, in the north of the country, there is an institute that teaches Spanish. In Bujumbura, there are many colleges teaching Chinese and there is an institute teaching German.

Start learning Kirundi!

If anyone is interested in beginner’s Kirundi, here at uTalk, we have just added the language to our app, which will help you learn how to pronounce and recognise useful words and phrases.

Cédrick says: “The app will definitely be helpful for people starting out in the language and the pronunciation is authentic. I’ll be recommending it to my friends.”

As well as helping people learn Kirundi, it will also help Kirundi speakers learn key words and phrases in any of over 150 other languages, with a translation given in their own language. Learning English in particular, Cédrick says, can be very helpful for Burundians.

“A lack of knowledge of the English language is a barrier to a lot of opportunities,” he explains. “Burundians are left behind when it comes to applying for prestigious scholarships or business grants because the majority can only do that in French, which no longer offers as much exposure. But, gradually, people are learning English and it is a medium of instruction at some higher education institutions here. There’s no doubt some progress.”

No matter which language we all speak and regardless of the codified language some Kirundi speakers might use, there’s always a new one emerging!

Today, millennials in Burundi are developing their own jargon and, because many Burundians typically know more than one language, they’re also code switching or jumping from language to language.

“It’s common everywhere – millennials are code switching in the same sentence because they know words in French, Kirundi, English, and Swahili. Somebody born in the 1950s would be lost!” Cédrick adds.

When it comes to languages, there’s also always more to learn and, when uTalk speaks to him, Cédrick is about to go on a week-long study trip to the Kirundi countryside to research the history of Kirundi for a book.

And, as we say goodbye, he pays us the privilege of signing off with the words ‘we stay together’ – ‘turaye hamwe’.

Interested in visiting Burundi?

Here are four things Cédrick, whose translation house provides tour guide services, recommends:

The weather

“Burundi is a beautifully weather friendly country. It is never too hot or too cold. I’ve been to countries where some parts of the year are difficult, but here it’s just like summer all the time.”

Try saying ‘hari izuba’ (it’s summer) – find it in uTalk’s Outdoors topic.

The coffee

“Our coffee is also wonderful… it has been winning recognition around the world. It tastes unique and the aroma is super!”

To say ‘I’d like a coffee, please’, you say, ‘Nipfuza ikawa, mugabo’ – find it in uTalk’s First Words topic.

Local cuisine

“We have a wonderful cuisine, particularly a variety of fish called ‘mukeke’, which are only found in Lake Taganyika. The fish is so sweet, and Westerners love it when they come here.”

Perhaps the phrase ‘urashobora kunyongera?’ (‘could I have some more?’) from uTalk’s Restaurant topic would come in handy.

The drums

“Every visitor wants to watch the drummers perform and, afterwards, they always want to go back and watch them again. They are phenomenal.”

Les Tambourinaires du Burundi (musicians from Burundi who play a type of drum called a tambourin and a type of flute called a galoubet) are in uTalk’s Burundi topic, which includes words and phrases that are specific to Burundian culture.

Learn more about Burundi’s drums in this article Cédrick wrote in 2021.

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