The Tears of a Man Flow Inward

Growing Up in the Civil War in Burundi

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A prizewinning young author tells the moving story of growing up during Burundi’s ethnic civil war in this powerful memoir hailed as “a jewel of a book” (Margaret MacMillan).

“There’s nothing like a great love song, and Pacifique Irankunda sings a beautiful one here to his homeland and to all those who choose love even in the bleakest of times.”—Imbolo Mbue, author of Behold the Dreamers and How Beautiful We Were

Pacifique Irankunda’s childhood in Burundi was marked by a thirteen-year civil war—a grueling struggle that destroyed his home, upended his family, and devastated his country’s beautiful culture. As young boys, Paci and his brother slept in the woods on nights when the shooting and violence grew too intense; they hid in tall grass and watched as military units rolled in and leveled their village. Paci’s extraordinary mother, one of the many inspiring beacons of light in this book, led her children—and others in the village—in ingenious acts of resilience through her indomitable kindness and compassion, even toward the soldiers who threatened their lives.

Drawing on his own memories and those of his family, Paci tells a story of survival in a country whose rich traditions were lost to the ravages of colonialism and ethnic strife.

Written in moving, lyrical prose, The Tears of a Man Flow Inward gives us an illuminating window into what it means to come of age in dark times, and an example of how, even in the midst of uncertainty, violence, and despair, light can almost always be found.

Under the Cover

An excerpt from The Tears of a Man Flow Inward


I find it hard to look back to Burundi, because I have always tried to look ahead. Always. Even as I think these words, looking out my window in Brooklyn, I realize I am nevertheless looking back.
I live in a spacious apartment, with six windows facing the water of New York Harbor. It is on the top oor of an apartment building so large it occupies the entire block between Shore Road and Narrows Avenue, next to the Verrazano Bridge. Below Shore Road lies the Belt Parkway. And below the Belt lies the Shore Promenade, and then the harbor, and across the harbor, Staten Island. I like to sit by my living room window, six feet wide, and gaze at the view. I gaze at it every day of the year, and not once have I tired of it.

When I lower my eyes, I look at a rose garden and water fountains and trees, and when I lift my eyes, I watch cruise and cargo ships pass by. These ships are enormous, and they come from all over the world—from Europe, Asia, Africa, Australia, and the Caribbean—bringing people and merchandise to New York. Local ferries and small boats and yachts go by faster than the great ships, which move slowly toward the harbor and slowly seaward toward the Narrows. Every cruise ship that passes grabs my attention. When there are no boats or ships out there, I nd myself gazing long and longingly at a distant view. Instead of New York Harbor I see a view from the hilltop in Kigutu, my native village in Burundi.

I look out over Lake Tanganyika—the world’s longest lake and second deepest—toward the peninsula of Ubwari, in the dark mountains of eastern Congo. I stare at the distant view and begin to journey back in thought. Then a cruise ship passes in front of me, grabs my attention, brings me back to Brooklyn, and makes me realize, as if awakened from a dream, that I was looking back. And I hear a voice stored somewhere in my mind, telling me not to look back.

It is the voice of my brother Honoré, telling me, as if I’d never heard it before, the story of Lot’s wife, who looked back and turned into a pillar of salt. Hearing Honoré’s voice in my mind takes me right back to Burundi, when I returned there during my winter break from Williams College. I still see the image of Honoré, standing in the yellow savanna grass dotted with small eucalyptus. He is telling me not to look back.

Years before, our mother, Maman Clémence, had given me the same advice more gently, saying to always look ahead. However, my older brother drilled “don’t look back” into my psyche, so much so that it has disturbed me, causing a mixed effect: neither steadily looking ahead nor daring to fully look back, as if I have become a pillar of salt. Vladimir Nabokov wrote in Speak, Memory that time is a prison, and I sometimes feel as if I am one of its inmates.

I find it hard to look back because most of what I see when I look back is painful. One doctrine of Western psychology has long held that the cure for the pain of memory is a return to the past itself. Burundian cul- ture holds an opposite view. I now realize that each approach has its own wisdom. But for me the past is inescapable.

In the late afternoon, the view from my window in Brooklyn brings me a feeling of peace, which reminds me of looking after cows. I liked to sit at the hilltop and watch the view of Lake Tanganyika while watching my family cows. I would gaze at the water in the lake and then gaze at the cows grazing.

I didn’t know then that the cows of Burundi were unusual, because I didn’t know that there were other kinds of cows. Ours were tall and long-legged and had enormous horns that could reach a span of ten feet from tip to tip, rising like cathedral arches above their peaceful-looking faces. They were called inyambo, and they were the most ancient of domesticated cattle, descendants of the biblical ox. Historians claim that these cows were present in the Nile Valley some four thousand years before historic times. Drawings of them were found on cave walls and ancient Egyptian monuments. Inyambo were known as the Cattle of Kings, although ordinary people owned them. One of my siblings had named himself Beninka, which means, literally, To Whom the Cows Belong; and my father was named Buhembe, the name of their long horns. Out of those long horns people made trumpets called inzamba. When I am asleep in Brooklyn, I sometimes hear a foghorn from departing cruise ships in New York Harbor; it makes a beautiful sound in the night, sad and distant, and it always makes me think of trumpets, of war, and of ancient times.
Like a person, my country had a name and a surname. If in bureaucratic American English I am “Irankunda, Pacifique,” then my country is “Burundi, Milk and Honey.” In the past, there had always been plenty of milk and excellent honey there. Beekeeping and the uses of honey had a place of importance in my country’s traditions, and so did cows and their milk. As a child, I assumed this was my country’s real name. Had I been asked, at that time, where I came from, I would have innocently said, “Milk and Honey.”

That country no longer exists. It was the old Burundi, a country of storytellers, of people who invented myths and systems of justice and a set of traditions that had become folklore. Cows were a living relic of this old time, and in my family they were still treated and loved the way they had always been in the time of kings. Imana, God, was often referred to as “the creator of cows and children”—the two most adorable, precious gifts from Imana. When expressing shock or an exciting surprise, some Burundians invoked Imana, saying Yampaye inka we—“God who gave me cows!” In many ways, our cows were part of our family. Each new one was named at birth. Some were named after kings. It didn’t matter that they were female. I remember we had a cow named Mwambutsa, named for one of Burundi’s kings, and every single one of her children and their descendants were also named Mwambutsa. We had another cow named Bwami, literally the Kingdom, and every one of her descendants was also named Bwami. Some of our family cows had names used in philosophical discourse—for instance, Jambo (the Word). Some had celestial names. I remember Juru (the Heavens), Zuba (the Sun), Gicu (the Sky), and Kwezi (the Moon). We had a very sweet-tempered cow named Buki—Honey. Other cows were named for their beauty, such as Kirezi—Pearl. She was indeed beautiful, but what im- pressed me most was her sense of fairness.

Pearl grew up an orphan. I remember my brother Asvelt telling me the story of how she lost her mother when she was still a baby and had to be nursed by another cow named Maza. Pearl eventually grew up and gave birth to her own baby. Around the same time, another cow named Ndava fell sick and couldn’t nurse her calf. Pearl accepted this calf and nursed her as her own. At milking time, we’d let the calves out, one by one, and would escort each calf to the kraal where the mothers awaited. They were protective of their babies and would compete in lowing, and would push each other and even the calves of other cows, forcing their way to their own calves. But Pearl would never allow her own baby to touch her teat until her adopted calf arrived. She would kiss one and turn and kiss the other as she nursed them both.

I was fond of Pearl, but the cow I loved most was named Bigeni. When I was little, I would suck on her teat as if I were her calf. The milk was sweet and warm. I caressed her long neck, and she’d kiss my forehead and comb my hair with her tongue.

Although our cows were part of our family, bulls and aging cows could be sold away. I didn’t know this as a child until, one morning, I heard my father say that he had sold Bigeni to our neighbors, who liked cows only for their meat and ate them as if a cow were just an impala! By evening I had plotted an escape. I whispered to Bigeni all the details. She and I were to embark the next morning to live in the forest where we would remain in daytime, hiding from the neighbors. I was scared of wild animals but Bigeni would protect me with her enormous horns. In the evening, we would come out. I would take her to graze in green pastures. I would feed her fresh grass and she would feed me fresh milk, and we would live together forever after.

By the time I woke up, the neighbors had arrived and taken Bigeni. I lay where she used to lie and cried all day long. We should have escaped in the night! I grieved over Bigeni for days. I often dreamed about her and I would wake up with my heart racing. Sometimes I dreamed I was living with her just as in the escape plan.

Looking back, those dreams seem prophetic. Soon after Bigeni was sold, the civil war broke out. It began in 1993 and lasted thirteen years. When it began, escape became my family’s planning. During the years I was going to school, I took Maman Clémence’s advice to heart: to always look ahead. The past meant struggles of family problems and a country falling apart in war. Present time was more of that. Looking forward was looking beyond past and present to whatever undefined thing lay ahead. But though I didn’t realize it, looking ahead meant also carrying the deep past as my companion to the future.

- About the author -

Pacifique Irankunda was born in Burundi, a small country in East Africa bordered by Rwanda, Tanzania, and Congo. He came to America at the age of nineteen as a scholarship student at Deerfield Academy in western Massachusetts. His first published work, “Playing at Violence,” appeared in The American Scholar and won a Pushcart Prize. Irankunda was awarded a Whiting Creative Nonfiction Grant in 2017. He graduated from Williams College with a degree in psychology and political science. He lives in Brooklyn.

More from Pacifique Irankunda

The Tears of a Man Flow Inward

Growing Up in the Civil War in Burundi


The Tears of a Man Flow Inward

— Published by Random House —