Ketty Nivyabandi is a Burundian citizen, poet, writer and most recently has been described as an activist when, in protest to President Nkurunziza’s third term, she decided to organize peaceful women’s demonstrations. ElleAfrique had the pleasure of interviewing Ketty. We discussed growing up in Burundi, the transformative power of poetry as well as womanhood and women’s empowerment.
EA: Tell us a little bit about yourself?
Ketty: I never know how to answer this question, it always seem so… vast! How do we sum up a life, a being in just a few words?… I am a free, sensitive, strong spirit, finding my way and purpose on this journey called life. Also on a lifelong quest to understand and improve, in my limited realm, the human experience.
EA: Share with us one of your best memory of growing up in Burundi?
Ketty: My childhood in Burundi is a treasure box, filled with the rarest wonders… I tend to have a very sensorial memory: sights, smells, sounds. So one of my most cherished memories is actually a taste. The taste of unripe, green mangoes, plucked religiously, at break time, by my primary school classmates from a neighbor’s tree. The bitter taste of the mango’s white flesh, coated with a bit of salt (I still can’t figure out how the kids brought salt to school). It was such a particular taste… I have never had unripe mangoes since those years in school. I did not have them at home either (parents always said they would give you worms), so that taste represents a brief moment of pure mischievousness, and all the beauty and carefree feel of childhood.
EA: You have been recognized for your work in poetry, most notably for ‘Emerald Dunes’ and ‘Little Men’. How and why did you get started in poetry?
Ketty: Poetry is the language of my heart, of my soul. I have always written, not purposely thinking about the ‘act’ or purpose of writing, but just for myself. To understand the world, to process my life. I had a journal from a very young age. As a teenager, I went to boarding school far from home in southern France, and writing letters became my connection to home. I wrote ten, fifteen, twenty page long letters in tiny characters, spilling myself out on the sheets. But poetry as a form came to me by accident. I always thought I would be a novelist, I wanted to write the unwritten novel (every writer’s fantasy). But every time I tried I would end up with a poem. Poetry, because of its contemplative, intense form really works for me. And the brutal, raw beauty of it.
EA: At ElleAfrique, we like to discuss Womanhood and Empowerment. When you close your eyes and imagine an empowered woman, what do you see?
Ketty: For me empowerment is simply the flip side of freedom. A woman who feels, in her mind, heart and body, free enough to live in alignment with her full self is an empowered woman. It has nothing to do with who you are professionally, the power you have over people, how loud you speak, or how ‘in control’ you appear. I know a lot of women who ‘look’ empowered but still don’t feel the courage to be true to themselves, or who simply don’t know who their true self is. Doing the hard work of finding out why you are here, and doing the best to bring that woman forward, that is true empowerment. No one can take that power from you. We are most powerful (and most beautiful too) when we stand in our truth… So if I close my eyes, an empowered woman would be one who makes her choices freely, who honors her heart’s calling, who brings her unique light to the world. I have always loved the idea that humanity is a puzzle, and that a puzzle however full, cannot be complete until that one piece is found. Until each one of us finds our best selves and brings it forth.
EA: Can poetry help a woman in her journey through womanhood? How?
Ketty: Yes, in the sense that poetry allows to deeply explore yourself. Poetry strips you naked and forces to look at your wounds, your vulnerabilities, the areas that most people are uncomfortable looking at. It stretches you to the limit, breaks you open, and thus takes you to the center of yourself. You cannot do poetry if you are not honest, truthful. Like all literature, it immediately sounds and feels wrong. But the beauty of poetry is that it’s also a safe place to be naked. A place where your imperfections are celebrated, and are actually a strength. So in that sense, it is a place for both healing and growth.
EA: Tell us a little bit about your own personal path of empowerment and its significance?
Ketty: Because the superwoman does not exist. The sooner you realize that, the freer you are to just be yourself. And our beauty actually lies in our imperfections (if only we can be brave enough to embrace them)…Many women are also prisoners of how society views them. So allowing yourself to do things that society may not approve of or the people close to you do not see you doing, can be very freeing. You just have to be careful to do them not because you want to prove anything to anyone, but truly for yourself. To feed yourself. And that’s power.
Marriage and motherhood were also significant. Both made me realize the pressure that is put on women, and the difficulty to find yourself when you are trying to cater for everyone else’s needs. Often times it’s a self-imposed pressure too. In many African societies we have created this fantasy of a strong woman, who endures everything, puts her needs last, and handles everything with a smile. That woman is celebrated, held as a model. Even if her community knows she is in pain, she is honored for her stoicism. Not being yourself becomes bravery. So she appears strong, but in reality she is not, she is simply fronting. And I think that is very damaging and dangerous for women.
It really is a journey. I think it’s important to stress that. It doesn’t happen overnight, but over countless little experiences, choices, and it’s a journey that does not really end… When I look back I realize that my most painful experiences have actually been the greatest catalysts for growth. Because grief and adversity take you to that place where you either die or rise, it forces you to look at yourself in the mirror, to look deeply at your life and to decide how you want to move forward. A few years ago I watched my father slowly lose his life to an advanced illness, and that throbbing pain brought me face to face with myself. In the weeks, months that followed, every unresolved issue came forth. Because such grief is an earth-shattering experience, it cracks you open. And it allowed me, over time, to work on myself, to find and uproot whatever else was ailing me, which lead me to a much more empowered life. But it’s a decision that one makes. You have to chose you. And it’s a choice that is always available to us. But I’ve found that challenges wash away the distractions of life and thus create a crossroad. The choice becomes much clearer.
EA: How do you support women to live empowered lives?
Ketty: The best way to empower another being is to be empowered yourself. It’s as simple as that. At the end of the day we only are responsible for ourselves, but if we do that well we get to lift up others in the process. When I look at the women who have inspired or touched me, it was those who, by being their full, unapologetic selves, gave me permission to be what I wanted to be. So I aspire to be transparent about who I am, by shaking my own boundaries, this may make another woman say: ‘wait a minute, I too have something I’ve always wanted to do/be’. And to be honest about that journey. Because again, there is no such thing as a picture perfect life.
We all have everything in us to be empowered, beautiful beings. Often all we need is someone to listen to us in order to remember it… So I do try, in all aspects of my life, to create space for conversations. I remember starting this when I was 20, I sent a long email to any Burundian I knew and asked them to copy in their friends. It grew tremendously and we would discuss various topics, such as why we are often our own worst enemies, things like gossip and envy among women. It was great. I still do so, in my writing, on social media, or in my everyday life and work.
EA: What Inspires You?
Ketty: Nature, large and vast spaces also provide me with an overwhelming sense of peace and take me to that place where I can create. But overall it’s the little things that move me, stir my heart, that most deeply inspire me. A song, a sight… I remember one afternoon spent wandering through the streets of New York with a dear friend who was showing me the city. We strolled into Chinatown and found ourselves in a little park, filled with elderly Chinese men and women. The men were playing cards, a few others were chatting, on our left a group was practicing Tai-Chi on a wooden stage. And in front of us, a group was gathered in a circle, listening to a man playing the accordion, a deeply melancholic song. An old man and woman got up to dance, while the rest clapped. The sun was weary, casting its last rays. It was a magical scene. Truly a poetic moment. It was as if I knew the song that was being played, it felt like a call for home, a longing, but also filled with life. In that one moment, my heart truly expanded. I connected with those Chinese immigrants in a powerful and palpable way. And it taught me so much about resilience, about life sprouting despite the direst circumstances. So it’s little things like that, that stir the soul, and are far bigger than we’d like to think…
Art never ceases to inspire me. That’s where and how I connect with this overwhelming experience of being human. Art is the only place where the collective human experience can be accessed so easily. I’m also greatly inspired and touched by beauty, harmony, in a large sense. And I seek that around me, it helps me to stay balanced and nourishes me. In the words of Alice Walker: ‘whenever you are creating beauty around you, you are restoring your own soul’. I could not agree more…
EA: What is your advice, vision or hope for women on the planet?
To remember that we are the salt of the earth. And act as such.
We are wonder, mystery, power, humility, creativity, love, life… When women come together, it’s a power and energy that is unstoppable. May we learn to do so, gently and powerfully in our lives and communities: to stand up for each other, to honor (and not be threatened) what is great among ourselves. We give so much love and life, my prayer is that we learn to give to ourselves too.
But above all, especially nowadays, may we be kind with ourselves. May we reconnect with our unique, mesmerizing essence and quit trying to be what we are not: men. We are women. ‘Phenomenally’.
Thank you Ketty Nivyabandi for sharing your experiences, insights and wisdom with ElleAfrique and its readers!
Interview conducted by Nellie Umutesi-Vigneron