'The Beat of a Drum'

Words provided by John Havyarimana in recognition of Black History Month

John Havyarimana. 


Throughout the month of February, MRU is presenting a collection of the voices of Black writers in our community in recognition of how words have the power to both build and destroy identities.


In 1994, a civil war was raging in the central African country of Burundi between the Hutu and the Tutsi ethnic groups. The bloody conflict would stretch on for more than a decade, entrapping nearly everyone in its midst and resulting in approximately 300,000 deaths.

Mount Royal English student John Havyarimana’s family was one of those caught in the turmoil. As Hutus, they were forced to leave when Tutsis invaded their city of Bujumbura. Amid gunfire, they fled to the nearby forest for cover, only managing to take precious few possessions, one of which was a tiny little drum.

Havyarimana would be born in a refugee camp in Tanzania five years after his family escaped. Their story is encapsulated in “The Beat of a Drum,” which Havyarimana first penned for a creative writing class assignment at MRU. Even though he was not there, Havyarimana had heard the story of his family’s dangerous journey so many times he says he has been immeasurably shaped and impacted by it.

“I knew exactly what I wanted to write. It was at the heart of me,” Havyarimana says. “I just want to tell this story in a way that unifies us all. Because we're all one people at the end of the day.”

Havyarimana says he’s not done with “The Beat of a Drum,” that it’s a message that can continue to be revealed.

The power of the written word is its ability to “bring people into a different world,” he says.

“If I meet someone who is a born-and-raised Canadian and I reveal my story to them, it brings them into some of the experiences my family had to fight for. You're experiencing someone else's experience and then you are able to take those lessons and bring them into your own life. I'm so happy about telling this story, because not a lot of people would be able to understand how we felt or how the experience went down or how these kinds of things happened. But being able to feel some of these emotions is like being able to hold hands with somebody, to be able to hold their hands in a difficult time.”



The Beat of A Drum


A beautiful handcrafted basket, a rustic wooden clock, and a lovely flower pot with different variations of flowers are set on a counter over the fireplace in my home. They look beautiful where they are neatly placed; However, there is one item I haven't mentioned alongside the others. An item that stands in the middle of all. If you were to walk through the front door of my home, the item would instantly grab your attention; unlike the other appealing house decorations placed on this shelf, this artifact's very existence emanates an abnormal tone. If you do notice this object, I'll be there to assure you that you haven't stepped into the home of a deranged cultist. However, don't let this artifact's exterior fool you. In all honesty, if it were up to me, this relic would be in a museum. A mini drum, about the size of a grown man’s palm sits taller than any other upon my floating counter. Assisting the object is a miniature drum-stick that is attached to the side. Painted on opposing ends are the Burundi flag consisting of the colors: red, white and green. There are three red stars in the middle and outlining these three stars is a forest green. The rim around the batter-head of the drum is infused with a strip of fur from a mysterious animal. The drum is worn down, the colors have begun to fade, irremovable dirt is tainted within the white paint coloured around the base, at least three holes can be found alongside the back. Physically, the drum stands out for all the wrong reasons. If you were to visit, I imagine the conversation would be delightful; however, I'm confident the nagging question of the drum would inevitably pick at your soul. Finally, unable to bite your tongue, you would have no choice but to ask me about the significance of the item, and when you do ask, I will smile, then prepare to tell you the story I’ve heard nearly a hundred times.

You see, this drum is the most remarkable item within my home, well, besides the Bible, of course. It's our story, a story that is bigger than one person alone. This gem wasn't passed down from generation to generation, instead, as my Mother puts it: “the drum is personal to our family. It's a link from the past to the present, a drum that connects us Burundians together.” (Sindiho). This all began in 1993 in a local street market in Bujumbura, Burundi. At the time my Mother was scouting nearby shops when a display of miniature drums caught her attention. She never had the willpower to resist a performance from Burundian drummers. Their performances always drew in a lot of hype from surrounding regions the few times a year when the drummers arrived. The city would promote the occasion and treat it like a festival; shop owners would come to the gathering to set up shops anticipating a fortune, and people from outside the city would drive an entire day to witness the drummers' four-to five-hour performance. Drumming was considered one of the bigger events in Burundi. The drummers would come out wearing traditional garments: a robe with the colors red, white, and green. The women drummers would spend the show beating the drums while swinging and swaying their bodies in unison to dances rooted within our culture, and the men would flip through the air so fast you could hear their robe whip as the wind passed through their baggy fabric. My Mother couldn't help but be a fan like the other millions of people in Burundi and Rwanda, but above all she bought the mini drum because it reminded her of our heritage. When she got home, she expressed her love for the drum to my Father. Now, my Father isn’t fond of house decorations, so initially, he hated the drum. He believes decorations are a waste of money: “You place them in your home, and all they do is eat space.” (Nzirubusa). He always defends his stance by mentioning the drum’s incapability to produce a consistent beat, and he was right. The item is far too small, so when you beat the drum it doesn't bring forth the sound you’d expect. My Mother always recalls how, at the time, my Father was a self-proclaimed comedian, so naturally he seized the opportunity to tease my Mother. He asked her why she wanted the drum, what she was going to do with something so small. He mocked her by saying, “What is it like to be a tourist from Burundi, touristing Burundi?” (Nzirubusa). In his mind this was the only logical reason for a person to buy such an item, you had to be a tourist. My Father concluded his onslaught by asking my Mother for the date and time of her first performance as a drummer. Even after all these years, they still find the humor in his ridiculous questions. My Mother's response was simple: she thought it was pretty, nothing more, nothing less.

In 1994, panic arose due to a progressing civil war between the Hutus and Tutsis. The Tutsis were favored, being labeled as top-tier citizens strictly based on their complexion, while the Hutus were labeled as bottom-of-the–barrel citizens. This class warfare became a growing issue when the Europeans colonized Rwanda, and in 1999 the battle of the two classes gained a ton of attention from numerous journalists and news outlets, including PBS News, which did a close analysis of the situation where they highlighted how: “The colonial administrators further exacerbated divisions by only allowing Tutsis to attain higher education and hold positions of power.” (PBS news). This limitation of proper education was a tactic to stop the Hutus from developing as a people. Many Burundians believed that the Europeans did this because “the closer to the color white a person was, the more superior they were.” (Sindiho). Sadly, nearly every Hutu had dark skin, but whatever the reason might have been, one thing was clear: the civil war was a war of discrimination. If you didn't resemble the other, then there was no reason to engage in a relationship of any way, shape, or form. The bad blood between the two classes was fueled by a thirst for dominion and power over the land of Burundi and Rwanda. In 1957, the Hutus, being tired of mistreatment, announced a manifesto for a change in power structure, however, after a couple of years the nature of the Hutu’s rebellion went from a search for freedom to a hunt for revenge. They began to stage violent acts towards Tutsis, and as all wars go, the Tutsis retaliated horrifically, there were countless casualties on each side, including those who were innocent. However, the civil war didn't peak until the controversial death of Hutu president of Rwanda, Juvenal Habyarimana. The president’s “death in 1994 was a trigger of the genocide.” (BBC News). His death shook the already unstable countries of Burundi and Rwanda off the ledge, and my family was one of the many that plummeted off. I would even go as far as to say the repercussions were so fierce to the point the fall could be described as a nose dive into the deep.

My family is Hutu and was attacked by Tutsis in our home city of Bunjumbera. This attack was random and disorganized. The Tutsis raided the streets shooting as many as they could see; endless bullets ripped through innocent bystanders from every direction, and as the violent attacks began to progress, there were desperate screams that joined together to fill the sky. One massive scream of sheer pain that is instilled in the brain of many Burundian survivors today. There was no time to turn back for supplies, nor was there any time to search for loved ones. As gruesome as this sounds, this is the reality of war. Luckily my family was already together when the situation escalated; sadly, not many others can say the same. Note, at this point I wasn't born yet, but from the mouths of my older siblings who witnessed the horrific scene. The atmosphere was completely chaotic. The rebels’ intent was genocide, so it didn't matter if you were male, female, adult, teen, child; pregnant, or crippled. If you didn't have light brown skin, with a long slim nose, and all the other characteristics associated with a Tutsi, you were labeled a target. This was the nature of this kind of war, two sides fighting to eliminate the other completely and unforgivingly. Both sides chose to avoid the truth, that we were all one people. My family fled for their lives, leaving all their belongings, leaving all they had come to know. If you survived, you were told that you were lucky. My entire family surviving wasn't luck, it was God. Managing to evade a series of gun fire, they ran to the nearest Forest alongside a few others who managed to escape. They spent a long night within the trees; some laid with a few family members, while others laid alone. Not much was said amongst the tiny group. Most likely because they didn’t know each other very well, but I imagine it was out of fear of being heard. While lying there in complete silence, my Mother looked to her hand, and for some mysterious reason she had subconsciously taken the drum. In all that madness, my Mother managed to carry my older sister, who was no more than three at the time, all the while leading my three other siblings to safety as my Father scouted a safe path into the wilderness. With such crippling responsibilities weighing on her shoulders, she somehow found the time to take possession of the mini drum. Every time I think about the odds that were stacked against her, I always find myself amazed at the thought of her protecting my family, carrying the drum, while evading rapid bullets; however, at the time she found herself wishing she had taken hold of a piece of bread instead. She knew that her children would need food more than ever, maybe even a blanket for the journey ahead. If she had remembered a blanket she could have kept my siblings warm at night. Instead she grabbed a useless drum in the middle of a civil war. What could a drum possibly do for her in a time like that?

Waking up the next morning, they began their journey through the damp forest. The group walked for days in search of assistance. About the third day, late at night, they began to feel disheartened when they had traveled the entire day and hadn’t run into any reinforcements that could save them. By the first couple days, they had expected to run into a survivor or two, or maybe Hutu militias, and worse-case scenario possibly Tutsi soldiers seeking to finish the job. At one point along their journey, the group had come to the conclusion they were the only ones who managed to escape; however, after about a week of searching and hiding, they came across another group of people who had received word of a refugee camp in Tanzania. For the sake of a complete overview of the situation, it is important to note that, “[In] 1994… thousands of Tutsis and moderate Hutus were killed. Tutsi rebels won control, which sent a million Hutus, fearful of revenge, into Zaire and Tanzania.'' (CNN). The situation was dire, and fleeing was the only option, which led many Rwandians and Burundians into the two countries that were capable of providing assistance. Thankfully, the group they had met in the forest informed them about the Tanzanian refugee camp. Although they quickly realized that a bigger group did not mean a safer group, in their predicament the phrase: “there is strength in numbers,” was a complete lie. In times of war, the bigger the group, the easier the target. This meant they were easier to spot, harder to maintain, and required double the resources. On top of this, this group had many people in need of aid and triple the number of children who needed care. Merging would significantly slow them down, and time was crucial: people in the new group had reported spotting Tutsis trekking through the forest, this meant that time was the only thing keeping them alive. They found themselves contemplating whether to join the group or to remain on their own. They weighed their options, and concluded that they had no legitimate reason to abandon the group. Their much-smaller group consisted of born-and-raised Burundians, so naturally, they didn't know where they were going. Most people in the group had never even left the country, nor did they know the layout of the Forest like those of the larger group. Above all, this new group knew the direction to the refugee camp. So it was decided: they had to rely on their new companions to outlast the Tutsis. The sizable number of people in their group demanded certain procedures to go into immediate effect for their journey: they learned specific formations that enabled them to travel much more safely. By breaking into smaller groups the people could scatter and hide much easier. They decided each band should share an equal number of children, elderly and injured. Each group walked a decent distance from another, not too close, and not too far. They walked for days, and to their surprise they never ran into any Tutsis. Each day their confidence grew, and once they crossed what they believed to be the border of Tanzania they officially claimed refuge, however, their labor-intensive walk was not over yet, they needed to reach the refugee camp, and along that grueling walk, the kids played with the drum, the teens and adults joined alongside them. Eventually the entire group joined one another in singing Godly songs, songs that began from the beat of the drum. As they sang their songs of praise and deliverance their voices joined together to make one harmony, providing joy in their darkness. They walked cheerfully as if they had forgotten the dangers they had encountered, and the ones that potentially laid ahead. Coming across rivers, they were concerned because some couldn't swim, but somehow every last one managed to reach the other end. Finally arriving at the refugee camp they felt relieved. Although, after about a month they realized the refugee camp was as safe as living in the wilderness. The high demands from people who needed aid and food meant that there was not enough for everyone. Still every time someone banged against that drum they continued to sing within the camp. Many people including kids and adults wanted to play with it, leading to my Mother losing track of its whereabouts. The drum must have gone through many families, providing endless joy to all who played it.

Five years later, I was born in the very same refugee camp, and I spent my first year of life there. No one remembers how the drum returned back to my family. If you ask my older brother he will most likely tell you he found it while playing football with other children. My Father claims he retrieved the drum after spotting a lumpy mass in a pit of mud as he strolled alongside his friends. Despite the drum's disappearance the artifact found a way to the top of my counter. I was much too young to remember, and I hadn't thought much about the story my parents had told me my entire life. Until one day I searched the symbolism of a drum for a junior high school project, and found that a drum symbolized the rhythm of life, something of a heart beat. I believe that my Mother finding that drum before the genocide was a message from God, that no matter the circumstance they would come to face, He would protect us that day and every day that came after. Many lost their lives that year, a great number of families were forced to separate from one another. Some people were left in agony at the fact they would never see their loved ones again. While others were Tortured by the crippling unknown; thrown into a life of racing thoughts about whether their loved ones were dead or alive. Sorrow was like a plague throughout the land of Burundi and Rwanda. The refugees who were blessed enough to reunite with loved ones were exempted from another battle that came afterwards, but those who didn't reunite with loved ones were faced with an even greater challenge. My Father always told me about the storm that came after entering the camp. This battle was like a consuming wave, a wave of depression. The atmosphere in the camp was soul-depleting; my Father discusses the problem within his camp by saying: “Depression was a Big! Big! issue in the refugee camps. Not many people can handle losing family and friends. [Especially] the way some people were executed in Burundi. Imagine losing someone you love to a Boy as young as four, with an assault rifle. This can make you hate the world. Memories like this led to suicide.” (Nzirubusa). Fighting for survival, only to take your own life is a difficult concept to grasp; however, the war within one's mind, is what I believe to be the greatest and toughest battle. This was the second war many Burundians and Rwandan refugees were thrown into, the battle that came after the initial attack. I thank God every day that my family is not having to experience the second battle.

The drum wasn't the most exceptional drum, but in spite of the physical features the drum presented, the refugees somehow found peace within its rhythm. Not because of the drum’s ability to produce a wonderful beat, but that each beat was able to carry their hearts, and minds, out of their struggle. The drum became their comfort, their peace when the world had none to offer. Just like the nature of war, the drum didn't care if you were: male, female, adult, teen, child; pregnant, or crippled. Anyone who took hold of the drum found consolation; this miniature artifact taught all the people how to sing again. The drum is stained, the colors have come to fade, it has three holes along the back, but it's the most beautiful thing that stands on our counter. Over time wood begins to split, paint vanishes. Fur declines as nature intended; However, despite the drum’s physical qualities, the most important things remain. The story and the message. One day I want to pass the drum to my kids, maybe they will do the same. There's just one problem, all my siblings want the drum, this may be the beginning of another civil war.




Works Cited

CNN. A Brief History 1400-1994. Cable News Network, date accessed 6 Dec 2021,


Rwanda Genocide: Habyarimana Plane Shooting Probe Dropped. BBC News, 26 Dec. 2018,


Nzirubusa, Salvatory. Personal interview. Conducted by John Havyarimana, 2 Dec 2021.

Sindiho, Anezia. Personal interview. Conducted by John Havyarimana, 2 Dec 2021.

NewsHour, PBS. The Heart of the Hutu-Tutsi Conflict. Public Broadcasting Service, 8 Oct. 1999,