It is World Refugee Day, where are the traditional Burundian drums?

“I have a passion for the drum. When I play it, I feel alive and briefly forget the pain of losing loved ones and my home..."

It’s mid-afternoon on a bright and sunny day. White, fluffy clouds drift across the blue sky as Joem Nshimirimana, a traditional Burundian drummer, stares blankly into the distance. “This is not good,” he mutters, “coronavirus has changed everything.”

Joem is a 29-year-old Burundian refugee who has been living in Nduta camp for the past five years. Before fleeing Burundi, Joem spent most of his days entertaining large audiences as he was part of a famous traditional drumming group. Following the political upheaval that rocked his country in 2015, he and his family left all their belongings behind and quickly fled Burundi to seek refuge in Tanzania.

A few months after arriving in Tanzania, Joem quickly set up - Ingoma Akaranga - a new traditional drumming group. “I have a passion for the drum. When I play it, I feel alive and briefly forget the pain of losing loved ones and my home. The drum allows me to preserve my heritage and celebrate my culture,” he said.

When Joem set up the group, he wanted to assist other compatriots in overcoming the painful memories of loss and suffering. In Burundi, drums have always been much more than musical instruments. They are used in rituals, coronations, funerals, weddings, among others. Since the entire population of Burundi recognizes the drum as a fundamental part of their heritage and identity, Joem hoped that such a powerful symbol could help his fellow refugees overcome trauma.

Before the COVID-19 pandemic gripped the world, the 30 member Ingoma Akaranga group used to meet and practice twice a week. “The weather today is perfect for rehearsals,” he says with a smile. He explains how at the start of each performance, the drummers enter balancing the heavy drums on their heads before breaking into a spectacle of powerful, synchronized drumming accompanied by dance, poetry and song.

“At least once a month, we used to perform at an event,” he says. The group is famous for entertaining huge crowds during commemorative days, during weddings, funerals and to welcome newborn babies. They are also the centerpiece when it comes to welcoming important guests visiting the camps. Videos and pictures are documented of high-level dignitaries joining in the dancing and drumming during performances.

Drum acrobats

Preventive measures such as social distancing, handwashing and crowd restrictions are now being enforced in all refugee camps. “We cannot practice because even our drumming practice sessions attract large crowds,” added Joem.

For the past four years, Ingoma Akaranga Group performances have been a central feature on World Refugee Day every year in Nduta Camp. On this day, held every year on June 20, the world commemorates the strength, courage and perseverance of millions of refugees who have been forced to flee their homes in search of safety. Due to the COVID-19 preventive measures put in place, there will be no crowd performances.

Drumming is not only for entertainment but also a source of livelihood. “Through these events, we received, on average, US$40 (Tsh100,000) per month, which we share amongst ourselves,” he added. Joem uses these nominal earnings to supplement food for his wife and four children.  

To date, no suspected or confirmed case of coronavirus has been reported in any refugee camp in the country.  Since the virus was first confirmed in Tanzania, preventive measures have been adopted. These include the establishment of isolation centres, provision of medical supplies, temperature screening at camps’ main entrance, setting up hand washing stations in strategic locations, doubling soap distribution rations, and awareness-raising campaigns targeting the entire refugee population.

“This whole situation is stressful. Interactions with the host community is not allowed and we spend less time at food and soap distribution centers,” Joem laments.  “We, however, comply with the guidance given to us because we understand the dangers of this virus. But when it is over, we will gladly get our drums and pick up from where we left off,” he concludes with a smile.

Written by
Winnie Itaeli Kweka
UN entities involved in this initiative
United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees