The Poisoned Country

Purity and Exile: Violence, Memory, and National Cosmology, Among Hutu Refugees in Tanzania

by Liisa H. Malkki
University of Chicago Press, 374 pp., $21.50 (paper)

In Burundi do the tall ones kill the short ones or the short ones kill the tall ones? I know Burundi does one thing and Ruanda the other.

Shiva Naipaul, North of South: An African Journey


Wherever you go in Rwanda and Burundi—to a private house, a bar, a government office, a refugee camp—drinks are served with the bottle caps on, and opened only before the eyes of the drinker. It is a ritual that honors the fear of poison. An open bottle is unacceptable. When, as with the potent banana beer which is drunk in quantity in rural areas, a drink comes unbottled from a common pot, or when a drink is to be shared, the provider must take the first sip—like a food taster in a medieval court—to prove that it is safe.

Tales of poisonings punctuate the lore of pre-colonial and colonial Rwanda and Burundi. Indeed, Marc Vincent, a pediatrician from Brussels who practiced in the Belgian colony of Ruanda-Urundi during the early 1950s, observed that the locals tended to regard poisoning or sorcery as the main cause of fatal illness. In his monograph L’Enfant au Ruanda-Urundi, Vincent recalls overhearing a very sick ten-year-old Burundian boy tell his father, “When I die, you must see who poisoned me.” And an eight-year-old boy told Vincent, “Yes, death exists, but all those who die here, it’s not ordinary death, it’s sorcery. When you spit on the ground, one takes your saliva, one takes the dust on which you walked. My parents told me to watch out.” Such attitudes, Vincent reports, pervaded all levels of society.

Family hatreds and vendettas were extremely tenacious and members of enemy families would not risk casually to drink beer at each other’s homes. One chief of Urundi, young and raised in European ways, genuinely disengaged from the Bantu beliefs, told me one day: “We can’t ignore these family enmities…just as you see me, I wouldn’t dare to go drink or eat with old Tutsis, or the elders of an enemy family, because I know that they are capable of slipping me some poison. Yet, if you saw me meeting them in public, you could take us for the best friends in the world, so completely would they and I speak civilities and politeness.” This declaration is not unique, and must be taken to reflect the exact situation. The natives see poisoners everywhere.1

Even today, after the most extreme political violence in all of post-colonial Africa, Rwandans and Burundians still frequently blame invisible poisoners when the deaths of public figures cannot be otherwise explained. Poison, then, takes on the quality of a metaphor for societies in which there must be little expectation of a natural end. When death is the work of enemies, distrust and subterfuge are the means of survival, and politics itself can become a poison.

We saw the effects of this poison in Rwanda in the spring and summer of 1994, when Hutus were provoked…

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