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Burundi: Using art to heal and transform a violent past

30 May 2022:  On 20 May 2022, Impunity Watch held an evening debate in Bujumbura, focusing on the role of artistic and cultural initiatives for dealing with the past in Burundi.


The evening kicked-off with a theatrical performance by the Troupe les Enfoirés de Sanoladante (TLES). The play entitled 'Poli-tue-scène' was produced by TLES with support from Impunity Watch. It premiered for the first time in November 2020 as part of anniversary celebrations for UNSCR1325. The play explores the social, cultural, and political barriers facing Burundian women’s political participation.


The play was followed by a rich discussion between four panellists: Josué Mugisha, director of the play, Samantha Inarukundo, director and founder of the art house, Two Five Seven Arts, Isabelle Kaze of Shaqu'art, and Christella Niyonzima of Impunity Watch. The debate was moderated by Burundian filmmaker, Diane Kaneza.


The aim of the debate was to explore the links between art and dealing with the past for effective transformation. The debate examined whether – and how – these links currently exist in Burundi, including the role of Burundian artists and artforms in processes of transitional justice. 


Key themes included:

Art has a transformative power

  • Music, dance, symbolism have a central place in Burundian culture. More recently, theatre, cinema, literature, visual art, and graphic novels are emerging, especially among young people.


  • Different artforms are used by artists to convey messages to society. In countries that have experienced massive violence like Burundi, art can contribute to social change by creating space for different narratives and interpretations about the past, and by promoting empowerment.


  • Works of art leave an imprint in the hearts of individuals, especially when they are inspired by community realities.


“Art has an extraordinary power, it brings the immaterial out of a material object, allowing an individual to meet oneself. It’s a whole process that helps people regain their place in society”

(Josué Mugisha)


  • Artforms are important to free speech and pluralistic narratives after violence because they cannot be interpreted from a single point of view.


  • Art captures the interest of the masses on a given problem. Art offers the viewer a portrait of their society and of their reality, so that they can develop an awareness of their own condition and the multiple realities of their environment.


An artist, through their works, leaves an imprint in the community”

               (Josué Mugisha)

Social relations

  • Works of art incite individuals to question their individual and community relationships in time and space. It is this questioning that may push individuals in Burundi to act to redefine these relationships in ways that can deal more constructively with the past and engender greater social cohesion.


  • Transitional justice processes use both formal and informal processes to bring individuals and communities whose social relations have been disrupted by conflict to question the foundations of their divisions in order to redefine new relationships. Artistic initiatives can contribute to the ultimate goals of transitional justice by revisiting past relationships, by tackling taboo subjects such as ethnic divisions, and by confronting discrimination and social injustice such as violence against women.


  • Artistic initiatives can capture the experiences of a broader number of people, especially marginalised groups in society, because they create a pluralistic space for their voices to be recognised and can offer space for representation that may otherwise not be open (e.g. women’s political voices).


  • Art alone cannot change a society. But art can be a trigger for social change. But there are prerequisites for this, especially in societies like Burundi’s. Art should take into account societal realities.


“The most useful art does not lose sight of the society it is targeting”

(Josué Mugisha)

The psychology of art

  • Art can effectively serve as therapy techniques for people in need of psychosocial care. In Burundi, examples include participatory theatre techniques and drawing used by organisations such as THARS in memory healing sessions.


  • Nevertheless, art can be a double-edged sword. If art is used to dehumanise individuals, it becomes destructive or divisive instead of carrying the connecting ropes of the social fabric.


“Art is extremely powerful. But we shouldn’t romanticise that it’s only positive. Songs, for example, have been  used throughout Burundi’s history to dehumanise and to promote violence.”

(Christella Niyonzima)


  • Artforms can serve as tools for manipulation, dehumanisation, or destruction of social ties depending on its content, just as singing or rhetoric can be used positively to rebuild or restore positive relationships according to its content as well.


  • Art and psychosocial support may need to go hand-in-hand in traumatised societies like in Burundi. Art can provoke an emotional reaction in the individuals consuming it. Just as psychosocial support is crucial to formal processes of dealing with the past, works of art such as theatre, for example, must be accompanied by psychosocial assistance for target communities.


“Theatre can educate and start a healing process, but it is not a substitute for psychosocial support”



Art and cultural identity

  • Artistic and cultural works can play another important role in the life of a society. They can be an element of value through which a society or community identifies itself.


  • This identity allows the members of society to weave relationships or and bonds that solidify their social cohesion within the community through attachment and recognition of common identities. This can contribute to resilience and to reconstruction after violence.


  • In contexts like Burundi ravaged by identity-based violence, art can play an important role to give collective voice to experiences and pluralistic narratives, which can evolve into active, genuine, and engaged dialogue between groups and communities.



  • As a nascent field and profession, finding funding to pay for education and capacity-building is challenging.


  • Art – whether photography, graphic design, theatre – is not considered as a ‘real’ profession in Burundi. Families often try to discourage children from becoming artists.


“I’m the example that art is transformative. I make my living from my art despite being

among the few young Burundian women working as a digital artist.”

(Isabelle Kaze)


  • Art is undervalued in Burundian society and by Burundi’s institutions. There’s a lack of clear policies and laws that govern the production of artworks and the protection of artists' rights.


“Art can be used, but artists should not be tools”

(Samantha Inarukundo)

The event was organised with support from the Delegation of the European Union in Burundi and the National Postcode Lottery in the Netherlands, the evening debate was attended by representatives of the diplomatic corps (United States, EU, Netherlands, Belgium), INGOs, civil society organisations, as well as partner organisations of the Dukomeze Kunywana project for which Impunity Watch is the consortium lead.

Impunity Watch Burundi has a long history of working with artists. Various projects since 2018 have integrated working with community theatre groups as a vehicle for discussing the past, raising taboo subjects, and for intergenerational dialogue through, and through films, memory books and graphic novels. Our new projects are set to expand on this by piloting strategies working with photography and visual art as part of four transitional justice projects, including one financed by the Dutch National Postcode Lottery.