Home » Burundi » Colette Samoya Kirura » La femme au regard triste [The Woman with the Sad Look]

Colette Samoya Kirura: La femme au regard triste [The Woman with the Sad Look]

The key theme for male African writers is undoubtedly the effect on the local culture of the coming of the white man and how the African can adapt to the modern world. While women writers do write on his subject, their key theme, understandably, is the discriminatory treatment of women, primarily by the African male. This is, of course, the theme of this novel, while also touching on the issue of the influence of European culture on the country.

Ntirabampa, who opens the novel, is to a certain extent a victim of sexism. She is preparing for a grand feast to celebrate her husband’s promotion within the clan. He takes this all very much for granted and, while she makes every effort to get the best sorghum and then every effort to make the best beer for their guests out of the sorghum, he does not encourage her but threatens her if she fails. She is also celebrating the arrival of her sister, Sabine, who is on holiday from boarding school. Sabine is civilised which, in this context, means that she is in touch with the colonial administration, i.e. the school she attends. (Incidentally, there is no mention anywhere in the book of Belgium, the colonial power of Burundi.) Sabine is a brilliant student, beautiful and elegant and clearly destined for great things. Ntirabampa’s husband has a brother, Augustin, who is also doing well. He has gone to seminary not, as we later learn, to become a priest (he is an atheist) but to use his qualification there as a stepping stone for getting a scholarship to go to Europe. As we soon learn, Sabine and Augustin have met, fallen in love and are having an affair, though it is somewhat remote as both are studying in different places. However, now it is the holiday period, they will get an opportunity to meet. However, they have to be discreet for their affair would be frowned on, not least because they are relatives by marriage but also because such affairs are not generally accepted in Burundian culture.

And meet they do. They are able to carry on their clandestine affair and how they meet while carrying out their family responsibilities takes up much of the early part of the novel. They seem much in love but any open display of affection has to be concealed as such displays are not accepted in their culture. Both seem destined for great things. The trappings of success are spelled out by Kirura on several occasions and include obvious consumer goods such as cars, telephones and nice houses. The couple also talk about their future marriage though there is likely to be a delay for a local tradition has it that a graduate who has had a good education at his/her parents’ expense must first build a new house for his/her parents before getting married. Towards the end of the holidays, the locals students elect a spokesman to organise a party and Sabine is very proud that Augustin is elected. A great party is held and, at the end, some the guests are given the opportunity to stay in a nearby hostel, instead of going home. A room is made available for Augustin and Sabine but Augustin ends up in Sabine’s room.

Both return to their studies but after a few weeks, Sabine starts to get worried that she has not had her period. Eventually – and we follow both her agony and the whisperings of her classmates – she realises that she is pregnant. She considers an abortion as a former classmate of hers apparently did but knows of no-one to help her. Naturally, she writes to Augustin who does what we might expect – arranges for a scholarship to Europe and disappears. Sabine is left to struggle on her own, rejected by her parents, abandoned by her lover and cast out. The last part of the novel is the sad story of Sabine and how she struggles with her life, an outcast in her society, ending up with the sad look of the title. This is not a great novel but Kirura certainly tells her story well and clearly shows the poor treatment African women receive at the hands of their men and how a promising life and career can be shattered by one mistake while, for men, there are few if any consequences.

Publishing history

First published in 2002 by L’Harmattan
No English translation