Instead, hundreds of people crowded into an open courtyard in the middle of the high school and mingled freely with each other, laughing and chatting with friends while important people stood a step above the crowd at tables from which they called the names of graduates and handed out diplomas. When those in the audience saw that it was nearly time for people they knew to be called, they would push their way toward the front of the crowd to cheer and take pictures - not rudely, but with noticeably less regard for personal space than we would have in the U.S., and then move back out of the way so that more people could fill in the prime spaces in front.
The reason that I attended this particular graduation was to see Arthemon Katihabwa.
In case you didn't read the entry a few weeks ago about the Batwa, or if you've just forgotten because it was a while ago, this group of people is the group I'll be working with most closely during my time in Burundi. (For clarification, Twa is the sort of universal term, Batwa is plural, and Mutwa is singular.) Arthemon is one of only 10 Batwa in the entire country to graduate from high school in Burundi this year, and this is likely the highest number ever graduating in one year so far. The Batwa are the original inhabitants of this region of Africa but face unbelievable discrimination and marginalization. They live in abject poverty, and because only primary school is free in Burundi, any education beyond that is often out of reach. Many Batwa do not even finish primary school because they don't have money to buy supplies and uniforms, and they are still often harshly ridiculed by their peers and teachers alike in school. Six children from Arthemon's village started primary school together, but only 2 of them finished and went on the high school, and only Arthemon has graduated.
Arthemon's graduation symbolizes hope for the Batwa because he is proof that this level of education is attainable. He and the few others who have now graduated make it their goal to encourage young children to stay in school and to find ways to earn and save the money to finish. He is now qualified to be a primary teacher himself but is looking for ways to raise money to attend college so that he can study economics and administration so that he can play a larger role in advocating for the rights of the Batwa.
A few weeks ago I had the privilege of attending a Burundian graduation which, I must tell you, is quite different from any graduation I've ever witnessed in the U.S. There were no neat rows of chairs for people to sit in to watch the ceremony, no valedictorian speeches, no "Pomp and Circumstance" (much to my relief).