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Santa – A short story about »childhood«, »identity« and »culture«

Updated: May 6

A guest contribution by Victor Kagimba /

Somewhere on Rwanda’s southern spurs, a young girl stood one timid afternoon staring at a large space of open ground, covered with several mud-stained U.N.H.C.R marked tents. The girl’s eyes scanned nearly every tent in the vicinity, with each observation succeeded by a second look.

Sandrine, a ten-year-old Burundian girl, looked as though she waited for someone or something to appear from behind one of the tents. A dog ran past one of the tents but she paid no attention. Sandrine had a thin face, short hair, and large eyes. She had always been small and skinny for her age, but she looked more skeletal than she was in her older brother’s T-shirt that day.

»Ready or not, here I come!«

Sandrine had taken on the seeker role in saye, a hide-and-seek game that had a total of seven players. She carefully inspected each corner of the immediate tents in an attempt to locate a concealed player. The tents took up much of the space in the refugee camp. Ready or not, here I come! You can’t hide. Gonna find you and…

»Got you!«

Sandrine crept up behind one of the concealed players who had picked a spot behind a small tree and pulled him out. She then discovered one more hidden player behind one of the faraway tents before it was time to switch roles. She joined others in taking on the concealed player role during the second leg of the game.

Once the new seeker began the countdown, Sandrine stormed off up the hill to where the Rwanda National Police station and the Red Cross offices sat and secured a spot behind one of the buildings. She remained still for a few seconds, then craned her neck over the wall of the house to check for any sign of the seeker. As she threw her head back in hiding, her glance rested upon a small television set tucked away in the corner of the room inside the building. The TV was on, but there seemed to be no one watching.

A Christmas movie dubbed over with agasobanuye was showing. Think of agasobanuye as a comically tailored vocal supplement of the Kirundi/Kinyarwanda language to foreign, mostly western, films. The movie was three quarters in, but that meant nothing to Sandrine’s captured excitement. She stuck her neck further through the tiny window and continued to enjoy the rest of the movie.

The idea of Santa Claus and the concept of receiving gifts during Christmas left questions that needed answers. To say that she was not captivated or that her imagination did not dance around the prospect of being a recipient of gifts. I mean. That would disregard the seed that was planted that late afternoon.

As the movie credits gradually rained over the screen, she got up from her hiding spot. Her thoughts and imagination continued to remain at large.

»Got you!« It turned out to be the seeker.

The seeker’s face split into a giant smile as he menacingly pointed at Sandrine, who remained unfazed. »You’re out!« the boy shouted as he ran off to look for the next concealed player.

Sandrine slowly drifted down the murram pathway, but her thoughts kept at a fast pace. She did not so much as let off a quiver when a small dog relentlessly barked up at her, nor when a plastic bagged football whisked the top of her head. It took her nearly four minutes before she could reach the family tent, a walk that usually took a minute or so.

The family tent was extremely clean and tidy, courtesy of her mother’s unwavering love for everything hygienic. However, the interior setup was nothing compared to the fully furnished and bespoke interior design of the family home back in Bujumbura.

This is something Sandrine was not able to recall as she was a mere infant when her family fled the political instability in Burundi. The small tent, her mother, and her big brother are all she remembered growing up.

The courage to form questions around the death of her father had continuously sought failed asylum in Sandrine. It however found solace in moderating the dialogue her mother silently held with the Universe.

Victor Kagimba

»Mama, Is San(t)a1 real?«

The mother turned around in time to meet Sandrine’s large inquisitive eyes aimed at her with no intentions of missing any shots.

»San(t)a?Ibyo ni ibiki?« The mother responded and embraced Sandrine before tickling her silly. Sandrine let out a splintering giggle as she attempted to get away from the mother’s tight grip.

»Ngo San(t)a? Are you speaking Swahili?«2

»I... saw... it on TV.« She recited midway through, holding in laughter.


The mother took a closer look at her daughter’s smiling face.

»Yes, San(t)a gives presents to kids.«


»Yes, in the film.«


The mother continued to ask as she slowly folded a piece of clothing.

»Yes, next to the big house«

»I warned you about wandering off to these areas.«

»I wasn’t –«

»Let us be careful sibyo?«

Sandrine quietly nodded before pointing at a white 10-liter jerry can containing fermented milk.

»Urashaka ikivuguto?«

The nod was followed by a headshake.

»San(t)a looks like that!«

»You mean white?«

«Yego! His hair and his…« Sandrine rubbed her chin and cheeks with both her hands.


»Yego! It is all white! noneho yambara red and white like coca cola – and! The grass was white too!« Her eyes became larger as she waited for the mother to show a trace of disbelief.

«Kandi…« Sandrine continued anyway »these cows with very big horns that go like this pulled a flying car.« The mother noticed that the horn gesture her daughter made depicted the amaraba traditional dance. Dancers move their arms to imitate the majestic shape of cow horns.

»Uziko uzi kubyina! Do that again«

Clap. Pause. Clap. Clap. Pause. Clap. The mother wasted no time in using her hands to set up the tempo. Sandrine threw her a questioning look before hesitantly striking the same pose and gently moving to the tempo.

Clap. Pause. Clap. Clap. Clap. Pause. Clap. Pause. Clap. Pause. Clap. Clap. Clap. Pause.

The brother walked in and immediately joined in on the clapping.

The mother left the clapping to the son and joined Sandrine.

»The car was in the air like a bird, mama!«

»I am sure it was. Look at you go!«

Clap. Pause. Clap. Clap. Pause. Clap. Pause. Clap. Clap.

»Cars don't fly. You mean indege?«

Her brother asked as he tried to keep up with a then sped-up tempo.

»Not a plane! I know what a plane looks like, dummy.«

Clap. Pause. Clap. Clap. Pause. Clap. Pause. Clap. Clap. Pause. Clap. Clap.

»Mama, did we have a car in Burundi?«

Clap. Pause. c-l-a-p.

The mother and the brother transitioned to slow claps and looked at Sandrine who continued to sluggishly dance to a fading tempo. Their faces seemed to struggle with the memory. Either that or they were too stunned to speak. The clapping stopped.

»Not a lot of people had cars back home in our village.«

The mother half answered after succumbing to the flashback.

»But Uncle Albert had a car.« The brother spat out. »Dad would drive it now and then.«

Sandrine connected the dots. They had no car. She stopped dancing and pondered on asking about her father. She pondered a bit more. No one spoke or made a sound for a while.

»I want to join the army.«

»So what is this about San(t)a again?«

The brother and mother broke the quietude but spoke at the same time.


1 In Kirundi, mainly spoken in Burundi, words with »nta« eliminate the letter »t« in their pronounciation. This goes for Kinyarwanda, mainly spoken in Rwanda, as well. For example, »nta kibazo« (meaning »no problem«) is pronounced »na kibazo«. »Santa« sounded like Sana to the agasobanuye dude, to Sandrine, and now the mother.

»sana« means »very« in Swahili, which is used as a lingua franca across East Africa.



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