I’m back in London but Burundi is on my mind. I keep going back to the border crossing experience, the edginess that the country has over Rwanda, the noisy generator that kept breaking down. And Andrew, the South African who was in the bar drinking heavily and who incessantly called out for the waiter, he must have named, during the opening game of the World Cup. “Rubbish”, he would shout out, “Rubbish” what’s heppening men?” in between swigs of Red Bull, Heineken and a fondle of the prostitute in a tight fitting outfit on his right arm. I longed to ask him what he did for a living. I overheard him say ” I love money too much”. In a way it was best to try and conjure up his occupation in life – a mercenary, a drug dealer, a pimp perhaps. Later that night and I mean later, like 4 am…I could hear him on the balcony facing the reception that overlooked the secure car park where our Suzuki 4×4 was stationed. “Yeeeeeep. Yeeeeep. ” he would utter, in an almost comatose drunken stupor. Amazing that he was still standing – the Red Bull had obviously done the trick. It was interesting to notice that the following evening it was as if he’d had some personality change. The Andrew personality of the first night had mysteriously vanished. It was as if he’d been lobotomised. The Andrew of night two and night three were unrecognisable in comparison to the Andrew of night one – a shadow of his former self really. He no longer even shouted out for ‘Rubbish’.
Crossing over from Rwanda into Burundi was a fairly easy experience. The money exchange guy at the border swopped American dollars for the softest, most well handled notes I have ever had the pleasure of touching. They felt like gentle cotton cloth ; the print showed the wide-eyed President Pierre Nkurunziza with a slim moustache who stared out fixing you with his doe-eyed gaze. The only surprise I got after my passport had been checked and stamped at the Rwandan exit post, was the Muzungu I bumped into as I turned to leave, the sight of another White person now quite unfamiliar to me.
I never quite got used to the sight of camouflaged army patrolmen with guns alongside the roads that hugged the mountain that snaked down towards Bujumbura. Neither on the way there nor on the way back.
Upon my return my neighbour sent me this link with this message, “I hope you did not jog in Burundi.” http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/magazine-27818254 What I did know is that while I was there, I heard reports of increased tension between Rwanda and Congo, which had resulted in some border ‘skirmishes’. All the FXB staff members pooh-poohed the very idea of any real problem. Listening to another news report I listened to an item about fighting between a Ugandan rebel army and Congolese troops in the National Park. All in all the atmosphere is one of calm – but there is a sense that troops on the ground are a necessary thing. Back in Bujumbura I ask our brilliant translator Paul Sindi if we could look for the Peace and Love bar which Tim Franks, the BBC correspondent had found. I so wanted to find the bar where the correspondent had ‘thrown some shapes’. We asked many people but found no Peace and Love. Though I did find this quite cool little youtube video on my return ▶ L’Avenir – Live buzz – Peace and love : Burundi – YouTube
( contd below)
It’s the food ordering that had been quite the challenge. The Splendid Hotel in Giterama, the Best View Hotel in Musanze, the Credo Hotel in Butare would wrestle for first prize in a bad service merit award. Pointing at a photograph of a hamburger Pierre thought he was safe to order until a ham and cheese white bread sandwich arrived instead. The order of a simple toasted cheese served to push him over the edge. Pierre waited for an hour, and watched me happily chomp through my three course set menu ,when finally a toastie did arrive. Smiling and ravenous Pierre bit into it. I saw his expression darken as he seemed to angrily prize the toasted sandwich apart – “that’s the final straw”, he muttered through gritted teeth, as he revealed the fried egg, not the cheese, that he had so eagerly anticipated, in-between the two slices of tasteless white toast. Just to add insult to injury Pierre mentioned that his view at the Best View Hotel was of the Best View Hotel sign. At the Credo Hotel I asked for ‘just vegetables, please’ and was surprised when a plate of beef cubes alongside the vegetables arrived. I suggested to the waiter, whom we had nicknamed Manuel, that he may have been mistaken. He smiled benignly and stared blankly as I passed ‘le boeuf’ to Pierre. The menu suggested that we may want a ‘warm entry’ as opposed to a ‘cold entry’ which was also on offer. What I loved was the Tilapia fish from Lake Victoria and the Mukeke ,a delicious meaty fish from the deepest lake in the world, Lake Tanganyika.
As we drove past the Auberge Kayanza on our way out over the mountains back towards Kigali, I thought about our first meal at the ‘Inn’ in Burundi. Paul Sindi, Damascene and Pierre were silently sitting around the lunch table picking their teeth with toothpicks as is customary after a meal in East Africa. Johnny Cash was playing on the radio. “Is it getting better or do you feel the same? will it make it easier on you now if you’ve got someone to blame…you said one love one life….we get to share/ it leaves you baby if you don’t care for it/ did I disappoint you/or leave a bad taste in your mouth/we get to carry each other/have you come here for forgiveness?”….I was sad to leave Burundi feeling like the time there had been too short.I was just getting to appreciate the chaos, the untidiness and the filth (a contrast to Rwanda’s orderliness and cleanliness), the road insanity as a no traffic light policy presides, the men with their shiny brightly coloured smart shirts with their accessories of the wild sunglasses, the beautiful women side saddled on the bicycle taxis. I sighted one young woman who could have been signed up as a new super model in an instant. Paul said ‘you find her beautiful ?’ “yes I said, she’s exquisite…on a par with Iman, Alek Wek or Naomi Campbell”. “Oh he said she would have no admirers here , she is way too thin.”
“Oh you are so thin”, my friend Jac, said throwing her arms around me with a worried look on her face,as I arrived back in London. I think back to the days when Robbie Tshabalala called me ‘mafuta’ (fattie) and I think about the beautiful young woman sitting side saddle on the bicycle as she disappeared into a line of traffic in Bujumbura.