N.B. Please comment and like this post. I would like for it to end up Freshly Pressed if possible, because if the right person reads it we could make real change. Thanks.
Today (Monday) there was no class because it was the day exam results were posted, so everyone was either out celebrating, at home sulking, or queuing outside their dean’s office to argue. No one told Pierre, Emilie or Générose, so we talked about food for an hour and a half before giving up. After that it was time for the free cybercafé– after class, I hook my laptop up to the one ethernet cord in the multimedia garage and sit there for two hours while I let my students check their email. If the whole department knew about that, attendance at my classes would quadruple. In between talking with my bank, with the editors at the Gazette and with Université Laval, I had a brief discussion with my mom. She had the day off– the high school where she teaches was closed due to power cuts.
Closed due to power cuts? North Americans, frankly. are pansies. I don’t think we’ve had one electrically lighted session in my classroom since the beginning of the semester. The buildings are configured to let in as much light as possible, which is wonderful on bright sunny days. But on gray days it is absolutely useless. I’ve taken to calling my classroom the Bat Cave. On rainy days, I have to find my students by echolocation. Luckily their outdoor voices are coming along quite nicely.
After class and lunch, I hopped on a motorcycle taxi and went to visit Pierre at his family’s house in a neighbourhood called Nyakabiga. In Nyakabiga the roads become unpaved tracks of rusty red dust and rocks. The long, low, slapdash houses look like enlarged sheds. Pierre is waiting for me as I get off the motorbike and opens the door to his courtyard, Chickens run around in the rusty red dust and squawk to see me. There’s a water pump on one side and on the other side some rusty, ancient workout equipment on which a few boys in their early teens are playing. Pierre introduces me to his three younger brothers, who shake my hand. The last kid doesn’t.
“And this is Brahim. He’s our groom.”
The boys vanish into thin air as soon as they’ve said “bonjour” to me.
“You know. our house boy. He’s there to make the meals, do some of the cleaning, so my mother can go to work…”
I’ve gotten used to Burundian families having paid servants. I figured it was a sort of altruistic way to counteract the shortage of jobs. And to some extent it is. But…
“Does he go to school?”
“What do you mean, he doesn’t go to school? How old is he, twelve? Thirteen?” I was shaking with outrage. Someone as kind and as well-educated as Pierre should understand the importance of sending kids like that to school.
“I teach him a little,” said Pierre. “Some math, some French. He’s been through a few years of primary school. If we give him money and tell him to go buy something he knows what the price should be.”
“But if he doesn’t go to school, what is he going to do when he grows up?” I said, thinking of Terence, the guy who cooks breakfast at my rooming house. He speaks in grunts and doesn’t understand French. I asked Pascal, my neighbour, about him once. Pascal shrugged and said, “Terence never went to school.”
Brahim came in to get us a huge bottle of beer, which he opened and Pierre and I shared. “Tu parles français?” I asked him.
His “Non” was barely audible, but at being addressed his face broke in to an enormous, shy grin. His huge, bright brown eyes held mine for a second and something inside me broke.
“You don’t know how bad it is in the hills.” Pierre said. “His parents live in a little village and they have nothing. They figure that if they send him to the city he will at least find a job. We feed him and give him a little money.”
“Which he sends back to his parents.”
“But how is it that he doesn’t go to school? In thirty years this country is going to develop and digitize and people like that are going to be left in the dust. And if he grows up illiterate then probably his kids are going to grow up illiterate.” I couldn’t get out of my head the boy with the bright intelligent eyes and the filthy Minnesota Vikings sweatshirt who had never touched a computer or read a novel.
“I know. But that’s the way it is.”
” Emilie volunteered to teach me Kirundi for free, I should ask her to go and teach this kid French instead. Since there’s a job shortage for young university graduates and education is so important, I wonder why someone doesn’t start an NGO and hire people like you to go tutor those kids!”
“If someone founded an NGO the money would go into all the wrong pockets. The government takes it all,” he said, lowering his voice so only I could hear. ” When the power goes off everywhere in the city it’s never off at the president’s house. We all really, really don’t like the government, but we have to speak in low voices. I’ve heard stories about guys talking to their friends in bars who say bad things about the government. A few days later someone shows up at their house with a gun. They say, ‘Why are you shooting at me?’ And the person with the gun says, ‘What was that you said at that bar? We have the tape.’ There are recorders everywhere.”
That story sounds a little out there, to be honest. But people believe it, evidently, and belief is a powerful thing.
Pierre brought out his rejection letter from Canadian immigration to show me. He had been accepted to pursue a masters in literature at Université Laval (one of the most prestigious graduate schools in the French-speaking world) and his uncle in Canada had offered to help him financially, but Canadian immigration had rejected his application because they were unsure he would return to the country after the visa expired, given ‘limited job possibilities in the field.’ That is prejudice plain and simple. If Canadian students were refused places in universities based on job possibilities, there would be hardly any places in literature! If I, an American, applied, I would be accepted immediately. But Pierre is an African with ambition, and, it seems, the first world doesn’t allow Africans to act on their ambitions. So Pierre must sit on his. His parents discouraged him from trying again because they said the money could be used to feed his six brothers and sisters. “One of my dreams is that one of those days I’ll see Canada, but I’ve really lost my nerve,” he said.
A little while later, the Hope Squad scored its victory for the evening though. Pierre was explaining to me that his Kirundi name meant “thank God” because he was the first healthy baby his mother had delivered after two stillbirths.
“My first two sisters had died when they were born, so when I was born my mother said, ‘thank God,'” he said. “She had been trying, she’d been so sad, crying and thinking maybe she would never had any children. She lost her nerve. But really it was just that she had to wait.”
“She lost her nerve, but really all she had to do was keep trying and wait,” I said. “Sounds like someone else I spoke to today.”
“No, fool! You!”
“Ha! You’re exactly right.”
I thought he was saying that just to make me happy, but his outlook really did seem to change from that moment on. With his cousin Laurent, the three of us were soon spinning joyful tales about snowball fights, about him and me walking into the same class at Laval one fall day (he wants to study journalism too) and me taking him to the Salvation Army to get a winter coat.
The mistake he made, we decided, was doing his application entirely through the mail, where he really was just a number, and not going to Nairobi in person to do a visa interview so the immigration officials could see what a nice young man he was. He was going to do the whole thing over again.
Better yet, I thought privately later on, those immigration officials should come to Nyakabiga. If they had any compassion, they would be able to see that Pierre’s place is in a well-stocked universlty library and not in that dusty courtyard. But then again, if they came to Nyakabiga they would certainly wonder why anyone would want to come back there, and they would reject Pierre’s application because they would fail to believe that he’d come back. And heaven forbid he stay.
An African being allowed to act out of self-interest? We can’t have that.
The sheer lack of human fellow-feeling that people exhibit sometimes just makes me want to punch holes in walls.
Let’s take me as an example. I happened to be born in a first-world country, the only child of a solidly middle-class, well-read and doting family who could and did give moral and financial support to all of my dreams, no matter how silly (becoming an Olympic figure skater), farfetched (becoming a reporter), unusual (spending a year abroad in St Petersburg) or frivolous (spending my winter vacation attending a figure skating competition in Finland and a concert in Paris).
Compare that for a second to the situation of Pierre, or of Brahim. A fourth-grade education, working as a household servant in a household that is itself too poor to send Pierre to Nairobi, replace the bedroom curtains with doors, or even ensure that the electricity keeps flowing. Whatever happens to Pierre, even in the worst case scenario he will end up a teacher and provide for his family. Brahim will grow up semiliterate. Could he have become a teacher? A doctor? An Olympic weightlifter? A translator? We’ll never know. Could his kids have done? We probably won’t know that either.
It is a sheer accident of fate that I, right now, am writing these lines in English on a computer, wearing a clean shirt and trousers, in a well lit rooming house. It is just an accident that I, right now, am not semiliterate, bent over a hot stove cooking beans and rice for someone else’s children for a few dollars a week, wearing a 20-year-old cast-off shirt from Canada or the US or the Netherlands and the only skirt I own. It’s an accident. An accident, that’s all.
What is it that decides that my dreams are achievable with the slightest bit of work, Pierre has to sit on his, and Brahim can’t even have any? What a random, broken world we live in.