N.B The Bat Cave is my classroom, so called because there is no electric light and on gray days I have to find the students by echolocation.
Yesterday (Sunday) I came home bone exhausted. I walked all the way downtown from my suburb, which took me over two hours, with random people starting conversations with me and bulls and goats walking across my path. But the happy result was that I now knew my neighbourhood as well as the locals did. I went down to the Central Market and bought toothpaste and a huge sack of oranges, trying not to trip over the bright piles of bananas and pineapples, elbowing my way past the thousands of people buying things, selling things, haggling and hissing “mzungu!” at me and the one other foreigner who I noticed, trying loudly to get me to buy cloth for a boubou (a long, loud African gown) or a huge, overpriced pile of stinking, silver-gray fish. A friend of Antoine’s stopped me over by the bookstore (I was finally able to practice the Burundian custom of high-fiving one’s acquaintances in the street) and told me to check out the East African Products Exhibition, so I poked my head in the exhibition hall and, along with a few dozen wealthier Burundians, looked at the rows of sandals carved chairs, boubous and incongruous plastic vegetable cutters. I went to Greg’s favourite café to buy an iced tea, and then I kind of went into culture shock. The café in question is an aspiring Starbucks, and the only place in Burundi where you’ll find posters in English advertising yoga and modern dance classes. There’s another, more established cybercafé nearby as well as a large international bank (where I found out, to my joy, that my Canadian bank card worked) and a Forex.
The beggars weren’t stupid. They were there too, with their tiny beggar children. I don’t give them money– old habit from the Western world where everyone assumes beggars drink up all the money they are given–but when I have the chance I always give them food. I gave three of the kids oranges, and they went skipping triumphantly back to their mothers. In two seconds I was surrounded by men, women and children who were ripping my oranges from my hands and then from each other’s hands. It was truly scary, especially to watch two women older than me fight over an orange that I’d been trying to hand to a toddler. It reminded me of the time I had accidentally spilled a bag of bird seed all over my feet at Hyde Park in London. Only now instead of pigeons, these were people, fellow humans.
I mentioned this to Greg later. “Yeah, the prostitutes who hang out over there at night would spend two days with me for 1000 francs (about 80 cents)).” he said. “It’s really sad the way some people here live.”
Greg and I met up, as promised, to go to the zoo-ethnographical complex known as the Musée vivant or Living Museum. Pierre and Emilie joined us, as did Elisabeth (another one of my students), Christophe (Greg’s Kirundi teacher) and Simon (Christophe’s little brother). While the crocodile ponds were a bit scummy and one of the fish in the fish tanks was dead, it was generally not in quite so bad repair as I feared. There were three crocodiles in separate tanks, a mother and baby gazelle and a healthy, beautiful white leopard. There was a cage of live guinea pigs to throw to the carnivores, but none of our group really had the guts. We took pictures of an inquisitive monkey who poked his head out of a perfectly shaped hole in his cage, and high-fived a chimpanzee…I HIGH-FIVED A CHIMPANZEE! Then it was time for the snake room– Pierre squealed like a teenage girl and initially refused to come in. In the snake room there were dozens of snakes, from harmless garden snakes to poisonous black mambas to huge, sleeping boa constrictors curled up in tanks far too small for them. The keeper, who looked like he should be in middle school, took out the green garden snake and asked Greg and I if we wanted to touch it. We said yes, and soon there was a crowd of terrified schoolgirls watching the bright green garden snake slithering over the hands of the two crazy white tourists. Emilie went to get Pierre, who initially would not come near us.
“Fears are there to be conquered,” I said. Pierre came within a normal distance. Soon Pierre, once a committed reptile-phobic, was caressing the green snake. Was it to impress me or Greg or Emilie? To not look like a fool? To prove he could do anything the eight-year-old schoolgirls could do? I dunno. But either way, he conquered his snake fear and I salute him.
The ethnographic part of the museum was a cluster of three huts, which looked like enormous hollow haystacks. Inside were recreations of how people- both ordinary people and kings- lived, cooked (around a fire) and slept (on beds of woven straw that actually looked pretty comfortable). There was a tall, gregarious Burundian there who told us a legend he had heard– in the old days, whenever the chief was making love, several courtiers hid under the bed and whooped and cheered on the two participants. If one of the courtiers themselves got a hard-on in the process, he was kicked out of the village.
We sat in a circle outside the hut and told stories. Greg and I mostly talked about gay pride parades and snow. The looks of amazement on the Burundians’ faces when those things are mentioned will probably never grow old, at least for me. Here, it is illegal to be a practicing homosexual. I had a surprisingly civil debate about this with Pascal and Athanase, my other Burundian housemate. I’m proud of myself becuse I resisted the temptation to call the Christian Bible “a two thousand year old book.” I managed to convince them that homosexuality was not a threat to society and that it was just something straight people did not and could not understand– does an African understand why a Chinese person eats dog?– but one of them still believes there are no homosexuals in Bujumbura. Heh. I think there are at least two, and that’s not looking outside my own circle of friends.