“What’s a bank machine?”

A Friday evening, waiting for people to get their various acts together. Just finished doing every single piece of laundry I had…by hand. My hands are red and raw and one of my wrists is killing me. Greg’s suggested solution was to hire a laundress, but I couldn’t bring myself to do that. I could have used the house’s laundry service, but they charge by the piece…about 40 cents for every sock, shirt and pair of briefs. And there are reasons I don’t want the all-male (very friendly, but all-male all the same) staff touching my underwear. So it’s back to the early 20th century. I had this discussion with my class, too, when we were talking about Burundians’ tendency to have many kids. No labour-saving devices, huge families, widespread disease…it really isn’t all that different from stories my grandmother (who was one of twelve, of which ten lived to adulthood, and who still hand-washes a lot of her clothes) used to tell me about growing up in West Virginia. Maybe the children and grandchildren of Emilie, Pierre, Audrade, Générose, Nadège and the rest, used to washing machines, hot water, wireless internet and TV dinners, will just giggle and marvel about how ‘underdeveloped’ their great-grandparents’ lives were.

Yesterday afternoon I went on the bus for myself for the first time. As a foreigner I was offered the front seat in the middle. The bus lurched off and I realized…I am in the front seat with no seatbelt. We are going 40 miles an hour down a potholed road in a city where other drivers could care less what is on the road in front of them. If anything goes wrong, they will be scraping what’s left of me off the road with a spatula. It was the second time in my life (the first being three years ago, stuck in a blizzard for nine hours on a highway in Ste-Foy) that I honestly thought, “It is entirely possible that I could die.”

Luckily I’m writing this, so obviously nothing happened. The bus dropped me off in front of an electronics shop called “ObamaShop” which plays nonstop loud reggae tunes praising its namesake and tapes of his speeches, as if he were Chairman Mao or something. Street vendors also use his face to sell strawberry chewing gum. I wonder if he could find Burundi on a map? He is a lot more popular here than back in the States, I can tell you that.

Burundian men in downtown Buja most often wear the oddest donated t-shirts. “Stockett family reunion 1997: The family that prays together stays together … Ontario University Athletics Hockey Championship 2003 … Bethesda Crab House… Dear Santa, I can Explain…49% Angel 51% Devil ” were only a few of the ones I saw. Mr. Bethesda Crab House actually did me a good turn. Someone stole 4000 francs (about $3.50 but enough for dinner) from my pocket, and Mr. Bethesda Crab House gave it back to me! I let him keep 500.

There is one unsettling thing about being downtown. Everywhere you turn, people ar hissling at you…”sssst!” and calling out “Mzungu! Mzungu!” (“white person! white person!” or “foreigner! foreigner!”) Once again I make a Russia reference for my friends who have lived there. It’s like being called “Devushka! Devushka!” ALL the time.

Emilie and I met up and took a nice walk around the city. She pointed to a bank machine under a little roof. “What is the purpose of that building?” she asked.
“That’s for a bank machine!”
“But what is a bank machine?”
“You get a job and you get a salary, then you go to a bank and you open an account,” I explained. “You get a little card and a secret code. When you get paid, your employer puts the money in your bank account. Then, whenever you need cash, you put the card in the machine, enter the secret code, choose how much money you need and it gives you the money. Then you take the card and the money and leave.”
“Oh. I always wondered what that was for.”
Later she asked what a postcard was. “Well it’s a card like this,” I made a postcard-sized rectangle with my hands. On one side there’s a big picture of the place where you are, and then on the other side there’s space for an address, and a stamp, and a little space to write a letter. See, here’s a postcard,” I said, stepping into the tourist office and drawing an amazed look from a beautiful blond French woman who herself was flipping through the postcards.
“Oh! I never heard of that.”
We met up with Greg, and shared fish brochettes. Emilie listened politely as Greg and I reminisced about university residence life, embarrassing drunken incidents, gay pride parades, snow sculpture festivals and so much other stuff that was so many worlds away from Burundi that it was hard to imagine Ottawa and Bujumbura– let alone Ottawa and the village where Emilie was born– could be on the same planet.

But they are.

Another Welcome to Africa Moment: As I walked out of the house on Saturday morning, I could hear the sound of marching feet and a huge group of people singing a song in Kirundi. I looked out the window, and saw they were all dressed identically in white clothes with white hats. Having watched too many movies about the civil war and genocide in Rwanda, I at first thought, “Oh my god. A militia. In my neighbourhood.”
Then I noticed that a strangely significant portion of the group were middle aged women.
Suddenly one of the young men stepped out of the line to high-five me. I recognized the young man as Gilles, one of Antoine’s friends.
“Gilles!” I said. “What is this?”
“This?” said Gilles. “It’s the neighbourhood jogging club!”

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About msmarguerite

Young Quebec City-based freelance journalist. once and future nomad. I blog about life, about travel, about things I notice and every so often about work. I enjoy language learning, singing, swing dancing, skating and...other stuff, sometimes. My heart is somewhere in East Africa, Haiti or Eastern Europe. English, français, русский, malo slovensko, un poco de espanol, um pouco de português ndiga ikirundi, mwen ap aprann kreyòl...
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