A day in my Burundian life

Today was a typical day in my Burundian life, one of a succession of days that seem to be flying past faster and faster. On Friday my Burundi trip will be half over already!! I woke up when the sun streamed through the window, went back to sleep, finally got out of bed around seven, took my disgusting medication, had another bone-freezing shower, put on Nice Trousers and a Nice Shirt and headed down to breakfast- eggs and tea again, eggs and tea eggs and tea eggs and tea since the day I got here. It’s monotonous but it’s included in the rent. A greasy, salty mess of an omelette served by Silent Man who smiles a smile that lights up his whole face when I say “Murakozé” (thank you) or “Mwaramutsé” (good morning) in Kirundi. I linger over my eggs and tea, reading one of the two English books I brought with me. It’s a novel about South Sudan, 700 pages long but I’d like to finish it before I leave because I want to give it to Pierre. When he came over last time, I noticed him stroking it. “A novel in English!” he said. “I’ve never even seen one!” What the hell? A guy who has done a bachelor’s in English literature but never seen an English novel?!

I walk to work around eight, passing Athanase on my way out. He has just gotten a job as a high school geography teacher and leaves every morning on his bicycle, dressed in a Nice Shirt and Nice Trousers like me. He makes 100,000 francs a month– less than one week’s rent for me. I pass dozens of women and little girls– sometimes guys too– walking elegantly past with huge bundles on their heads. I pass motorcycle-taxis hurtling in all directions, clusters of people outside kiosk stores buying Coca-Cola and cell phone credit for the day, and little children in blue and white uniforms walking to school. I haven’t seen those goats for awhile and I can only guess they’ve been made into brochettes. The cries of “mzungu! mzungu!” (white foreigner! white foreigner!) have become less frequent as people have gotten used to me. If Joelle, the dean of the management faculty who looks about eighteen with her young face and tight, flashy clothes, happens to be passing by in her car she’ll give me a lift. I start looking around for Eric, the helpful young guy in charge of computers, printers, adapters and other such things, so he can print out my worksheets. But Alexis, my boss, gets to me first. “The electricity is out.”

Well, this is a fantastic state of affairs on the day I was supposed to teach online research methods!

It’s the dry season right now, and power outages are as much a part of the dry season as dust. The country runs on hydro from Lake Tanganyika, an idea that could have only been thought up in the rainy season. It reminds me of a story my grandmother used to tell…when she was about fifteen, she found a job picking blueberries, and she was making lots of money by high school standards. So she ordered a bicycle from a mail-order catalogue. She realized too late that blueberry season was not going to last all year, and when the season ended she had not made all the payments yet. The most embarrassing moment of her entire adolescence was when the repo men came to take back her shiny new bicycle.

Hydro is wonderful…until there’s no water. But yesterday when I was going into town I smelled the smell of wet earth and rain coming in from the hills along with the diesel fuel, so there is hope.

Egide, a friend of Pierre’s who works in Student Affairs, corners Alexis and me and we grumble about the erratic power. Last year, Alexis says, there was a generator and we had power all the time, but the World Bank was providing the money for the fuel. The money was cut off because the World Bank had some reason to believe the money was being mismanaged. But is that my students’ fault?! You can’t have development without the internet, you can’t have the internet without computers, you can’t have computers without electricity. The World Bank, then, is who I should be blaming for tying my students’ hands. They are otherwise educated people, aspiring journalists, who have no clue how to use Google. They know online research methods are important. But some caviar-eating capitalist caricatures in New York have decided austerity is more important than my kids joining the digital age.
The discussion turns into a bitter indictment of a whole range of things– the West, which through denying visas and first dangling and then cutting off aid, makes it harder for people to realize their ambitions, and the Burundian government, which by providing no opportunities for intellectuals, not ensuring things like electricity and secondary education, and paying civil servants next to nothing, certainly doesn’t help. Egide’s words (name changed as usual) , not mine.
“When this government first came to power, doctors were so poor that they had to hitchhike to work like day labourers. Can you imagine, a doctor standing by the side of the road looking for a lift? But two years ago, they went on strike, for two days. Every one. They even closed the emergency services. They said, ‘We know this is inhumane, but it’s also inhumane that you treat us like this and we can barely pay rent after paying for seven years of schooling to help the public! Go on, care for your electorate!’ So the government was on its knees. It had no choice but to give them what they wanted.”

Just before my class starts, we go for coffee in the staffroom. Burundians drink coffee like my mom and grandmother drink it, almost as much milk as coffee. And thick with sugar. According to Burundian custom, I high-five all my colleagues before going into class.

The students in my 10:00 class trickle in– I have about twelve who come in on a regular basis. One is sick, and one couldn’t scrape together 300 francs (35 cents) for the bus. I suddenly realize that the online research methods workshop was all I had planned for that day. They need to speak more, but a conversation circle about exams falls flat. Fortunately I find that the things I pull out of my ear in front of the class are often better than anything I plan in advance. They need to speak more, they need to speak more…so I teach them quickly about timed arguments and rebuttals, split them into teams and give them 15 minutes to get their arguments together on “This house resolves that university should be free.” Time limits must be respected, no interruptions, and everyone must speak at least once. The students jump on it, and have the most spirited discussion I’ve ever heard them have since the class started. I’m proud of them and proud of me, they are clearly enjoying themselves, and they give me a nice list of possible topics for the next debate. The Bat Cave Debating Society. I like the sound of that.

After class Emilie walks me home– she always insists on carrying my laptop– and we look at pictures for awhile on my laptop. Then she eventually leaves to go eat, and I fix myself lunch– a Spam sandwich, disgusting as that sounds, since that’s easiest. I enjoy it on the communal balcony across from my room, reading a book, with the warm wind rustling my hair.

The afternoon is for going into town and exploring or running errands. I poke around the blue and white Greek Orthodox church and the French cultural centre library– wherever I go, I always visit these libraries because even in the craziest city, they are quiet, cozy little nests. I do a bit of grocery shopping and buy a sack of beignets (we would call them doughnut holes or Timbits) for the beggars. I go into Aroma Café to grab an iced tea and check my email since I couldn’t do it at work. By this time it’s getting on toward evening and I know someone is going to want to go for drinks. In this case it is my friend Rick, who is leaving for Belgium in a day and wants to hang out one last time. It’s a funny story how I first met Rick a few weeks ago.

I was outside the bank across from Aroma Café, the place which has the highest concentration of beggars anywhere in the city. Although I usually bring them beignets or oranges, I didn’t have anything that time. I flag a random African guy down and ask him if he can tell the kids, in Kirundi, that I haven’t got any food today. He says to me (in Dutch) “Do you speak Dutch?” As it happens, I do, a bit, because before my first trip to Europe when I was 18, I listened to “Learn Dutch at home” tapes and thought it was the coolest language ever invented. Rick was a refugee who lived his entire adolescence in Holland. I muddle through in Dutch for a good 10 minutes before we switch to French. We start talking about street kids and he invites me to continue the discussion over coffee. It turns out that he has all these dreams of starting a foundation and an orphanage for street kids, and over the next week we meet up a few times and he decides I should be the communications director. I scale that down to ‘webmaster’, because it would be a conflict of interest for a journalist like me to do press relations, and I agree. I go visit the construction site, meet his lawyer friend who is their legal affairs person, and the three of us become a bit of a team. For too short a time, unfortunately.

While I’m waiting for Rick and Baptiste, the lawyer, a bunch of street kids come up and grab my beignets out of my hands squabbling over them. One boy gets to me too late. I tell him I have nothing. He doesn’t believe me and stares at me with dull hostility. I tell him again and he spits in my face. He could not have been more than seven. I’m more sad than angry, sad for him, that the people who put him into the word could not be bothered to teach him anything like manners.
And I understand his hostility. He is staring at someone who has education, nice clothes, and at least one warm meal every single day….something that he won’t have. And why? Because of where he was born The whole injustice of global capitalism is in that one cold look.

Rick and Baptiste arrive. We go into the only air conditioned café in town and the three of us share glasses of sweet-sour passionfruit juice (they call it maracoudja here). It’s getting on toward eight o’clock, so I head for the bus station. Fortunately there is a bus waiting, although it is full to bursting and I have to make myself as tiny as possible to fit. On more than one occasion I’ve seen the teenage boys who collect the money and help the drivers looking at me like, ‘Is she skinny enough to fit?’. When I get off the bus it is dark as dark can be– night falls quickly here– and for a few minutes I think I’m lost, but I fumble my way back home, record the next day’s listening task, and on this particular day, sit down and blog, keeping Athanase company as he puts the finishing touches on his thesis and listens to Céline Dion and Eric Lapointe.

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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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