A Weekend to Remember
Well, it had to happen once. I have been robbed.
It happened last Friday, on a day that started off well enough. A few days earlier I had let it slip to Antoine that my birthday was coming up– I had been trying to keep that under wraps because I had heard that in Burundian tradition it is the birthday person who pays…isn’t that screwy? He wanted to have the party at my rooming house, but I didn’t know how well that would sit with Athanase, Pascal, the Professor, and my other neighbours.
“Well, all right,” said Antoine, without skipping a beat. “We’ll have it at Honorine’s place. Who are you inviting? Greg? Athanase? Pierre of course…maybe Fiacre? Give me 50,000 francs (about $40) and I’ll do the rest. What’s everybody drinking?”
Antoine is really a master organizer. He gave Pierre the job of herding my students– which when I try to do it is like herding wild cats. Two days later, at five-thirty on the dot, the first guest (my student Dieudonné) walked in. He works as a photographer’s assistant– the only one of my students with a job. He gave me a huge hug and handed me a beautiful wooden bird he’d found in the market. The other presents were much more modest– a bag of nuts and a drawing of a candle– but the drawing of a candle is on my wall, where it lights up my room. I often have self-esteem issues, anyone who knows me knows this, and often I think I am far from the best teacher these kids (most of whom are older than me because the war closed the schools for several years) could have. But I do my best, and they like me both as a teacher and as a friend…and I find that really, really touching. This was proof of that.
Not long afterward, Pierre shows up, trailing behind him my students Générose, Jeannine, Elisabeth, Ousmane, Clovis, loud Michel, quiet Michel, Ella, Nadège and Gilles…more than I can expect to see in class on any given day anyway. Emilie appears a few minutes later, trailing behind her Athanase and– to my pleasant surprise– Alexis, my boss. Greg shows up in a taxi and immediately, in his loud voice, starts regaling everyone with stories about his travels in South America. Alexis, in a rare moment of relaxation, starts speaking to me in Russian. The beer and Fanta are flowing I get to have a good, relaxed chat with each and every member of my class.
As the guests start drifting away (Athanase has to go back and watch over the house while Pascal is out of town, and Générose’s landlady gives her a 9 p.m. curfew even though she’s 27 years old) Antoine, Greg and I (a bit under the influence at this point) start thinking it might be a good idea to go out dancing. We walk to our favourite little local place, where we run into a bunch of Antoine’s friends. We get more beer, soak up a little of the alcohol with fried plantains and migrate to a huge, nameless outdoor dance club. I am wearing my camera bag because I think it might be safer that way. It’s totally dark in the club. I dance with Antoine and then with two or three strangers, forgetting for a moment that Greg and I are the only foreigners in the club. I go back to the table and reach into my pocket to check the time (not sure why I cared what time it was but that’s not the point).
My phone isn’t there.
I reach into my camera bag to see if it’s there…and it’s not there either. Neither is my wallet, come to that, or my camera. It starts to sink into my brain– fairly drunk, high on music and dancing and fun times with friends– that I’ve been robbed. I come back to cold reality in about ten seconds. I spend about fifteen minutes yelling “Stop thief!” in three languages, trying to make myself understood and accosting every man I see wearing a green or gray shirt (the colours my partners were wearing) before I realize that it’s pointless. It’s well past two in the morning. Antoine gets a cab to take me and himself home and Greg decides to go with us. Before Antoine says good night to me, he promises to come over at 11:00 the next morning to help me buy a new phone.
When I get up to my room, I start sobbing. It sounds silly now, but at the time I felt like my heart was just breaking. I cried because such a wonderful night had ended so badly. I cried because I had no idea how I was going to replace the stuff. I cried because it wasn’t exactly easy for my parents to scrape together my birthday money and now I was going to have to go running to them again. I cried because the mere facts of having white skin and being a 20-something woman are like having a sign around my neck saying ‘Steal from this rich idiot.’ I cried because most of the stuff, except for the 30,000 francs (25 dollars or so) was useless to anyone but me (bank cards which didn’t work in Africa, my Canadian student ID, my Swiss discount rail card, my phone which was in Russian, my camera with the broken screen) and was probably laying in a gutter. I cried because the guy’s parents hadn’t raised him right. I cried because of the gaping global inequality which made this theft, of my too-numerous capitalist possessions, acceptable in a Robin Hood sort of way.
Like I said, it’s silly. Was I robbed and beaten? No. Did I have enough money at home to last me a few weeks? Yes. Did I lose $1000? No. Did I lose my passport, like the last time I was robbed? Not even. But at the time, it seemed like everything was ruined.
Then I heard someone knocking at my door. At first I didn’t answer. But the knocking continued, a polite tapping. It was Athanase.
“What are you doing up?” I asked him. “Was I too loud when I came in? I’m sorry.”
“No, Daniel came and woke me– the night watchman. He said, ‘Our friend came in, but something’s wrong with her.’ What happened?”
I was so moved– that Silent Man would call me ‘Our friend’ and that Athanase would come and ask about me at three in the morning– that I was at a loss for words for a minute. “We went to a club, I was robbed, and they took everything, Athanase,” I finally said. He gave me a quick, tight hug and told me, as Antoine had done, to try to sleep and not think about it until the morning.
I woke up early, but it was nearly noon when Antoine showed up, tripping all over himself apologizing, with a big tired smile on his face, inviting me to grab breakfast before we go downtown, because he just got up and rushed over to my place. The way he tells it, the night did not end for him or Greg when they dropped me off. Right in front of Honorine’s place, the taxi got a flat tire. After spending a long time trying to think up what to do, they took a tire off of Antoine’s borrowed SUV and had to use a jack to get it onto the cab. I’ll let Greg, raconteur that he is, tell the story from here: “Imagine me, drunk off my face, and two other guys– Honorine’s brother shows up at the last minute and he’d been out partying too–trying to jack this thing up, and the poor cabby working under the car, at three in the morning….well, we finally got the thing up, and I got home completely dead. Then, when I finally got to my place, I had to jump the wall because the security guard had fallen asleep.”
But before he went to bed, at 4 a.m., the last thing he did was call his brother in Canada and ask him to email me his new number, so I could put it in my phone right away.
What did I do to deserve friends like Antoine, Greg and Athanase? What fantastic deed did I do in a past life?
Breakfast at Antoine and Honorine’s place was white bread with avocado– spread on thickly like peanut butter and with a bit of salt added on top. It was delicious. Antoine’s uncle was there, and with him I had one of the more interesting conversations I’d had since I got to Burundi. When I explained to him what had happened to me, he started talking about God.
“What religion are you?” he asked. “Catholic? Protestant? Muslim?” There are only three choices here, but the three seem to coexist relatively peacefully.
“Um…she…doesn’t practice a religion…” said Antoine, trying to cover the awkward moment. I haven’t mentioned the A-word to him, but he figured it out somehow, I guess.
“You don’t have a religion?” said the uncle. “But how can you have morals?”
“Well, I don’t steal, I don’t deliberately lie, I try to avoid speaking ill of the dead or my father or my mother,” I said. “I don’t think you have to have a religion to have morals, I think you just have to be well raised.”
He thought about it for the moment. “I guess you’re right,” he said, and the conversation entered less awkward territory by mutual agreement.
Antoine ran into another one of his friends in the central market. With the friend leading the way, the three of us ran through the market, holding each other’s wrists like small children– running because Antoine had to be at a wedding reception in two hours– looking at phones, haggling and arguing until they got me a phone for about $15. It’s got a nice colour screen, a French interface and a camera, but it’s a Chinese piece of garbage which only holds a charge for about three hours. But for three weeks it will do.
When Antoine had gone, I went to meet Greg and his friend Civil. Civil lives in Kinama. How can I describe Kinama? It’s a poor neighbourhood, sure, but a bustling one. Hundreds and hundreds of people on the streets. A long row of women by the side of the road selling avocados, tomatoes, bananas, fish, peanuts. Beggars looking for money and little kids who had never before seen two bazungu (the plural of mzungu) together, following us for blocks. People calling at us from all directions: “Hey bazungu! Bonsoir! Good morning! Jambo! Amahoro!” Every sort of wheeled transit sharing the wide dirt highway. A bus slowing while some skinny long-horned cattle got out of its way. Women dressed in colourful boubous carrying all sorts of things on their heads. Men with piles of hay and leaves lashed to their backs. Baby goats and chickens running around everywhere. Brightly painted shop fronts with scenes of people, cows, fruit, Mr. T, a pop singer. Definite evidence of an Obama cult as we passed the Obama Bar, the Obama Beauty Salon and the Obama copy shop, and saw Obama gum wrappers and plastic sachets of Obama vodka scattered everywhere. Every few feet there was the loud laughing or shouting of a market, a church or a bar. When we finally got to Civil’s house, we felt like the pied pipers of Hamelin; all of the neighbour kids– I would count about two dozen– were following behind us. The house was sturdy brick, under a mango tree, very small- two or three rooms- and dark, because there was no electricity. Never had been. There was no running water either– there was a community tap, and an outhouse. But it was the cleanest house I had ever been in– the kitchen table was spotlessly white and there was no dust or trash on the floor. I suppose that people who don’t have a lot of stuff respect their possessions more.
We met the members of the Kinama English Club– Civil, Ocean, Timmy and Buster. Their English is entirely self-taught, which is an impressive achievement. They could use some exposure to an English-speaking environment– that would smooth out their speaking and stop the harsh emphasis on every syllable– and I worry that in running toward globalism with as much energy as they are they will lose their culture– but I feel stupid criticizing. Their English is quite serviceable, and teaching each other a language is quite an achievement!
Greg and I went to Aroma Café to check our email. I had been supposed to go out to a club with Honorine and one of her friends, but Honorine had to house-sit and the friend was out of town, and I wasn’t so keen on clubbing again after the robbery. Antoine called. You’d think he’d had enough of babysitting tourists for one weekend but apparently not. He invited us to the Coeur d’Afrique Karaoke Bar. A “karaoke bar” in Burundi has very little to do with singing badly– it’s actually a cabaret. Pierre was there, incredibly happy to see me as usual, and so were half the people from the wedding reception, dressed very smartly in red and black. They welcomed me and Greg and even bought us drinks. We went into the cabaret, listened to a few hymn and ballad singers, watched an amazing troupe of acrobats dancing and backflipping to a mix of Kenyan pop songs and Michael Jackson– and then sang and danced to a Bob Marley tribute until closing time. I was so happy– I almost couldn’t believe I was so happy again so soon after the robbery. But I was so happy. So happy to be singing and dancing, so happy to be with Greg and Pierre and Antoine, so happy to be in an outdoor cabaret on a warm Saturday night, so happy to be in Africa.
The next morning, despite the fact that Antoine and I hadn’t slept properly in days, we got up early. It was hippo day! We were going to the national park to see hippos in the wild! Honorine and her brother Brice came along– they’d lived in Bujumbura all their lives but it had never occurred them to go to the hippo park before. We had no camera, but my job is to paint pictures with words anyway. I was excited as a kid at Christmas, especially since even the baby goats and skinny African cows nosing around the entrance were wildlife to me. We trekked for about half an hour through the grass, which was as tall as we were and thick with heat and humidity and birdsong. Every now and then the guide- who wore flip flops and spoke no French– would stop us to point out hippo tracks in the mud or an interesting bird. Then, after about an hour, we saw them through our binoculars, on the far side of the lake. At first they looked like big gray rocks. “Those are hippos,” said Antoine. Honorine and I craned our necks and looked through our binoculars. A huge, bulbous, shining gray hulk of a momma hippo raised her body out of the water, yawned and dipped back in. Her whole family poked their heads out around her as if they were having a family chat. A boat went by on the lake and they dove for cover, then surfaced. We stared a long time before heading back into the bush. Antoine had the bright idea of going for a drink afterward to the Bujumbura Sailing Club, on the beach by Lake Tanganyika. It looks exactly like the Atlantic Ocean beach I used to go to as a small child, except the water is bathwater warm and shallow for a few hundred yards out. No one else wanted to go because they did not know how to swim, and no amount of convincing would make them believe that it was possible to go in up to your knees without knowing how to swim. I went in, anyway, and was happy as a small child in the warm water. My clothes would dry.
As if that was not adventure enough, I went for drinks that night with Greg, Antoine and his girlfriend Marilyn, at Cercle Nautique, a bar on the lake. We watched the sun set over the lake and had a round while listening to an incredible symphony– the deep bass of the hippos, the slightly higher note of the toads, the rrrit-rrrit sound of another kind of toad, and the high chirping of the crickets. When the sun had gone down, we watched the pink, green and blue neon lights of the bar dance on the lake. We talked about dating morés… Antoine and Marilyn have been seeing each other for three years and all their relatives know, except their parents. Custom is, just before announcing your engagement, that you say to your parents, “You know, mom and dad, I’ve been seeing this girl for five years…”
After the cab dropped Greg off, it passed through Nyakabiga. “This is right by Pierre’s place!” Antoine said. “Let’s just stop here.”
Pierre’s mom, brothers and sisters could not have been happier to see us. The electricity was off, so Pierre and his brothers were having a candlelight dinner. “Come and have some food,” said Pierre. “There’s plenty left.”
This was the first time I’d had a real Burundian meal cooked by a Burundian mother. There were balls of manioc paste, which looks and tastes a little like matzo ball or polenta. You used them as edible spoons. to scoop up the contents of the second bowl– refried beans and lenga-lenga, which is basically collard greens. The third bowl was beans and rice, which you could scoop up with a fork, with the manioc, or with your fingers. Everyone drank from the same cup and passed around two forks. It was delicious and filling. “How do you like our food?” asked Pierre’s mom. “It’s delicious,” I said and meant it. She believed that, but I had a harder time making her believe that yes, we do have beans and rice in the West.
It is past one in the morning and I must have spent three hours writing this. But it’s all so incredible…