It’s evening and there is a howling windstorm outside my apartment. School is closed tomorrow because of the weather. YES I need to go to the grocery store, but I am not going out in that. I stare at the wooden bird on my bookshelf from Burundi– the bird that Dieudonné gave me for my birthday. It makes me wonder what would happen if any of my Burundian birds actually came up here. Would they spread their wings and fly? Or would they fall, miserable from the cold and the rain?
My meeting with Professor K, put off a dozen times, is finally supposed to happen today. There’s nothing else to do. Seems like a good time to start telling the African stories I never got round to telling.
The night before I left, there was supposed to be a big party. But the party was supposed to be at my expense. I was expecting the replacement of my American bank card to come by now, but it hadn’t, and the nice people at the post office were not sure what had happened. So I had a long guest list and nothing for the guests. I wanted to give my students the world on a plate…and as a goodbye, I couldn’t even give them Coca-Cola. Not to mention that I didn’t even know how i was supposed to get to the damn airport the next day. Or where the goddamn card was. If Pierre hadn’t been staring into my face with both hands on my shoulders, I would have started crying from pure frustration.
“I’ll tell them and they won’t come,” said Pierre. We were walking toward my house, deliberately a couple of feet in front of Dieudonné, Emilie and the rest so we could talk privately.
“But I don’t want them not to come!”
“But you can’t have people over and have nothing to give them!”
“No, let me explain.”
I did explain. “Listen, I don’t have the money yet. So I can’t guarantee that there will be food, or anything to drink. But I did want to have you over, so we could talk.”
“I’ll come, Teacher,” said Paul-Marie. He was the class’s lawyer.
“I’ll come,” said loud Michel.
“I’ll come,” said Générose.
“I’ll come,” said Audrade, “and I’ll bring my brother too.”
I could have wept. Except for Emilie and Elisabeth, who lived far away , and Dieudonné, who was working, every single one of my students said they would come. And at seven o’clock on the dot, Paul-Marie, Nadège, Audrade and her brother Jean walked up the driveway. I arranged what I could…a bag of rolls and some potted meat. Not much later came Médiatrice, both Michels and Hassan, who hadn’t even come to class that day. I’d correctly predicted that my students enjoyed being together so much that they would take any pretext. We were also fortunate enough to have my neighbour Athanase join us, and his cousin Pascal, the hotel manager, who didn’t have any objections to a dozen young people crowding his terrace. There was also my friend Fabia.The only thing I was sad about was the absence of Antoine,who was out in the middle of nowhere on a work contract, and Fiacre, who was in Kenya.
Fabia works at the post office. She was actually introduced to me back in the Switzeland days, by Madame Aissatou.
Madame Aissatou is one of the reasons I loved my job in Berne so much, and I can’t believe her name hasn’t shown up in these lines before. She is from Senegal, and very very maternal. From the moment I met her, a bigger woman with a bright smile and a long flowing boubou, I immediately thought ‘This is a person I want to get to know.’ At the cafeteria table in Berne, she used to talk to Djabril and me about African culture and politics for entirely too long. Claudine nicknamed her “My African mother.” As parting gifts, she invited me over for dinner, gave me a big sack of Senegalese donuts…and put me in touch with Fabia.
“You ever have a problem, any problem, you tell her, you hear?” Madame Aissatou said. Fabia has a good job at the post office and is married to a government official, so they live well and have some influence.
I hadn’t had a problem up to this point, at least not something anybody else could do anything about, but I had had a nice dinner with her and some nice discussions on break at the post office. When I went down to introduce myself she hugged me like I was her own daughter.
Back to the party on the terrasse…Pierre took me into a corner and asked me to give him all the Burundian money I did have, about 12-13 dollars worth. Then he called Loud Michel, our unofficial class spokesman, in a corner, and had a long whisper session. I knew something was afoot. Médiatrice and Fabia were in on it too, I could tell by the way Michel was talking to them.
“An Amstel for you, that’s all right, isn’t it?”
“Yeah…” I said. I was completely bewildered. “But if you buy drinks, buy them for the girls, not me.”
Nadège slips into Fabia’s car with her ministry driver, and I know something is afoot. They come back half an hour later, with two cases of drinks.
One of the boys walks up the street with some more of our collected money and comes back with an enormous bag of peanuts.
“I don’t know what you did, but THANK you,” I said to Pierre.
“Don’t thank me, thank Fabia,” Pierre said. “She added entirely too much.”
Fabia was deep in conversation with Médiatrice. One thing I’ve always loved about Burundi is how easily people talk there; boundaries of age and class melt away at the slightest suggestion of a relaxed atmosphere.
“Thank you, I said. She just laughed.
Looking over at that car made me think of something. I felt sad to see Evariste, the ministry driver, standing a few feet away sipping a Coca, stopped by the boundaries of his job from joining our party even in the slightest way. But Fabia being Fabia, he was probably paid well at least.
“Fabia…does Evariste have…another job?”
Fabia shrugged. “No, why? Need to go somewhere or something.”
I almost laughed with relief. “Yeah…the airport?”
“No problem…what time do you need to be there?”
Well, that was two problems solved, I thought, as my wonderful students disappeared into the warm night.
Fabia called me first thing in the morning when I was tracking down students for the awards ceremony.
“The package is here,” she said. “Wait outside your work. Someone will be by on a yellow postal motorcycle in ten minutes and you will have to sign for it.”
Well, it was more like thirty, but you can’t have everything in Africa. I would be going to Europe with (a little) money in my pocket and Alexis could stop making soup kitchen jokes.
The awards ceremony started late, because we were waiting for the certificates to arrive. Despite the fact that Alexis and I had spent the better part of two afternoons breathing down the necks of the print shop guys as they tried to make certificates on a Win 98 laptop with a primitive version of Microsoft Publisher, they still managed to bungle them, or at least not make them up to Alexis’ exacting standards. To be honest I felt sorry for the print shop guys and suggested to Alexis more than once that he should just do them on his computer in the office. If it wasn’t for my laptop, which not even Eric was able to revive the last time it crashed, I could have made better certificates in an hour. The ones that came were even worse than the last ones that Alexis didn’t like, so (an hour and a half late after I had razzed my students to be there at ten o’clock SHARP, poor boys standing around in their suits and ties in the heat except for the Michels, who were in jeans) we started the ceremony without the silly pieces of paper. I called their names. Then I invited them to give their own speeches, in the language of their choice. They all spoke. Every single one. and all in English. Even Nadège and Audrade, even my quiet ones.
Then, at the end of the student speeches, Alexis shot his mouth off.
“You know,” he said (in French, of couse, in his authoritative department-head voice) “that your level of English is still very low.”
“Boss,” I said, “I really don’t think today is the time.”
Nadège gave me a drum. Pierre gave me a beaded bracelet with the Burundian flag which I carry in my pocket because I’m afraid of it falling off my wrist. The girls gave me a beaded ring. We headed out into the sun. Emilie’s phone beeped.
“Antoine’s here,” she said.
“REALLY?” I said.
He was standing at the entrance to the campus. “Antoine!” I yelled, sprinting up to the gate. He grabbed me in a hug…that I’ve tried to reproduce the warmth of ever since.
“Ka-ne-za!” he laughed, using my Burundian name (it means happy).
He didn’t follow Emilie, Fabia, Pierre, Evariste and I to the airport (I don’t think he could have fit) but just the fact that he was there means so much. He gets it.