The time has come to write posterity a long letter, and revive my poor, neglected blog, as certain people keep giving other people links to it, and I feel guilty for not having any fresh content. After working an 11-hour day in the newsroom and going out for drinks–alcoholic or otherwise–with friends after, and sometimes banging out freelance pieces on top of that, a blog entry isn’t always the first idea that comes to mind.
I’m back in Bujumbura. How to describe it?
The heat, which would be worse if it wasn’t relieved by the breeze off the lake. This morning it was hot enough to fry an egg on the sidewalk, practically. It doesn’t seem so bad at first, but it subtly presses on you and by the end of a half-hour or so walk, you’re spent.
The colours- building facades and women’s dresses, bright, slightly muddied by the dust that blows from the approximately paved roads and the red clay sidewalks.
The smell- diesel fuel, dust, distant rain, the acrid smoky smell of burning trash, and yes, human sweat, at times intense–let’s face it, when the running water cuts out at random, people can’t wash themselves as often or as thoroughly as they’d like. Shortly after I first arrived I went two and a half days without a shower, and it was torture.
The sound–small motorcycle engines revving (the buzz of giant bees) and the slap! that comes when two acquaintances meet in the street. A hybrid between a high-five and a handshake. You slap hands hello and you slap hands goodbye.You hand-slap your acquaintance’s friends, If you walk into a room where you know even a single person, you hand-slap everyone there. If you’ve got food in your hand, instead of hand-slapping, you extend your wrist for the person to clasp. The sound of Burundi for me will always be that slap! slap! slap! of skin on skin.
Also the Kirundi language- it’s a cooing, singsongy tongue. Unlike English, which is practically flat, or French, which drops all the stress on the last syllable of each word, in Kirundi the stress is usually placed somewhere in the middle of the word, giving it a distinctive rhythm a little bit like Italian. (“amaHOro”- greetings, “muGENzi”- friend, “nsabiMAna”- “prayer,” a common name. ) A lot of the time vowels are drawn out- “ééégooo”- yes, “ndagouKOOUUNda”- I love you. When someone says “Ndagoucounda” it sounds like they are verbally caressing the listener’s ear. I can’t describe it more concretely.
Hissing to hail a taxi, echoing hymns on Sunday, the occasional muezzin calling Muslims to prayer.
The taste- cold Amstel, juicy fire-grilled beef (and liver- it’s the only real way to cook liver), lemon Fanta, plantain fries, rice n’beans (LOTS of rice n’beans), this really odd but strangely addictive dish the cooks at the work canteen do with cabbage,stewed tomatoes and sugar.
The inconveniences- The internet connection at the newsroom is so slow that on occasion, while our web guy is at a café with a better connection, waiting to upload things, we have decided it would be faster to send a driver to hand him a USB with the photo on it instead of waiting for it to upload as an email attachment. The power and water are still capricious.
Also, for a fair-sized city (700,000 and growing) the degree of separation is astoundingly small. My ex-boss Alexis is best friends with my neighbour Aloys.My editor-in-chief went to high school with Pierre’s uncle–and Antoine’s uncle! Pierre, who is an intern in the newsroom where I work now, had gone to school with the victim in a really sad beating incident we covered. And the young woman who had to turn down the internship offer, opening the door for him, is…a friend of his sister’s? A girl from his neighbourhood? His friend’s cousin? I can’t remember, something like that. The moral of the story is, watch who you criticize or reveal information about in casual conversation. Do not describe the person, do not use even one of their names–at least not in conjunction with something that could reveal their occupation or age group. You may very well be revealing undesirable information about your interlocutor’s brother-in-law’s best friend’s cousin’s next-door neighbour’s daughter…you get the picture.
And the wonderful things- the music, the dancing, the motorcycles, the fact that it’s so easy to start a conversation with a Burundian. Making friends is not difficult if you make any effort at all. And planning parties is easy– you don’t have to worry, “Are W, X, Y and Z going to find anything to talk about together? They’re all different ages/professions/socioeconomic groups!!” They will.
That’s my Bujumbura.
More to come.