I always get up early here. The sun streams through the windows and my eyelids have no choice but to relent. Sunday mornings in Europe, when I didn’t have any other plans, I would stay in bed until ten or even after, shower, dress and spend almost the whole rest of the day on the internet, alternating between chatting with people and studying. I could go two days without really talking to another person. Sometimes I would think of an excuse to go and see Clément, just to have some human contact. Until the last few weeks in Belgium, the phone didn’t even ring that often to coax me down from the attic– coax is the wrong word, I didn’t need any coaxing, the times that an interruption offered itself to me I ran at it. Here is different. I have to open my eyes, between the sunshine, my neighbours’ clattering get-ready rituals and the loud singing filtering through the windows. Work songs on Saturdays, when everyone spends the morning either doing community service or hiding from it. Religious songs on Sundays: I like walking through town and listening at church windows. At one church, American religious folksongs from the 1920s, straight out of Oh Brother Where Art Thou, in Kirundi translation, with an acoustic guitar and that reaching, plaintive note. At another, a gospel choir, full rich golden joyful music that makes you want to dance. Other churches reach out to their flocks through traditional drum music, rap or even techno pounding through big speakers with a saturated buzz.
There’s a quiet café terrasse not far from the newspaper office. It’s expensive by Burundian standards, cheap by the standards of anywhere else. These people have made their fortune by providing expats and returnees with their two drugs– espresso and internet– as well as overpriced, expat-friendly food (burgers, salads, elaborate egg dishes, layer cakes and so forth. The staff are multilingual and patient despite the often whiney clientele of rich Burundians, UN and NGO folk, missionaries and, perhaps the worst, those people’s guests, who make loud, tactless and clueless comments about crime and food hygiene, rap on the table to get the waiter’s attention and insist on speaking to the staff in English or their own language, loudly and slowly. (Related note: Has anyone else noticed that Americans always speak one volume level louder than anyone else, regardless of where they are, what the conversation is about or even what language they’re speaking? Have we all got slightly addled hearing? Have we all been raised to think what we’re saying is so important that we need to practically shout it? Full disclosure, I’m an offender. I’ve apparently lost my American accent– according to my editor at a Brussels-based expat magazine I wrote for– but I know I haven’t lost American loudness.), It’s also a popular spot for Bujumbura’s writers and artists. Didier’s friend Louis, who is one of Burundi’s best-known– and best, I’ve read his work– novelists, hangs out here with his poet friends. During the week, all kinds of exasperated office workers– the well-dressed Burundians with their chunky Toshiba laptops which would probably survive a fall from a five-story building, and the long-term expats with their leathery tans and casual cynicism– come here to use the wifi.
Jean-Charles used to come here all the time when the internet connection at the paper would get too slow for him. It’s odd, I still expect to see him around every corner. We weren’t exactly best friends, but I still miss him. His desk in the newspaper office has been taken over– by another white expat consultant, a Belgian. So much is the same inside the old newsroom, from the chipped Chinese coffee cups to the three-year-old “service notices” taped to the walls, to the black and white striped tablecloths at the café, but a “piece” is missing– a “piece” that will never be there again. It’s always weird to accept the sheer finality of someone’s death, I guess.