(This piece was actually requested by a Quebec community newspaper for which I frequently write when in Canada, as part of their Canada Day coverage– one of the editors found it kind of cool that the two countries share an Independence Day. However, as happens from time to time, it was kind of squeezed out by more pressing matters like the Lac-Mégantic train explosion. There just was not space. But the blogosphere is infinite space. So, read and enjoy.)
Last week, in downtown Bujumbura, Burundi, the city was preparing for the July 1 Independence Day celebrations—a happy coincidence that Belgian colonial rule ended in Burundi on the anniversary of Canadian Confederation. A pair of lost Italian tourists approached me for directions.
“Do you know where 32, Coeur d’Afrique Circle is?”
“Sorry, I don’t, and that’s not really the way things work around here either.” Fortunately, the address came with a phone number. Although postal addresses and big blue street signs have been slowly making their way across Burundi for a few years now, no one knows where 32, Coeur d’Afrique Circle is. But “down the hill from the big green mosque, on your right, at the end of the road that leads to the old cinema?” Now we’re getting somewhere.
Moving to Burundi, which I’ve done for the past three summers, requires a bit of a brain readjustment. Workdays at the radio station where I’m interning start early—at eight or even a bit before—and go through spurts of frantic work and long breaks, correlated to the speed of the capricious internet connection. We finish at roughly 7:30 at night, often over enormous, cold beers at a sidewalk café—which some men drink warm by choice, a custom that totally confounds me.
Weekends are for going out with friends. The Western custom of spending long stretches of time staring into one’s laptop hasn’t quite arrived here. Being by yourself is not seen as a necessity for getting work done; it’s a sad situation that must be immediately remedied. When my friends phone, the first question they ask is not “Where are you?” but “Who are you with?” Saying “I’m alone” is an invitation. While wireless internet has arrived here, in places, the silent cafés and living rooms filled with the clacking of computer keys have not. Even long phone conversations aren’t really “done”—human interaction here is face to face. Doing an interview on a pleasant café terrace instead of over the phone—refreshing as a breeze off the lake.
Decades of intermittent war and poverty have made their mark on the country, it’s true. Violence, constant moving around and inability to pay school fees have held back many people’s education. Outside of the capital, most older adults haven’t learned to read or write. As relative stability has returned, young people in their 20s and 30s have heroically slogged to the finish line of high school and university courses begun years earlier. Like the ancient Japanese buses which bounce down the potholed streets of the capital, Burundi has taken a while to get started but is now definitely accelerating.
There are two official languages here. Kirundi, the national language, is a dipping and diving, singsong tongue with very intricate grammar. The other official language is French. Francophone solidarity has meant that links between Burundi and Canada extend far beyond a shared national day. Quebec universities are breeding grounds for the Burundian elite. At a coffee morning with a few professors at the school where I attempted to teach computer skills for journalists a few years ago, I could have been at an alumni association get-together.
“You’re at Laval? Really? I did Université du Québec à Trois-Rivières.”
“Université de Montréal.”
“We must do this again, entre Québécois. “
Many Canadian expats have also found a home here, working for children’s charities or religious organizations or lending their international experience to Burundian startups ranging from newspapers to restaurants. For the next few months at least, I proudly count myself among their number. As crowds gathered for the fireworks in Ottawa six time zones away, I picked apart a grilled fish with my fingers and raised my own glass—to my home (not my native land, but that’s another story) and to my deuxième chez moi.