Thursday, July 21, 2011

They stole the phone of a dying man

Burundi is a land of many contrasts; so much beauty, yet so much pain. As I was growing up, my parents shielded me from death to the point that until the age of 31, I had never seen a corpse.

Here on the other hand, death is very much part of people’s lives, sometimes in unspeakable ways.

Four months ago, a friend from church died in a traffic accident. He was riding at the back of a moto-taxi without a helmet (as most people do) when a truck forced the bike off the road. As he laid unconscious in the middle of the road, a crowd quickly formed around him but no-one took him to the hospital. Due to a lack of social security in Burundi, the person that checks in a patient has to pay for admission and medical fees, and none of the passers-by were willing to do that.

As he laid there for over an hour, someone stole his mobile phone.

They stole his flipping phone.

No-one could identify him until an old school friend walked by, recognized him and informed his wife. He died in the ambulance an hour later on his way to the hospital.

And what of our gardener’s sister-in-law who was assassinated in her home two weeks ago? She left behind a husband and 7 children, one of whom has a mental handicap. Conflicting reports suggested an act of banditry or a political vendetta – apparently she was an active member of the party in power. According to locals, it only takes 4 dollars to hire a hitman. The cost of a beer and a grenade.

How much is a life worth that you’re willing to sacrifice it for a beer of a phone? Analysts say it is symptomatic of a post-conflict area, that wars distort people’s values.

The more I try to understand this place, the less I do.

Monday, July 18, 2011

Burundi, land of technological wonders

We haven’t had a landline since April 2010. At some point last year, Bujumbura’s local authorities decided to replace the water pipes in our area. As they dug them out, they left the telephone cables exposed for a couple of nights.

The copper cables must have been of great interest to someone and one night they mysteriously disappeared – probably during a well-rehearsed operation that either involved the local guards’ cooperation or found 45 of them to be asleep at the same time. Onatel, Burundi’s national telephone company, informed us that they did not have any replacement cables, and so for over a year an entire neighbourhood was deprived of landlines.

Last month, the government announced the privatisation of Onatel. Whether this is somehow related I don’t know but yesterday, somebody from the phone company walked into our house and reconnected us.

And as a reward for being faithful customers, gave us a top-of-the-range telephone that now proudly sits in our living room.

Friday, June 24, 2011

Some days

Some days feel like they will never end.
Some days, I feel tired, aimless and so lonely.
Those days, I mess up badly, lovers get hurt, and friends are just not enough.
Some days last for weeks.

I lift my eyes to the mountains, but they are nowhere to be seen.
My heart is as dry as the season
Maybe hope will spring again like the Congolese hills
But tonight I just feel empty.

Let me sleep at your feet.
Just let me sleep.

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

The Buja Day Spa

Among the few creature comforts found in Bujumbura, Buja Day Spa hits the top mark. Walk in there a Saturday afternoon and you’re bound to get entertainment for your money.

The spa section consists of a quiet area where Eastern European hairy chested 40-year-old men stroll in their birthsuits (thankfully, a modesty towel wrapped around their hips) to the sound of Peruvian panpipes. No separation here; this is a gender- erm… -friendly place. For 20 US dollars an hour, you can sip green tea and choose between a Thai, Aromatherapy, Post-natal massage, a facial or a scrub given by Burundian or Ugandan women trained in Nairobi.

This is where I go every three weeks to get my eyebrows threaded by the lovely Félicité, during which we exchange reading tips on the next Ladies’ detective agency novel. Never heard of “threading”? This Asian technique consists of trapping unwanted hair with a cotton thread in order to remove it. Rapid, with no wax involved, and reduced levels of pain, it is simply fabulous. I can’t believe I lived for two years in the Asian quarter of London and never found out about it, but I am now officially an Asian beauty.

The hair dressing section is equally distracting with male staff straightening African hair while watching Nigerian soaps on TV. Except for a few daring Germans, I have yet to see a Westerner get their hair sorted there. Although I once witnessed a Russian woman complain that the end bits of her blond hair had turned green following an unfortunate shampoo.

Tucked in a corner is the pedicure/manicure section and where I have found my new heroes, two Congolese guys named Fabrice and Ricky. Ten bucks and 45 minutes later, my toes are clipped, scrubbed, massaged and polished while I sit on a massage chair and doze off. The polishing itself is a bit of an artwork and these guys never cease to amaze me by their creativity, as I hope you'll appreciate by the pictures above. And no, I won’t show you the threading photos because they don’t exist.

Monday, March 28, 2011

The two faces of Nairobi

Last week, I spent a couple of days visiting friends in Nairobi. For most expatriates living in East Africa, Nairobi is the ultimate destination when it comes to shopping, eating sushi, sitting in trendy cafes, or watching a movie. It’s also a great base for glamorous week-ends to the Rift Valley or the Swahili coast. For the less lucky, including myself, Nairobi is synonymous of Jomo Kenyatta, a poor fellow I don’t even know yet have come to hate because of the airport that bears his name. The number of times I have paced that doughnut of an airport and sighed while looking at Gin bottles or miniature stone hippos, would justify a blog that would be boring in equal measure. And if you’re sad enough to venture outside the airport, you’ll end up stuck in unbelievable traffic as you try to reach the nearest Nakumatt in a desperate attempt to stock up on cheese and crackers.

All this almost changed last week. My friends have settled in a nice, leafy part of town and after the usual adjustment period, they are genuinely loving it. Climate is great, there are good schools for their kids, there’s a wide range of interesting people to meet and life is simply nicer here than where they’ve come from. I spent most of the week-end sitting in cafes, marvelling at fresh bread and faster internet connection. I was struck by the efficiency of Kenyan businesses and I dreamt of what Burundi could one day become, with the right amount of investment and a change of attitudes.

One very sad episode brought me back to reality. I was told of a European family who were working for a Christian mission just outside Nairobi. One night, somebody broke into their compound probably with the intention of robbing them. They shot the man and left him for dead, after raping his wife in front of their young children. Extreme violence so profoundly shocking, suffering beyond words. I cannot begin to imagine what life will be like for this family from this day on, how their faith will be affected.

This is the other face of Nairobi, a place of inequality where crime is rampant. A golden prison where people live in compounds with double-gated security and very few walk on the street alone. For all the development and technological advances, there is a high price to pay for living there. Too high when paid by those having chosen a simpler lifestyle devoted to serving people. Peace be with them.

Monday, February 21, 2011

Living with guns

(Health warning – you may not understand if you’re American…)

I’m a terrible blogger. One post every 3 months hardly qualifies for an update on our lives in Burundi. The truth is, quite often life seems as boring and predictable in this African country as it would be back home. That is until something reminds you that you live in a different world – one for instance, that is filled with guns.

In Europe, the sight of a police officer openly carrying a gun may make some of us feel uncomfortable. Unless you live in large cities, most people would stop when hearing a police siren. Here on the other hand, guns are part of everyday life. Traffic police and army recruits carry them in broad daylight, and weapons can often be seen hanging casually off people’s shoulders.

As I was walking down the road that goes past the presidential palace one day, I was forced to step aside as a convoy rushed by, taking Burundi’s Number One to his next meeting or football game. Two sets of official pick-ups closely guarded the presidential cavalcade, and for half a second, I found myself faced by 20 guns leveled straight at my head as their owners chatted leisurely, their weapons resting on their laps. A thought went through my mind - what would have happened if one of them, laughing off his colleague’s joke, had pulled the trigger by mistake?

Another day, I was driving through the centre of town when I spotted a man walking towards the Greek Consulate. Dressed in blue overalls, he was ambling slowly across the street. He seemed like a perfectly normal guy except for one thing: he was carrying a pistol in each hand and he was swinging his arms as if he were taking a stroll. Oddly enough, everyone around seemed totally oblivious to him and went about their daily business as if nothing had happened.

Life in Burundi is similar to home in so many respects. People work, struggle, sometimes make good money, fall in love, hate and betray each other. Most days it feels really normal being here and I forget how distorted a society’s norms have become when people are so accustomed to the presence of guns that they accept it without question.

Monday, November 29, 2010

The haunted car

The engine of our car is in the boot. Not that this is the sort of vehicle where the engine is found at the back.
No, no, no.
I mean our boot is full of engine parts, dirty oil, screws and wires. For over the past 8 months, our car has been struck with the most eccentric disease: out in the wilderness of Tanzania and Burundi, it may be Priscilla, Queen of the desert; but on the safe tarmac roads of Bujumbura it has decided to enact a new version of Little Miss Sunshine, the van part. It breaks down on average every 40km, due to some overheating of the engine. At which point you must clean the sparkplugs, let it cool for a bit and then you’re good to go.
For the next 40km that is, until the car breaks down again.

We’ve given it to various garages and changed many parts.
Many being the key word.
Brake pads, suspensions, filter, fuel pump, injectors, capacitor, you name it. No-one knows what the problem is. Mechanics swear the engine is good, just the car is “haunted”. Well, it is certainly haunting my dreams as I really don’t know what to do with it and sometimes catch myself wondering whether it is God’s punishment for having fallen for a 4-wheel drive...