In a land of a thousand hills

In the confines of Bujambura you’d be hard pressed to find any signs of the civil war that rages beyond the hills that frame the capital against Lake Tanganyaka. Thrown into chaos along with their Rwandan neighbours in 1994 the civil war that has devastated the pristine forests of this tiny country has rarely made its way into the heart of the capital. Instead, the streets bustle with hawkers, street kids, and well-dressed businessman shuffling through the dusty streets, noisy markets, sweet-smelling pastry shops, all trying to hang on to the optimism that recent peace has brought.

My first night is spent staring through the window of my lonely hotel room, listening to the sounds of a city that, despite a 10pm curfew, is alive and wants to show it. The nightclub across the street is a haze of smoke and lights, pumping out a mix of house and rock music that has the walls in my room shaking. I’d love to go but my heart has yet to regain a normal pace. I’m still nervous, downright scared to be here. The customs officials at the port reassured me that all was calm, as did the Pasteur whom I’ve very quickly begun to trust, but I need a night to acclimatize to these feelings of fear.

The Pasteur brought me to this hotel – an apparent favourite of the foreigners in town. Looking around during dinner I came to the quick and very evident conclusion that I’m the only tourist here – the only non-soldier here, save for a few extremely pretty local ladies. There are small groupings of soldiers scattered around the patio, all separated by nationality, no one seems to mix. Around 10 French speaking African soldiers have taken over the pool table while just in front of me, 5 soldiers from Bahrain are fixed on the television set, yet to say a word to each other since I sat down. I’m not sure if I feel safer surrounded by them or whether it simply provides a bigger target. This isn’t Iraq but I can’t help my thoughts from wandering.

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I arrived in Kigoma around 4pm – accompanied by a friendly German couple – having spent the last three days swaying in the bowels of the MV Liemba. Life on the boat was exactly what I thought it would be – a living, growing mass of people and goods. Though I would be lying to say I wasn’t disappointed to find a fully stocked bar with cable TV, my selfish dreams of being another of the great explorers doesn’t work as well with them on board.

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My first full-day in Buja is made easier by the return of the Pasteur who has volunteered himself as my escort. Despite my confident pleas I know he knows I’m scared to be here alone. Something about him has stripped away all my usual apprehensions – I’m aware of this but don’t seem to mind.

We spend our first day driving between town and the Customs Office at the Port to retrieve our passports. As I learn over the course of my stay, travel in Burundi requires more than the normal level of patience. Thankfully and quite surprisingly the bureaucratic hurdles are not accompanied by any requests for un petit cadeau. The imposing female Customs Officer is much more interested in whether I might know her cousin who escaped to Montreal some years ago. Canada is a big place I explain, though I’ll keep my ears open. She smiles and asks God to keep me safe. It doesn’t seem right though, I should be the one asking God to keep her safe. I should be the one looking up passages in the Book to give her hope. It’s amazing that in a land absolutely raped by war the people have so much hope, so much optimism and such overwhelming goodwill. Leaving the Port feels like leaving the home of a good friend. We just can’t seem to leave. The ladies have found out that my friend is a Pastor and bring the office to a standstill as they interrogate him on the meaning of various passages. A small crowd gathers around us, many are annoyed at the delay while others are mesmerized by the sermon delivered by the Pasteur . His words are like Magic, bringing smiles and tears to our growing group of friends.

With our paperwork accomplished we make our way into the heart of Buja. It’s an amazing town, completely run down but so full of life. At every corner well-dressed money changers walk up beside me and whisper the going rate in my ear hoping that I’m as naïve as I look. We make our way into the cornerstone of life in Buja, the central market. It is quite possibly the biggest market I’ve ever seen, putting St. Lawrence market in Toronto to shame. People run to and from between the mass of goods and produce available. It’s always a shock to see so much food in a place that is supposed to be so poor. The Pasteur’s cell phone rings and we part ways with a promise to meet up in the afternoon. For the first time in ages I feel like I have a friend. He’s told me so much about his life in the Congo, his family, the war that I feel like I’ve known him forever. He is so well-spoken, so calm, so friendly. I continue my tour of the market, accosted by smiles and shouts of “Patron”, boss in French. There’s always one or two people whose smiles draw you in and before I know it I’m being given a sales speech by a friendly man, my age, in the brightest pink shirt I’ve ever seen. He calls me boss but I tell him that this is his store so he’s the boss. He laughs and says I’m a good man. Boss or not I’m not buying what he’s selling but he doesn’t seem to mind. I love meeting people like this, curious like me. We talk for a bit before I tell him I need to go. Go where he asks? I smile and shrug my shoulders, the worlds a big place I tell him. Equally satisfied we both walk away with big grins on our faces, both yelling “Au revoir Patron”.

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The soldiers at the Port in Kigoma are positive I can get on the boat tomorrow without any problems. What about a visa? Not to worry, just show up at 6am.

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The hotel is empty when I get back. The soldiers must all be out on their rounds. I swear every third car I see is a UN or MSF car. The others being taxis and the ubiquitous mini-buses. The hotel receptionist is around my age and a student at the only university in the country. He, like many others here, is very critical of the soldiers. They come supposedly to help but do little he claims, using the massacre of 200 refugees a few weeks back as a prime example. There’s a huge gap between the expectations of the local people and the actions of the UN personnel. Despite it he doesn’t want them to leave. Too many people depend on their presence to make a living. Look around he says, I’m the only tourist the hotel has seen in weeks. If it weren’t for the soldiers he would be out of a job, so would the extremely pretty ladies sitting at the bar.

The Pasteur drops by but can’t stay longer than a cup of coffee. His attempts to get a visa to travel to Brussels aren’t going well. In spite of his frustrations he still impresses me.

Before I know it night has fallen and I’m joined at the hotel restaurant by the droves of returning soldiers. I can tell they are curious as to who I am. I say hello to a few but they just mumble and walk by. Eric tells me they probably think I’m a journalist or worse yet, a stupid tourist. We all sit in silence, eating our dinners, watching the soccer highlights. The TV cuts out momentarily and the soldiers scream in protest, urging the barman to fix it. He hits it so hard I can’t believe it’s not in pieces but miraculously the picture jumps back on.

I can’t understand this silence. There are 30, maybe forty people in the courtyard yet no one is talking. I guess their jobs must carry a pretty heavy mental toll. Or maybe they’re all just thinkers like me. Regardless I’m relieved, yet somewhat apprehensive, when a well-dressed man asks to join me. I’m lonely and am dying to talk to someone so we quickly hit it off. He’s the interim Minister of the Environment for the new government and after a day of meetings he needs a beer. Worlds apart, life isn’t so different. We talk well into the night and before I know it he offers to help me extend my visa. This country needs help and he isn’t shy to ask. I’ve often thought of staying here to help but I don’t know what I’d do. I’m not a doctor, a teacher, or anything specific for that matter. I just want to help. He tells me to sleep on it and that he’ll contact me in the morning to fix my visa.

I can’t sleep that night, my brain too busy dissecting the million ways I could stay behind.
Again I’m tempted by the nightclub across the street but decide to enjoy it from my balcony instead. I’ve overcome my initial fears of the city but I don’t feel like venturing out alone. Too bad the Pasteur isn’t younger and up for a night on the town.

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I sat for two hours in the Customs Office at the Military Port in Kigoma before I was told that I wasn’t in the right place. The officer walks me across the base and before I know it my passport is stamped and I’ve taken my seat on the bullet-riddled first-class deck of the MV Mwongozo. Compared to the frenzy of life on the first leg of my trip up Lake Tanganyiaka, the subdued if not downright quiet atmosphere on the boat is somewhat unnerving. I take a walk around the boat and count a total of 15 passengers. For the first time in months I’m doubting one of my decisions. Africa holds enough risks, let alone walking into a civil war. What was I thinking.