A week ago our convoy of 4×4’s (stuffed to the brim with all of us, plus bags and gifts from Sweden) left Bujumbura to stay in the Burundian countryside. Last night we returned back to our house in Bujumbura. As if merely one whole day of festivities (four different ceremonies) was enough for a Burundian wedding.. During our stay in the countryside we managed to squeeze in another two ceremonies! The first one was hosted by Yvette’s parents. They live in Bururi. About 4 hours by car from the capital. It was dark when we finally arrived, four hours late for the ceremony.
Earlier during the day we had exchanged money in the capital and were waiting for Aime outside a travel agency. As always when you stop anywhere in Bujumbura, street kids come up to you. They are poor and hungry. Want your money. As time goes by, more and more kids show up. All of a sudden, when Natalie reaches for her bag in the car, she realizes it’s gone! Some kid went around the car and snatched her bag form the other side. Cheeky little monkey! The bag contained her passport, a few hundred dollars, phone, you name it.
”Operation Find The Bag” (OFTB) starts the second Aime and our driver finds out about the incident. I have to admit, it was a fascinating occurrence to watch indeed. As a youngster Aime was a street kid himself. He knows all the tricks. Gilbert, our driver/general fixer/my room mate, is a UN officer working in Somalia, fighting Al-Shabbab. No one to fuck with (I will later in this blog dedicate a whole chapter to him. Stay tuned.). A few more outside people join the operation. They investigate the other kids. Hoping they might give up their friend. Give us a name. Unfortunately, Bujumbura is no exception to the universal rule of ”snitches get stitches”.
Before the incident we took pictures of the kids, which were circulating the car. Pictures got printed. Handed out. ”Have you seen these kids?”. No luck anywhere. We go to a suspect’s home. He’s not there. Obviously.
After a few hours we have people on the streets looking for the passport. Local radio has announced it’s missing. There’s a reward out on the streets of Bujumbura to whomever can return it. All wheels are in motion.
Despite the momentary setback, we head of to Bururi. Four hours later than intended. Without Natalie’s passport.
The journey starts along the coast of lake Tanganyika. View is astonishing. The lake slowly swallowing the sun. It’s getting dark when we turn off the main road, which is in relatively good condition. Minor holes in the road here and there, but nothing to complain about. The road in the bush on the contrary, not very pleasant. Although I find it somewhat thrilling to be bouncing around in the darkness of the vast jungle. Only the headlights of the car to break the thick natural embracing darkness.
When I get out of the car I look up in the sky. Never ever in my entire life have I seen such a beautiful star filled sky before! Not in the mountains, not in the archipelago, not anywhere. The majestic dome sensation is absolutely breathtaking. The moon appears like a frown turned upside down. Makes me think of the Middle East for some reason.
”Grab your bags Johan. On y va!”. I return to planet earth with a neck ache. I’ve spent the last ten minutes in silence staring at the sky.
Our caravan of people form the capital is greeted by Yvette’s parents and additionally another hundred people. We eat, drink and speeches are obviously held. I’m delivering my second Burundian speech. They all laugh with (at) me. Everything is rather bizarre. All of a sudden two cows turn up in the middle of the crowd. Stealing all attention. They’re gifts to Aime. One from Yvette’s parents and one from her brother. Emanuel.
The next day, our convoy continues to Vugizo. Where another ceremony is waiting for us. This time it’s Zabulon’s turn to host the party (the man who Aime call his dad). Zabulon’s house is beautifully located on top of a hill in the middle of the jungle. Aime and his two brothers has bought him this house as a gesture of gratitude for taking care of them when they were younger. ”I owe this man my life”, Aime use to say. Zabulon greets us in his nicest clothes. A Swedish sea captain suit. He looks fabulous. We eat, drink and speeches are held.
I’m laughing as I’m watching Burundians handling the booze we brought. Anything can be mixed with anything. Or why not just pour 15 cl whiskey in a glass and drink it straight? It doesn’t really matters. A scene which makes Swedish 16 year olds at a pre-party look like a bunch of mixologists.
The next day we attend a huge community gathering to honer DBF’s work in Vugizo. DBF is Aime and his brothers’ organization. Demokrati för Barns Framtid. It’s a non-profit organization based in Visby, Gotland. However, they have a local partner organization in Burundi who’s in charge of monitoring different projects which they execute.
Vugizo is one of Burundi’s poorest areas. It’s also the place where Aime spent several years as a kid. Hiding. At the age of 15 Aime decided to stop being a child solider. He was tired of living a meaningless life. Taking other people’s life. Not creating. Only destroying. But to withdraw is not easy from such an informal ferocious constellation. Particularly not for Aime, who at the time, was in charge of thousands of soldiers. At the top of the pyramid. Them, loyally obeying his orders. Much due to a high raked police officer, Aime managed to flee and seek protection in the dense forests of Vugizo. He rarely spent the night in the house. Usually sleeping in the bush. Taking advantage of the absolute darkness, which is reality in a place completely lacking electricity. What almost strikes me the most is how these people cope the the darkness. How does one operate in complete darkness? After 18.30 it’s pitch black. Everywhere.
Vugizo is beautiful with green hills and valleys. However, life in Vugizo is not as beautiful. People are still completely lacking electricity and running water. Women and children walk 5 km every single day with dirty yellow plastic containers on their head to fetch water. Many men are raging alcoholics. Getting hammered on oroaroa. A local banana beer which is brewed in their backyard. Women takes care of the children. Make food. Fetch fuel (wood). Doing laundry. Harvest. The men go to the market with whatever surplus the harvest generates. Giving them the advantage of being in charge of the family’s funds. The government’s involvement in Vugizo is non-existant. Teaching is more or less the only job one can attain. There’s no public or private service whatsoever.
Everything is stripped down to it’s bare essentials. No extra anything. Absence of man made colors and light is conspicuous. A local bar is merely a dark room with what you might call a bar counter. No candles. No music. Feels utterly abandoned although rationally run.
The foreign department of Sweden dissuade all travelers to Burundi to go to the countryside. I can somewhat understand their concerns. After all, the long arm of the law doesn’t have much to say here. Security is merely a word people laugh at. ”Social security?” LOL! Approximately 600.000 people live Vugizo for instance, and there are 10-15 policemen. It’s the law of the jungle which rule. And to top it off; rebel groups hiding, mobilizing in the bush.
On arrival to the community gathering, the principal of Aime’s old school greets us. He appears happy to see Aime and gives him a long hug. When we sit down Aime leans towards me and explains that the principal’s happiness is fake. As a kid he used to treat Aime very bad. He’s hierarchal power allowed him to do whatever he desired. A very common problem in places where human rights are deprived. No rights, no responsibilities.
The ceremony continues with traditional dancing and drumming. Several dances echoes the struggles of a Vugizo life. Depicting the burdens of cultivation and poverty. Other dances portray the strive for peace and happiness. A brighter future.
For the first time ever, civil servants from the government are present in Vugizo. Furthermore,national TV and radio are present at the ceremony. DBF is doing everything to make Vugizo a name in the corridor of the city hall. If you’re not visible, you don’t exist in Burundi. ”If DBF and it’s local partner manage to monitor Vugizo, report abuses and hold the people in charge responsible, there will be a change”, Aime says.
During the ceremony DBF hands out 130 school fees to children without parents. The cost for one child, one year is 250 SEK. Primary school is free in Burundi, but secondary costs money, which they need to pay themselves. Moreover, medical treatment cards, funded by DBF, are handed out to poor women in the community. DBF has also funded a new school and orphanage.
A man with a happy face walks up to me during the ceremony and asks if I know Lars Birger. I answer no, but I know of him and that I’ve met him once. He’s Aime’s teacher in Visby. He was in Burundi last year, when Aime got married for the first time. (By tradition you marry three times in Burundi). ”I’ve seen on Facebook that he had his birthday 10 July. I want to give him a present, would you be so kind to give it to him when you return to Sweden?”, the man, who’s name is Evalist and works as a primary school teacher says. Later Evalist explains to me he walks for 3 hours to Makamba to access Facebook.
The impact of social media never cease to amaze me.
In general the people of Vugizo are happy. Despite their unprivileged living conditions. From talking to many people there’s no doubt that religion plays a vital part in their happiness. Due to God, they are grateful. For waking up this morning. For the small amount of food on their plate. For being alive. It unites them. Giving them a sense of community. Giving them hope (in a situation which appear to be hopeless from a spectators point of view). Westerners have a lot to learn from these people. When I explain to them that many people in Sweden are unhappy even tough they have money, education and healthcare they just look at me confused, shaking their heads. As if what I just said didn’t make any sense at all. As if I took random words which had nothing to do with each other and put them together in the same sentence. Then again, maybe they’re right. Maybe what I said doesn’t make any sense at all.
Yesterday we went jungle trekking. An amazing experience! It’s hot. Humid. You sweat. All you can hear is your footsteps, the birds and monkey in the trees. Not much light can pass through the canapé of dense trees. But here and there it shines through and gives the jungle a million different shades of green. It’s as if you can feel the jungle breathing. Growing. The pathway seems more overgrown on the way back than on the way in.