There are four immigration desks when one would have sufficed. How many passengers came from the plane before it continued its onward journey to Bujumbura – three, perhaps four, dozen? The arrival card is completed and there is no queue at the desk by the time all the details have been filled in. The official looks at the passport, looks up, and then stamps a page, very neatly, in one corner, countersigning it with a Biro squiggle. A Burundian friend laughed when he first saw an EU passport, ‘It is so thin! In Africa all the pages would be filled long before it expired’. A ten day visit last year that filled one page with stamps suggested he was probably right.
Pausing beyond the immigration desk, there was a feeling of having ‘arrived’. What was the country’s ranking in terms of wealth? 165th out of 178 nation in the world. Nevertheless, there was a feeling of being somewhere special.
The baggage eventually appeared and we walked through into the airport foyer. Twenty-five people from the destination parish stood waiting, in Sunday best, and with bunches of orchids to welcome their guests, they had travelled by bus to the airport. Nowhere ever before could I remember such a warmth of greeting. How many people in Europe would dress in their best to travel an hour an airport to welcome someone of whom they had never heard?
There is an instant spirit of friendship with those whom we meet. Every person counts, greetings are exchanged with everyone of those who greet us.
Memories come back of those who travelled to Africa in college days. They would come back with stories of extraordinary people and the intensity of their experiences and we would nod, almost indulgently and go back to the sterility of discussions of Irish politics or sporting events. In retrospect, it is not hard to see how those who returned from summers away became discouraged and depressed by what they met in the Church of Ireland.
This is the real world. This place where people daily struggle for existence; where older siblings are left to try to raise their older brothers and sisters; where 20% of the population cannot even afford a couple of Euro to pay the annual health insurance that would allow them to avail of medical treatment; where life expectancy does not extend beyond 46 years of age; where the first task each day is to walk to collect water; where ten million people occupying tiny country could find their number has doubled in a decade; this is reality.
The problem is not in being here; the problem is in going back. It is not hard to understand how missionaries who have spent years on this continent often struggle to adjust to the life they meet when returning to their home countries.
A new set of memories, a new set of impressions, a new set of images, will remain.