Our host had been a Rwandan priest who watched over us with a degree of care that can only be described as maternal. He was worried at my intention to travel to south to Burundi at the weekend, but was too polite to voice a definitive “no”. What he did exclude was travelling by bus, or even travelling alone in a taxi, “what if there was an incident?” He delegated a colleague to travel with me on the twenty mile journey to the border, a man who surely had better ways of spending a Saturday afternoon than accompanying a strange foreigner to the frontier.
Pasteur André, the Anglican priest delegated to see me safely to the border, spoke no English and I made the mistake of saying , “Vous parlez Francais?” This brought comments on many matters as we journeyed; not having a clue about most of what was being said, I mumbled a meek “oui” to questions which left me completely lost.
Reaching the border, a friend stood waiting on the Rwandan side. He felt it important that he accompany me through the process. The exit from Rwanda was smooth and relatively quick, a departure card was completed and my passport was stamped and we walked on.
As we crossed the bridge over the river marking the border, my friend turned to me. “You didn’t study at Mukono in Uganda, did you?”
“No, I’ve never been to Uganda in my life”.
“You told Andrew you had studied there”.
“Ah”, I said, “that will be my French. Well, more precisely, my lack of French.”
My friend speaks at least three, probably four, possibly more, languages fluently and slips seamlessly from one to another. “Where did you learn French?”
“I didn’t. I did it until I was 13 and never learned anymore. There was never much need for it. I can cope on holiday”.
A shake of the head, and we had walked on.
Pausing on the unremarkable bridge, my friend stared into the river. “In 1994, that river was filled with bodies, they threw the bodies into the water and said it could carry people back to Ethiopia – they thought we looked like Ethiopians”. It set the tone for the evening.
Reaching the Burundi frontier post, a form was completed and handed to an official, together with the US$40 required for a three day visa. The process seemed unduly long and the clerk copying details from my passport paused on a number of occasions to chat with his companions. Finally, I was handed my passport and a photocopied piece of paper showing I had paid US$40.
“We have some business to settle before we can go”. We walked through a huddle of ramshackle buildings south of the border that marked Burundi as a country significantly poorer than its northern neighbour. The business, it transpired, was to settle matters with a woman who claimed his car had knocked her over, “She walked into my car and then fell over”, he muttered.
The car was parked at the roadside in front of a shack that sold beer. There was no sign of skid marks, nor damage to the car – nor was there any sign of the woman. “We must wait for the police to arrive”.
A crowd gathered to watch, oblivious to the muzungu pastor standing among them. Eventually a motor cycle arrived, carrying a blue uniformed man on the pillion. He proceeded to take measurements of the road, at least fifty metres from where the alleged accident took place. He wrote numbers on a blank sheet of A4 paper and stood pondering them as if he were mathematician pondering a particular challenging piece of algebra.
Eventually, my friend said, “We can get into the car, we must go”. The policeman opened the front passenger door and got in. He spoke no English. “We must find the old woman”, my friend explained.
Perhaps ten minutes from the border, we turned and followed a dirt track. A poor wooden building with a veranda had a red cross painted on an outside wall. “There she is”, said my friend, pointing to a frail looking woman sat on a rough bench at the door of the building.
There were lengthy conversations. My friend turned and said, “have you any money?”
“US Dollars, Euro, Sterling, Rwandan francs, but nothing for here.”
“Give me 2,000 Rwandan francs, it’s to pay for her treatment”.
“They put a sticking plaster on her head”.
“€3 for a sticking plaster?”
He waved away my objection.
We got back into the car, and so did the policeman.
“Why is he coming?”
“We must take him back to the station”.
A few minutes later, my friend called back. “Have you another 2,000 francs?”
“Because he says he had to hire that motor cycle taxi and we must pay his fare.”
Reluctantly, I handed over another two notes. Not long later, my friend took out his wallet and gave the policeman the money he had.
“Why are you giving him more money?”
“Because the journey is longer than he thought”.
Satisfied with his bribes, the policeman left our company at the next small town. Our journey was at least two hours behind schedule, we would not make Bujumbura before the roads were closed
Darkness had fallen as we reached a small town where the traffic was at a standstill. It was 6 pm and the curfew was being enforced – soldiers had blockaded the road. It was an anxious moment. My friend swung out into a short line of vehicles queued at a barrier where men with automatic rifles stood looking around uneasily. There was silence.
“What will happen?”
“We will see.”
Suddenly a barrier was lifted. A pick up with an armed policeman standing in the back accelerated away, followed by a shiny jeep. Three vehicles followed, ours was the last of the line of five.
“We must stay with this convoy.”
The car slid around wide sweeping bends; the speedometer showed between 80 and 100 kmh, far too fast for a Burundian road in darkness.
“Why are they going so fast?”
“This is bandit country – but they will not trouble us”.
“What would happen if the barrier had not been lifted?”
“We would have gone to a guest house in the mountains, run by German missionaries”.
“What if there was not that option?”
“People have to decide what is cheapest – to pay for somewhere to stay, or to pay the policeman to lift the barrier”.
There were moments on the steep descent into Bujumbura when my friend seemed to struggle to hold the car on the road, a strange noise came from the wheels. The next day’s schedule was filled, so it would be Monday before the strange noise could be investigated.
Sunday morning brought a trip to the Anglican cathedral, where the number of clergy seemed to match that in a small Irish diocese and where various choirs seemed to regard electric keyboards and American Pentecostal worship as the norm for a small East African country. Sunday afternoon brought a trip “up country” to visit a place where a school was being built, its cost being funded by churches in Ireland. It had been a disappointing journey, the school had not been built, in fact, nothing whatsoever had been done. The local people had no idea what was happening, my friend asked how much money had been paid over from Ireland and shook his head at the answer. “So much”, he said to himself.
Perhaps it was thoughts of what happened at the school that allowed my guard to drop. My friend suggested we stop at a roadside stall for brochettes, insisting they were safe to eat. It was to be a memorable decision.
That evening, in one of those strange moment where worlds meet we sat in my friend’s house and watched a football match, the Confederations Cup Final between Brazil and the USA. The Americans took a 2-0 lead and my African companions cheered every moment as Brazil came back into the match to win 3-2. Why had they supported Brazil? I didn’t presume to ask.
On Monday, the noise in the wheels would finally be checked. The car’s brake pads were worn entirely away; it was a miracle that we had not plunged off the road, disappearing into an African night, never to be seen alive again. The brake pads were changed at a garage that was not much more than a shack by young men who had learned their trade just by watching others.
The car declared “safe” my friend drove me back to the border with Rwanda and handed me back into the hands of a driver dispatched by our host. The following evening I was being bundled into a jeep to be driven to a clinic in Kigali. “If the doctor we use is not there, you must drive him to the Belgian embassy”, the driver was told.
I had wanted to object that I was a British national, and that the Belgians would not want to see me, and that if I was going to be repatriated I wanted the British ambassador to be sorting things out, but the nausea was so severe that I was afraid to lift my head.
Helped into the clinic, the doctor was mercifully present, “we must do some blood tests.”
“But it’s from the brochettes”, I feebly protested.
Tests for various tropical diseases ensued. (My wife, calling from Dublin, had been told that I was being tested for typhoid, and had posted this on Facebook, only for people to be disappointed when it was nothing so nearly exotic).
The doctor looked sternly over the test results. “You have microbes.”
“You have food poisoning. What have you eaten?”
“That was very foolish.”
A lengthy prescription was written and I was accompanied back to the jeep.
I never found out what would have happened had I been taken to the Belgian embassy. I feared I might have to use my French. A friend suggested that it was not that they would have provided care, but that they would have known the best doctor to whom I should be directed. This was reassuring; the thought of vomiting over some second secretary had not been inviting.
Our host was with us on the journey back from Kigali, and the maternal care was back. Passing a line of shops, he told the driver to stop. Five minutes later, he returned with a foam pillow. Handing it to me, he said, “I know Europeans do not sleep well without a pillow.”
It is about 150 miles from Bujumbura to Kigali, they seem a world apart. No return visit to Burundi has been as memorable as that weekend in 2009.