Sometimes a travel adventure has nothing to do with climbing a mountain peak, with the scree, the winds, or the volcanic steam. Nor does a trip have to be to a pristine beach, with fig trees, conch shells and tumbling surf. Sometimes a journey is about the people, people who at first glance seem as curious as the images in a National Geographic Magazine, bearing baskets on their heads, and wearing colorful sarongs. These are the people I saw, when I stepped onto the red soil of Burundi.
Burundi is the tiny landlocked country in the heart of Africa, that even the most experienced adventurer would have trouble placing. Bordered by Rwanda to the north, Tanzania to the east, and the Congo to the west, the Burundian mountains with their fragrant, silver eucalyptus forests, roll down to the plains which sweep westward in a polka of clay and trees, to the dark blue waters of Lake Tanganyika. So distant, it was the last area of Africa to be colonized during the European expansion of the late eighteen hundreds.
Burundi is one of the poorest places on earth. Ranking at the bottom of the World Values Survey for happiness, and sadly claiming the shortest life expectancy of any people, 27 years for the Batwa tribe, there would seem to be little reason to visit there. Even the mountain gorillas are gone. Disease, poverty, corruption, and violence have isolated this heart shaped country from all but the heartiest of travelers.
Nearly nine thousand miles separate my home in the fir forests of Washington State, from the savannah grasslands of the Burundian highlands. There is no easy way to get there. I was part of an Episcopal mission team that flew from Washington, DC, to Rome, and on to Addis Ababa, Ethiopia and Kigali, Rwanda, before arriving in Bujumbura, the capital of Burundi. Looking around the airport lounge in Ethiopia, I could see that a change had occurred. Only a small number of the people waiting to board the Seattle-made Boeing 767 were white, and we were dressed alike. We had heavy backpacks, trekking clothing, hiking boots, and t-shirts imprinted with the names of our individual organizations. No one was on vacation. No one was a tourist. We had come from England, America, and Canada to work in central Africa. We were engineers, missionaries, scientists, and educators, flying across the globe to install water and sewage systems, to build clinics and schools. On board our jet, in spite of the exhaustion of extended air travel, when days and nights merge, and time on a wrist watch becomes meaningless, strangers spoke with each other like old friends, grasping hands and smiling.
A woman across the aisle from me nodded and said, “I live in DC. I have family in the Congo. You must go there sometime, but only to the south. It’s not safe in the north.”
With a thick southern accent, the middle-aged man directly behind me introduced himself. “I am from Alabama, heading to Zambia with Water Missions. Here is my card.”
My traveling companion for the flight to Rwanda was a happy round-faced man with tortoise-shelled glasses. “I am an attorney,” he said. “Yes, originally I was from Burundi, but I won’t go back. I am not political.”
What my new attorney friend could not bring himself to tell me was that he was Hutu. I would learn later how to identify the three tribes that live in Burundi based on their physical features, and I would be instructed to never speak those names aloud. If we must, we could refer to Burundians as tall, shorter, or the shortest, but we should never refer to them as Hutu, Tutsi, or Batwa.
The current peace in Burundi is as fragile as a feathery Acacia blossom, and violence, although rarely mentioned in the US newspapers, happens weekly. The civil war that raged in Burundi from the early 1970’s and lasted for thirty years was a genocide that killed hundreds of thousands of people. My flying companion looked to be thirty or forty years old. He would have been in college during the worst of the atrocities. Like the people who could afford to do so, he left his home in Burundi for a better life. This day, he was returning to Rwanda from a shopping trip in Rome. Who could blame him? He wore a beautiful new red cashmere sweater with a matching checked shirt made in Italy.
He smiled, handed me his card, and said, “I wouldn’t worry about the grenade this week in Gitega. It was out of the way, in a neighborhood behind the marketplace. It only killed two.” I was heading to work in an orphanage in Gitega. I was traveling out of the way. I said nothing.
There are nine airports in Burundi, but only one has a paved runway, L’Aeroport International de Bujumbura. As I walked toward the terminal to have my visa, with its three shiny silver stickers, scrutinized by the authorities, I snapped a photo of the white metal domes that lined the tarmac. A police officer came running toward our group. The airport was a government building. No government buildings could be photographed. I hid my camera in the pocket of my long black missionary skirt. He grabbed the camera hanging from around the neck of our team leader, and looked through the digital images. There were no pictures of the white domes. My photo was safe. Welcome to Burundi.
On the opposite side of the airport, adjacent to the parking lot, where the red, green and white national flag flapped in the wind, and the Poinciana trees bloomed in crimson, our ramshackle bus waited to transport us to the King’s Conference Center for the night, to rest before church in the morning, and then to take us to the mountain town of Gitega. This would be our home for the next two weeks. The sun was hot in the afternoon, and the terracotta earth held fast to the heat like a brick baking in a kiln.
Instantly, I felt at home. I was born in North Carolina, a state famous for red brick. I laughed at my ease, because I was the most frightened of our team to go to Africa. I had spent hundreds of dollars for the latest survival gear from REI, and had thrown my dive knife in my suitcase at the last minute, just for good measure. I had brought enough medication to cure our entire team of an epidemic of dysentery. I was afraid of disease and parasites. If it existed, it originated in Burundi. Internet photos showed examples of local people inflicted with elephantiasis. There is no vaccine. I had been inoculated against yellow fever, typhoid fever, and polio. I was eating my malaria pills like candy. I could not afford the one thousand dollar rabies vaccination. Through the dusty bus window, I scanned the landscape for diseased dogs, as we bounced along the road to the capital, dodging pot holes, trenches, and large rocks. The springs beneath our seats squeaked with every bump. I saw no animals. I clutched the new REI water bottle in my lap.
Through the grimy glass of the bus window, the glaring sunlight unfolded a strange panorama before me. A young man in a blue striped shirt walked with buckling knees in the orange dirt, carrying five large foam mattresses on his head. His skull and hands disappeared into the foam under the weight of his load. A young boy walked beside his mother with a three-layered stack of egg cartons balanced on his head. She carried a straw basket filled with corn, which sloped forward at a fashionable angle, like an Easter bonnet. Her orange and green sarong was tied over one shoulder revealing a clashing pink shirt below. Everyone was walking. Everyone was carrying something on his or her heads. They turned and stopped to stare at our bus of white faces as we passed.
Deep channels edged the road, in anticipation of the rainy season that had yet to arrive. Vendors sat on blue traps, displaying used luggage, probably left behind by earlier missionaries. Small wooden tables shaded by large golf umbrellas displayed nuts and sodas for sale. Behind the merchants stretched stucco walls stained terracotta at the base from the clay earth, and topped with broken bottles or razor wire for security against crime. In the distance, a smoky haze coated the mountains and blurred the blue forests.
When we arrived at the Conference Center, it was dinnertime. Emelyne and Donavine greeted us with calla lilies and roses tied in white ribbons. A wedding reception had begun, and a crowd had gathered outside the entrance gate. The thunderous sound of wooden sticks against cowhide boomed in the background as the Burundian drummers pounded their beat in unison. Bosco came forward with an outstretched hand, and a broad toothy smile that extended from ear to ear.
“Amahoro,” he welcomed in Kirundi.
“Amahoro,” I responded. I had practiced my greeting from Seattle to Bujumbura.
Bosco and I gripped right hands together. I had been taught the proper way to meet someone in this foreign land. I took my left hand and placed it over my right forearm. He did the same. Through our actions, we conveyed without words that we were to be trusted, that our left hands would bear us no harm.
Kirundi is the native language of Burundi. Amahoro means peace. In a country where harmony is as precarious as a stack of eggs carried on top of a young child’s head, this is their greeting.
Over the next two weeks I would walk along the rutted roads behind the orphanage school, meeting strangers, arms outstretched, and greeting them with a loud and clear, Amahoro. Across from the school, by the edge of the road, was a kiln the size of a small house. Within those hot fires, clay blocks changed into bricks. I would change too. Bosco, Emelyne, and Donavine became my friends. They stand with calla lilies and roses under an Acacia tree, the red earth glowing in the sun, waiting for me to return to Burundi.