Tuesday, June 15, 2004
Back to Africa
The rain battered the tin roof like a demented drummer, endlessly stuck on the same rhythm, constant and deafening but somehow hypnotic. The tropical storm bought relief from the heat and dust of the last few days. Joel lay in bed feeling secure, protected from the elements, like a baby in it’s mother’s womb. A massive drum roll of thunder played overhead, followed by a bright flash of lightening that lit up the night sky. It was as though God had briefly lit some monumental torch to better see his way through the driving rain. Joel sighed and drifted off into unconcerned sleep.
Balthazar woke him at 7 o’clock with a cup of tea as he did every day. That early morning cuppa, somehow made all the difference, providing the necessary fuel to kick start his metabolism. He rose and walked nude into the bathroom. He hated pyjamas. Wearing pyjamas in bed was like wearing a three piece suit to the office, stifling and unnecessary. Thank God, he no longer had to do that. Hell, he thought, bed was the only place where one could feel truly free anymore. Working in Africa had it’s advantages and no pyjamas or suits was one of them. Yes he was back, back where he belonged, away from the spin and bullshit of London, Paris or New York. God it felt good!
Showered and refreshed, he walked out onto the balcony and looked out over the rooftops and streets of the town and on across the lake to the hills on the other side. It was a sight he never tired of. Anywhere else on Earth, he thought to himself, one would have to be a millionaire to enjoy a view like this. He sat down at the table and dug heartily into papaya, eggs and bacon and the best arabaca coffee in the world. He sat back, lost in his thoughts and lit a cigarette which he inhaled contentedly between sips of coffee.
Bujumbura, like Africa itself was a tapestry of paradoxes, a simple pretentious ugly and yet attractive place. There were no skyscrapers here, just the two storied, largely white painted, flat roofed buildings typical of many towns and cities in Africa, Asia or South America. There weren’t even any traffic lights except the one unblinking set in the Avenue de la Paix, testament to a brief but disastrous flirtation with sophistry. The uneven pavements that lead one down the main streets, give way intermittently to hollows and humps of compressed red earth constantly re-sculptured by the endless stamp of feet, the stinging chisel of tropical rain and the dehydrating heat of the equatorial sun. The whole place was in a constant state of repair and disrepair.
Embedded in the surrounding hills overlooking Lake Tanganyika and the Ruzizi Plain were the elegant and spacious houses rented by diplomats, NGO’s, technical assistants and successful entrepreneurs. Reflecting in the sunlight out to the north east were the tin roofs of the poorer shanty dwellers. Scattered everywhere was the fertile green canopy of date palms, avocado, mango, papaya and banana trees, whose fruits swelled the market stalls in the town centre and the breakfast tables of rich and poor alike.
The ample gardens of the well to do expatriates were awash with the colour of hibiscus and bougainvillea plants, the scent of moon flowers and yesterday, today and tomorrow shrubs. Down below the network of tarmac roads in and around the town centre, gave way to rutted gravel tracks that headed into the dusty Asian and African quarters, where even weeds struggled to get a grip in the hard trampled, barren earth. Yes, Bujumbura had the alluring scent and charm of Africa writ large in every pot holed boulevard and paint flaking wall of it‘s being.
Thanks to the rain, the hills on the opposite shoreline, were clearly visible. They appeared to rise almost vertically out of the lake. At their base lay the town of Uvira, a sprawling African township with it’s mix of slum dwellings, traders shops, pot holed roads and the inevitable army barracks. Getting there though was another matter. Crossing the border inevitably meant paying the officials an unofficial tariff, regardless of whether or not, your papers were in order. The immigration and customs officers could always invent a “new regulation” as and when it suited them. The favourite, when all else had failed to extract the required bribe, was the non existant but apparently “mandatory AIDS certificate”. Unpleasant though it was, it was inevitable given the fact that government officials were seldom paid and were left to use their initiative to “earn” their living. As a result they created their own rules and tariffs with impunity and it must be said, with some imagination. If only their noteworthy initiative could have been put to better use. This was one aspect of Africa that Joel found hard to stomach and Zaire was perhaps the most anarchic country in Africa in this respect, although he had heard some pretty horrifying stories about Nigeria and Liberia too.
On one occasion he had met a well travelled advertising representative from a national U.K. newspaper at the Novotel in the centre of town. The poor devil had spent ten years travelling the length and breadth of the continent in fourth rate airlines and fifth rate taxis. On one occasion he was on an Air Zaire flight out of Kinshasa. The plane was hurtling down the runway when the pilot decided to abort the take-off and slammed on the breaks. Amidst guffaws of laughter he recalled how his head had been thrown forward with such force that he had bitten through the cover into the foam of the seat in front of him. As he was catapulted back into his seat a large chunk of foam and material remained firmly entrapped between his tightly clenched teeth.
Being Africa and more particularly, Zaire, the pilot called for the steps to be brought to the end of the runway, climbed down to the tarmac and ran a quick check round the aircraft. He then climbed back on board, retook his seat and headed immediately back down the runway to recommence take-off. On hearing this not entirely surprising yarn, Joel had laughed, saying that had it been him, he’d have been down the steps before the pilot and continued his journey on foot!
His drinking companion then went on to recount an experience he had endured in Liberia. He was on a business trip and had been out to dinner. On his way back to the hotel he had passed the usual ladies of the night displaying their charms. Weary from his travails he ignored their lascivious suggestions and walked on by. Suddenly he felt cold steel on the back of his neck. Turning around, he noted with unease that it was a pistol firmly attached to the hand of a Liberian soldier. Hissing into his ear the soldier asked him why he had not taken one of the women? Heart beating with surprise and some panic, he replied falteringly that he was very tired and just wanted to go back to his hotel and sleep. Not satisfied, the soldier demanded he pay a fine of one hundred dollars! Somewhat shell-shocked, he asked the soldier why? Pressing the pistol harder into his neck he replied, “insulting Liberian womanhood”!
My companion said he had never handed over a hundred dollar bill with more alacrity in his life. Joel remembered suggesting, it might have been cheaper to avail himself of the lady in question. His companion thought not calculating that it would in all probability have cost him considerably more in doctors fees! It was a fair point.
It had been a harrowing as well as thirst provoking adventure and he had hurried back to his hotel and drowned a double scotch or three on the rocks before falling exhausted into bed. Looking at him it was evident that he had had need of a few tranquilising whiskies in his travels. In truth, the poor fellow was a nervous shaking wreck, but good company, for all that. Ah, the charms of Africa!
Joel made a mental note there and then to cross Liberia off his places to see list. There were others too that were less than enticing. The American marines had found Somalia too hostile for there liking in recent times. Angola was another country that had been at war for a decade or more. Sierra Leone was somewhat less than inviting and some of the stories Joel had heard about Nigeria did nothing to entice him to visit Lagos. Though Zaire’s border was a mere 20 kilometres or so from Bujumbura, that was close enough for Joel.
He had visited Lumbumbashi in the early eighties in the Presidential Caravel with some Round Table friends and keen golfers. It was a thoroughly enjoyable week-end but there lies another story. Natural diplomat though he was, he was not good at being humble when confronted by drunken, greedy, obdurate border “officials”, no matter how alluring the country on the other side. Strangely though it was all part of Africa's allure.
Burundi was another kettle of fish though and there were plenty of exotic and rare varieties in Lake Tanganyika. It had its problems but at the time they seemed miniscule compared to many. It was a beautiful country of endless rolling patchwork covered hills, planted with maize, sorgem, beans, potatoes, the inevitable bananas and other food crops. Eucalyptus trees were planted widely, particularly on the hill summits and along the road sides. Being one of the most densely populated countries in Africa much of the indigenous vegetation had long since disappeared. There were however, still some glorious enclaves of natural forest scattered around the country. The glittering jewel in the crown was Lake Tanganyika, a blue amethyst, sitting in the basin of the Ruzizi Plain, an extension of the magnificent Rift Valley. The lake is the second deepest in the world and stretches southwards 800 kilometres to the south, into Zambia. To be on the lake at the setting of the sun, is to be overwhelmed by it’s surrounding beauty and the almost mystical power of Africa. The spirit once captured, never escapes. Once parted the yearning to return never leaves one. Yes, Joel thought, it was good, really good to be back.