Saturday, February 23, 2008

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. Jack lay in bed feeling secure, protected from the elements like a baby in its mother's womb. A massive drum roll of thunder played overhead, followed by a bright flash of lightening that lit up the night sky, as though God had briefly lit some monumental torch, to better see his way through the driving rain. Jack 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 the 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 be truly free anymore. Working in Africa had its advantages and no pyjamas or suits, were two 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 that never tired him. Anywhere else on Earth, he thought to himself, you'd 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 Arabica coffee in the world. He sat back, lost in his thoughts and lit a cigarette, which he inhaled slowly and deeply 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, gave way intermittently to hollows and humps of compressed red earth which were 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, NGOs', 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 banana trees, date palms, avocado, mango and papaya 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 as they 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 its being.

Thanks to the rain, the hills on the opposite shoreline, some 10-15 kms away, were clearly visible. They rose almost vertically out of the lake to 12,000 feet above sea level at the highest point. At their base lay the Zairian 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! The fact that your paper work was in order was an irrelevance. The immigration and customs officers could always invent a "new regulation when it suited them.

The then favourite when all else had failed to extract the required bribe, was the "mandatory AIDS certificate" showing that one was not infected. Short of armed robbery any means would do. Unpleasant though this was, it was inevitable given the fact that government officials were seldom paid. They were left to "eek out" their living any way they could. As a result they created their own rules and tariffs with impunity and wily imagination. They were good at it too. If only their noteworthy initiative, could have been put to better use.

This was one aspect of Africa that Jack found hard to stomach and Zaire was perhaps the most anarchic country in Africa, pressing Nigeria, Liberia and Sierra Leone hard for this dubious honour.

To be fair there were other countries in Africa that he would never consider visiting either, under any circumstances. The Americans found Somalia particularly unwelcoming when the U.S. army paid a short visit a few years previously. If the American military could not hack it, Jack thought it was probably advisable to give the place a wide berth.

Angola had been at war for a decade as had Mozambique. Yes, there may have been worse countries than Zaire perhaps but Jack could see no good reason to go there for all that, if he could help it. The border was only 20 kilometres or so from Bujumbura but that was close enough for Jack. Natural diplomat though he was, he was not good at being humble when confronted by a bunch of drunken, greedy, obdurate border "officials" no matter how alluring the country on the other side.

Burundi though was another kettle of fish and there were plenty in Lake Tanganyika. It was a beautiful country of endless rolling hills, covered in a patchwork of small plots planted with maize, sorgem, beans, potatoes, bananas and other food crops. Eucalyptus trees were planted widely on the summits of the hills and along the road sides. Being one of the most densely populated countries in Africa, much of the indigenous vegetation had sadly, long since disappeared but there were still a few patches of precious, glorious equatorial forest scattered around the country.

The jewel in the crown though, was Lake Tanganyika, embedded like a priceless glittering jewel in the huge basin of the Ruzizi plain, part of the magnificent Rift Valley. The lake is the second deepest in the world and stretches southwards for 800 kilometres into Zambia. To be on the lake at the setting of the sun, is to be overwhelmed by its beauty and overpowered by the almost mystical power of Africa. The spirit is forever touched.

Breakfast was always a time of contemplation for Jack and it was always with reluctance that he sipped the last of his coffee before leaving for the office. Yes it was good to be back, very good.

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