Sunday, May 11, 2008

On This Day Last Year...

I had just completed the most grueling two day trek from the Western Tanzania town, Kigoma, to the capital of Rwanda, Kigali. The trip included many strange experiences that some of you have already read about in my email missives from the road.

I left Kigoma in a mutatu so full of people and packages and children that those traveling locally hung out the windows or stood in the wheel well just inside the door. One old man, apparently unaccustomed to riding in a vehicle and, as we all were, was made nauseous by the incredibly bad roads. The ruts were so bad that our vehicle constantly bottomed out on the red earth. At one point we heard a loud crack - I ducked thinking it was gun fire after hearing repeated tales of rebel bandits in the area - and discovered that the suspension had cracked.
The driver and his tout pulled a u-bolt out of the glove box and, with a full van, unblocked wheels and the with the use of a machete as a hammer, pounded off the old u-bolt and screwed on the new one. I crawled out a window (the easiest way out of the packed van) to watch the repair and to piss in the nearby bushes.
Back on the road, the old man again showed signs of nausea. He flapped his hands and tried to push his head out of the window; I thought he was trying to wave to someone by the road. Then he puked. All over me, all over the window, all over my bag. I too retched at the smell but my empty stomach had nothing to offer. The old man promptly exited a few miles up the road.
When we finally reached the Burundi border, I exited the van to find that we were more than a mile from the check point. I walked and walked,
finally reaching the Tanzanian station. Then I walked some more, over rough red roads, up and down hills. While my pack was small, I was still unprepared for the long walk in the hot dust. Men on bicycles passed me with large bunches of green bananas. They were coming from Tanzania to a market in Burundi, pushing their laden bicycles - seven bunches of bananas at a time - up the hills and coasting down the other side.
When I realized that my walk to the Burundi check point would take another hour, I hitched a ride with some soldiers. I looked at them as they pointed to my shoes and my hair, their machetes in hand, their green fatigues covered with dust from the wood that filled the rest of the truck bed. They scared me. I realized that these men, ranging in age from late twenties to late forties, had surely seen or participated in some of the world's most gruesome warfare.
While we hear about the horrible genocide in Rwanda that pitted the Tutsis and the Hutus against one another and caused the death of more than one million people in the space of three months, we hear little about the same tribal warfare that still entangles Burundi and the Congo. I felt very alone and very vulnerable in the company of these men.
Finally I made it to the border and after another sketchy border crossing - I never take a border crossing for granted - I took yet another mutatu to a dusty village and then caught a large bus that took me to the capital of Burundi, Bujumbura. Erosion is a grave problem in this hilly part of the world; terraced hillsides fill the streams and river with red mud and wash away in heavy rains. The bus slowly passed over washed out roads as we made our way up and down mountain sides.
After little sleep and much cleaning up, I caught a big bus to Kigali, exhausted, disgustingly dirty, curious about the history of such a beautiful and somber place. I had bruises on my sides and legs from the rough rides.
Photos: Eucalyptus trees were planted during the colonial era to counter deforestation. They are not local and while fast-growing, are invasive and provide only soft wood; The mud homes that are built in Burundi are first constructed from (eucalyptus?) poles, then coated with mud. Commonly the roofs are thatch and the floors are mud; Passing horned cattle during my walk to the Burundi check post; Early morning in Bujumbura as I wait for the bus, I watched two men take their vegetables to market in baskets they carry on their heads; In Africa, everything is used, including empty acetylene tanks, embedded in concrete, to create traffic barriers.
BTW, if you double click on any of these photos you will be able to view a larger version.



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