What seemed like a whole village, just about the entire staff of the diocese of Bujumbura turned up to offer a warm kaze (welcome) to members of the Canadian Anglican delegation upon their arrival at the Bujumbura International Airport. Visitors were whisked off to the VIP section, which meant there was no standing in line for more than an hour to get a visa. The privilege was accorded because one of them was Archbishop Fred Hiltz, primate of the Anglican Church of Canada. If there is anywhere in the world where you can name-drop an archbishop and inspire awe or fear it is Africa. It must have been puzzling, therefore, when the visa officer found out that the primate wasn’t carrying a diplomatic passport. He sheepishly had to say that the archbishop, too, had to pay the visa fee like all ordinary mortals.
Heart of Africa
Burundi, with its lush, verdant green landscapes, is known as the “heart of Africa,” not only because it is in the middle of the African continent. On a map, Burundi is literally shaped like a heart. It is also a nation that, figuratively, has a big heart. Burundians are always the first to offer a warm smile and a handshake when meeting strangers; when one has met before, three kisses on the cheek are a preferred form of greeting. It is also normal for friends of the same gender to display affection by holding hands in public.
It has made it all the more unthinkable, therefore, even to Burundians themselves, how Hutus and Tutsis, who co-existed peacefully for centuries, could have struck each other with machetes and guns in the 20th century. I am told that more and more have turned to the church for healing and forgiveness.
Our home for five days in Bujumbura is Hotel Source de Nil and, like many parts of the city, it has been frozen in time; circa 1960s to be exact. I sigh a breath of relief when I realize that the man guarding the elevator dressed in green fatigues and a black beret is not a soldier but a liftman. Having an elevator man isn’t an added luxury. He’s simply there to make sure you don’t end up wedged between floors.
The hotel was once abandoned at the height of the war, which also probably explains the broken shower handle and cracked bath tiles in my bathroom. One can hardly complain under these circumstances – the hotel, like the rest of the country, is struggling to get back on its feet after decades of war. The hotel’s lobby is lined with photographs of Burundi’s presidents and it is quite unsettling to see how some served very briefly – four months in the case of one – victims either of assassinations or coups d’ etat.
Salon de beaute
A sign that Burundi seems to be inching its way to recovery is the plethora of salons de beaute/salons de coiffure, not just in the city but also the rural areas. As in most cultures, hair plays a social and cultural role in Burundi – well-coiffed hair is not only one’s crowning glory; one’s hairstyle can tell others where you’re from. There’s also something very human and universal about needing to look good, especially in the worst of times.