As soon as we crossed the border, I knew something was different.
Rounded Rwandan hills dissipated behind us in the distance as cute, cozy mountain villages quickly turned into small poverty stricken communities, complete with women clad in dirty fluorescent robes carrying buckets of mangos on their heads and babies strapped to their backs.
For a country that shares the same physical size and relative war-ridden history of its northern neighbor, Burundi lacked strikingly in just about everything when compared to Rwanda.
After a few hours of driving through dirt roads and jungle terrain in the dark, always wondering if the driver had gotten us lost, we finally saw Bujumbura appear in the distance as a disorganized mess of faded lights by a dark lake we knew was there but couldn’t see.
I took an immediate dislike to the Burundian capital.
Burundi remains one of the top five poorest countries on the planet and boasts one of the lowest per capita GDPs in the world. Since the civil war that ended in 1993, the country has been host to a long series of political rebellions, coup d’états and in-fighting that has left the country, and its capital, a tattered shell of what it could be. Just walking down the streets of Bujumbura, you can feel a certain weighted helplessness in the air coupled with a clear sense that if things were going on, they were doubtlessly riddled with corruption and a general disregard for the average citizen that could be seen in everything from the crumbling infrastructure to the masses of idle men and squatting mothers inhabiting every street corner, hands outstretched.
It was so humid one day I stopped at a small red shack near the mini-bus terminal to grab a Coke. Since soft drinks in still come in glass bottles, you have to stand around the vendor and immediately hand the empty back so that the salesman can recycle it for a small return; in some instances the bottle itself is worth more than the liquid inside.
As I was awkwardly standing around, keeping one eye on my bag and the other on everyone around me, a child came up to me, dirty and clad in goodwill rags, hand outstretched, mouthing the word “help” over and over again. I shooed him off. I’d the spent the morning prey to Bujumbura’s booming leagues of beggars and I just wanted to have a sip of something cold before heading back to the hotel. But the kid stuck around, and every time I looked down to make sure no one had their fingers in my bag, he was standing there, looking up at me.
A lot of kids in Africa are conditioned to immediately start begging when they see Westerners or anyone who looks any shade of white. You’ll walk down the road past a group of playing children and they immediately surround you with the only English I think they know: “Mistah! Mistah! I’m haaaangry…give me mahney!”
I’d love to be a fly on the wall for some of these schoolyard discussions: “Yah, if you say that to white people they actually just give you money! I don’t even know what it means!” These kids go from happy and frolicking to destitute and miserable for the cameras at the drop of an IPhone.
But there was something different about this kid by the soda shack. There was a kind of desperation in his eyes I still can’t describe. I looked at his protruding belly and noticed for the first time he was wearing an age-weathered Spider-Man T-shirt that was much too small for him. I remembered having the exact same shirt as a kid and for a second I wondered if it could be mine; most of the clothes we donate in Canada eventually find their way to outdoor markets in Africa being sold for pennies. Quebec goodwill organizations donate the majority of their clothes to French-speaking countries in the developing world, just like Burundi.
For a second I met eyes with the kid and imagined our roles reversed; he growing up in a quiet suburb of Montreal and me begging for scraps in Bujumbura, both sporting the same Spider-Man T-shirt. I thought about the great genetic lottery that I had won, and how simply the location of one’s birth can directly dictate the quality of life that surrounds it. What the hell made the two of us any different? When you boil down the bones, we’re all just blood and bags of flesh, walking through the world, trying to make it through another day in the hopes of something better.
I bought the kid a samosa and gave him the rest of my Coke, which he took with a smile and immediately put to his lips with both hands. I left right away and didn’t look back as he approached the counter and leaned in contently with the others.
When did I become so heartless? I guess it comes with the territory to a certain extent. Reporting on human rights is emotionally draining, and as time goes on I find myself becoming older, colder. I spend my days riffling through reports and articles that display the depths of human cruelty and eventually, somewhere along the line, I started to become so numb to it all because it makes the work easier to swallow. Journalism school teaches you to be objective, to take a step back so as to not be influenced by what you’re seeing, to be a nicely dressed fly on the wall with a pen and a camera. You’re told that great journalists earn their stripes through impartial experience, but I’m starting to wonder if this is professional practice or just a coping mechanism developed over the years, passed down from generation to generation of reporters, an old sedative for a new wave of lost souls, quiet witnesses to the cruel world beyond our eyes.
Sometime I get so caught up in the beauty and novelty of Africa that I forget the sad realities of daily life for a lot of people on the ground. I write about development and the proliferation of human rights in such broad strokes that I’m completely blind to the individuals I’m trying to make life better for, or at least telling myself I am. I talk about all of this like a bold concept while I completely disregard the faces behind it all because I was taught to, but more often than not I feel like I’m sinking into a middle ground made of mud and good intentions that only ever reconcile on printed paper.
That night, Aaron and I took a taxi to a place along the lake called Le Cercle Nautique and were puzzled when the driver pulled up to a Korean massage parlor that looked like it definitely gave happy endings. In a heavy Burundian French the driver assured us that if we followed a dimly lit stone alleyway nearby, we’d reach the place we were looking for. I swear it only sounds shady in retrospect.
The road past a white stone wall quietly revealed a series of rickety wooden docks, barely visible amidst a thick bush of palm trees and driftwood. We grabbed beers and sat facing Lake Tanganyika in near silence. We watched as fishermen on a nearby rocky dock sat and laughed amongst each other, occasionally pulling something from the water into a communal wicker basket. Behind them, two hippos were bobbing up and down over the surface, snorting misty air as tourists took out their cameras and tried to capture to action.
We ordered fish and when it arrived, head and scales and all, I realized what the men had been doing on the dock all evening. We started with forks and knives but as it got darker, Aaron and I both resorted to using our hands to pick apart skin and tiny bones we couldn’t see.
As the sun set over the lake, the Congolese mountains in the distance dissolved in a haze of mist and glowing purple darkness that slowly creeped onto the dinner dock, leaving it lit by only the faint glow of cigarettes and cell phones.