Arrival in Burundi

Trip Start Jan 20, 2008
Trip End Feb 10, 2008

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Wednesday, January 30, 2008

This kind of long day is tiring.
At 4:20 pm yesterday, I hauled my suitcase and carryon bags back down stairs to the transfer desks at the Abidjan Airport. An agent there asked, "Do you know where to go?" There is a security lock door that opens to a corridor leading from the immigration area at arrival, straight through to the check-in desks on the departure side. I told him I did, and he just let me go. No one even looked as I pushed through the security door (it has a key pad but was unlocked) and walked through to departures. I figured by waiting until 4:30 to get there, I wouldn't have to wait since they were sure to set up a bit late. They beat me though, being even later than I thought, so I had to stand around for another 40 minutes before they opened the counters. As I waited, I read various advertisements for Kenya Airways posted here and there, and saw they had just opened a route from Nairobi to Guangzhou in China. That seemed like an odd route to me at the time, but I remembered it later when it made more sense. Once checked in (no problems with my heavy carryon) I headed back upstairs to the departure lounge. At both the first security checkpoint and at the immigration desk, I simply said "I'm in transit" and no one asked to look at my documents at all, they just waved me through.  There seem to be a few weak links in the security procedures, not that I'm complaining.
I spent a few more hours waiting; back up around the restaurant area where I had spent all afternoon, before finally boarding for the 8:00 flight.  The flight was not very full to the first stop which was Cotonou in Benin. The fellow seated next to me was Chinese and he was obviously new to Africa. He didn't speak any English (the preferred European language for Kenya Airways) and only a few words of broken French. He used a sort of sign language with the stewards. A friend of his was in the row behind us and they spoke very loudly to each other - a much higher decibel level than what would be polite in Europe or even the US. I wondered at first if they had been drinking, but it turned out that was just normal conversation level for them. I was really surprised when we stopped in Cotonou to see the Boeing 737 fill nearly to capacity, and 90% of those who boarded were, you guessed it, Chinese! I knew the Chinese were moving in force into Africa but this was really surprising. They were mostly younger, with just a few older ones, generally small of stature, quite polite except for the loud talking. After an hour on the ground we took off, a flying tower of Babel cum Chinatown. The communications complications were sometimes amusing. When the stewardess came by asking what we wanted to drink with the meal I asked for a glass of red wine and some extra water.  My neighbor watched carefully what ended up on my tray table then motioned with a big smile that he would have the same.
When the main dish arrived it was choice of fish or beef.  The Chinese didn't understand either word in English, and most of the cabin crew didn't speak French.  So the Chinese contingent stood, craned their necks to look at already opened meals conferring with each other to try to determine what the choices were. My friendly neighbor finally ordered fish in French: poisson, but mispronounced it, dropping an s to make poison (same word as in English though different pronunciation).  By this time I was translating for the Chinese fellows near me, and translated what he meant in stead of what he said....
It was a five-hour flight to Nairobi. I calculate that between waiting for dinner and being awakened an hour before landing, we slept at most about 2 hours. We were all bleary-eyed as we deplaned, but it is always a personal pleasure for me to arrive in Nairobi. I have so many pleasant memories of Kenya, and the airport is right on the edge of Nairobi National Park. As I stepped out of the plane onto the stairway and into the brisk morning air, I turned east and saw the start of the sunrise already highlighting flat-topped acacia trees out on the Athi plain. Lions still live out there, and elephants, and buffalo, and giraffes, and zebras, and most kinds of antelopes. Hemingway said "Africa is one of the few good places left." Sadly, most of the continent does not fit that description any more, even Kenya is bloody with tribal violence now, but it is still a wonderful land with fascinating people. I love this place.
We had parked about as far away from the terminal building as is possible at this airport. On Kenya Airways one usually walks across the tarmac both departing and arriving, and this arrival was no exception. We walked about a third of a mile to the terminal stairway. I walked briskly to the transfer desk to make sure the boarding pass I had received in Abidjan was in order. Waiting in line, I felt a tap on the shoulder. It was my Chinese neighbor and a dozen friends. He used signs to ask if they should get in this line too. I nodded yes, it's better to double check early on.
I spent several hours in the Kenya Airways frequent flyer lounge, rehydrating from the flights with lots of water, and then dehydrating again with a few cups of strong Kenyan coffee.
There were several entrepreneurs from Cameroon in the lounge. By 9:00 they had one bottle of Johnny Walker already down and were working well into a second. The lounge got quite loud with laughter and earnest explanations in French of what was wrong with Africa, the world and a few wives.
When it was time to head to the departure lounge, I found it a cross section of the world, a number of African nations were represented, some speaking English and some French, China, India, France, Italy, Denmark, the UK, the US and more. The first flight out was to Lubumbashi on the border of Congo (DRC) and Zambia, formerly called Elisabethville. Others went before out turn, but more people always came to keep the lounge full.
When it was our turn, we dutifully trooped out to the plane and boarded trying to stow our carryon not too far from our seats.  We were delayed when it was discovered that a French woman up in First Class had an "undocumented animal" with her. I was at the front of coach only two rows back from First, so I could hear much of the discussion with the cabin personnel. She had brought something back from Madagascar in a large basket, but didn't have papers for it to allow it into Burundi (or even on the plane for that matter). I didn't know what was in the basket, but it was a big basket, and the movie Snakes on a Plane came to mind.... She tried everything: she insisted on speaking only French (even though I heard her speak pretty good English), enlisting the help of an benevolent interpreter (which of course slowed things down), she browbeat the cabin personnel, complained about how much she paid for a first class ticket which she insisted on showing them, and finally was reduced to pleading that she didn't know a soul in Nairobi and didn't know what would become of her if they put her off the plane. I've been on the receiving end of stupid bureaucratic regulation numerous occasions, but in my mind I sided with the cabin crew on this one; I didn't care to have an unidentified, undocumented animal on my plane either. After much negotiation and histrionics, the woman finally left the plane, after making us nearly an hour late.
As we took off, both Mount Kenya to the north and Kilimanjaro to the south were visible in the distance.  The cabin screens showed our flight path; we flew over the area of Migori on the Tanzanian border (where we have church members), across parts of the Tanzanian Serengeti National Park (where the great annual wildebeest migration starts), and across part of Lake Victoria, before descending to the northern tip of Lake Tanganyika where Bujumbura is located.
The man seated next to me was from India. He introduced himself as a pilot working for the UN out of Goma on the border of Congo and Rwanda. Seated on the other side of him was a Kenyan working on an aid project in Rwanda. The pilot explained that his job was to fly UN personnel around in the region in light helicopters. Helicopters are more fun to fly, he said, because they can land anywhere and can hover, which one can't do in fixed wing aircraft. I was tired, and didn't fully engage in the conversation, I did tune in a bit when we started talking about the British Empire and colonies. His opinion was that while the British colonized essentially for material advantage, that they also did a decent job of preparing the colonies for independence: infrastructure and education of the local population and especially an educated elite made the transition to independence better. In his opinion the other African colonizers, the French, the Belgians, and the Portuguese didn't do nearly as well in that regard.
When lunch was served the choice was beef curry or vegetarian curry. Both the men next to me chose vegetarian. I asked the Indian fellow if it would offend him if I ate the meat (Hindus don't eat meat), to which he kindly replied "Not at all sir!"
As I deplaned, off to the left there was a UN twin engine plane and a large-sized helicopter revving for takeoff. I wondered what that was about. It became clear a few minutes later. Immigration (three passport/visa checks, and one yellow fever vaccination check), and customs went smoothly and without incident. Mose Ntigirinzigo, and Nathan Mokeshimana were there waiting for me as I left the secured area. These are the men with whom I met in Rwanda in September. They serve several hundred people in two regions in Burundi whom I will try to visit if the security situation allows it.
They took two of my bags and walked me out to a station wagon-taxi they had arranged. Shortly after we left the airport a motor-cycle cop came alongside and told us to pull over.  "Uh, oh" I thought immediately. Then one of the men said confidently "It's the president's motorcade, he has just left for the African summit." African leaders are meeting now in Addis Ababa in Ethiopia. Then the UN aircraft on the runway made sense. The UN was flying him to the summit. Your tax dollars at work....
We caught up on news as we drove into town, though I quickly became distracted by the taxi. It had a right hand steering wheel, in a right side drive country (same situation as Rwanda). But it was the tires that got my attention. The right rear was either in very bad shape of the car had alignment problems. There was a shimmy at all times, but beyond 30 mph, it was alarming, and it made quite a racket no matter what the speed. Coming around one corner about 25 mph, on bone dry pavement, the car fishtailed back and forth as if we were on ice. Not a good sign, I decided to ask Mose and Nathan to find us another car for any longer trips we might make.
We arrived at the Novotel, and I checked in and dropped my luggage in the room. Back down in the lobby we discussed our plans for the next few days. They hoped I would drive up north with them to visit the church members in Cibitoke province it is about a 90 minute drive mostly on a paved road. I told them I wanted to talk to the US embassy staff about security before we finalized plans, but that I was willing to go. I knew some aid workers had been murdered recently in Burundi, and so I had told them earlier via e-mail that my traveling outside Bujumbura was conditional on a reasonable risk assessment. They had written back to say "we don't have anything to worry about we're Christians!" I explained that we do have confidence in God's protection but that Jesus has also emphasized that we shouldn't tempt the Lord our God either....
I ask them to give me an hour to try to contact the embassy and to organize my things after the trip. They gave me their cell phone numbers so I could reach them easily and they left. When I called the embassy, I was told the security officer was out until 2:00, so I should call back then. I had some lunch while waiting and when I called back and asked about security in Cibitoke, he said "we don't usually go there." I asked if there were any particular concerns and if anything had happened there recently.  He said there were not and had not, just general caution about going anywhere outside of Bujumbura. He advised travel only during the day, and especially being back in "Buj" as he called it, before dark. That was our plan in any event. I ask about the recent killing. A French female aid worker had been murdered a few weeks ago in Ruyigi province, along the border with Tanzania to the east.  That could happen in Cincinnati.
Mose and Nathan were relieved and delighted when I phoned to tell them the trip was a go. If all goes as planned we'll travel up there both tomorrow and Friday, to visit all three congregations one day and to have meetings with local leaders on the next.
 I was quite tired by this time, but they asked if we could have a brief meeting to ask some questions about the Church. They'd been waiting for this visit for two years, they said, and wanted to take advantage of the time together. I didn't have the heart to say no. So we talked for two hours about organization, structure, training of local leaders, and how things generally worked in the Church in Africa, and specifically in French Africa. We discussed church service format, and our hymns, and how we preach the gospel. We also discussed their structure up until now, and how it could be improved. They asked about our credentialing and ordination procedures. Nathan was ordained by the Church of God 7th Day, and wondered how he should handle things while we're in the "getting to know each other" transition period. Specifically about baptizing and officiating at weddings. Finally a bit before 6:00 pm I was losing concentration. I had only slept a couple of hours or so out of the past 36, and had reached the point of diminishing returns. So we took our leave and agreed to meet the tomorrow morning at 7:00 am for the drive up to Cibitoke.
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