Burundi #05 – The Walk Continues

Arrival in Burundi was accompanied by a single piece of information: an Italian nun named Sister Celina would reception me at the airport, and further provide transportation to Masango. Besides that, a solid phone number, a specific address or even a plan B for that matter, were not available. After having checked several embassies alerting about the dangers encountered in Burundi, apprehension was certainly the dominant feeling. Yet, primary instincts prevailed.

According to the CIA Factbook, Burundi is the third poorest country in the world. The recent (and bloody) war has left damages engraved in history and society. The country struggles to recover from such dark period and economical and cultural changes are slowly reforming society; though, the walk is lengthy and arduous.

From my perspective, based on eight days if immediate contact with the population, Burundi is stuck between two realities: endemic Burundian traditions (located somewhere in the past) and Western standards (idealized somewhere in the future). The present represents the precise concoction of these contrasting epitomes; yet, past and future significantly lack in the present.

Western ideals are often associated with progress. Under such circumstances, progress itself becomes a problematic wording choice. After all, how can progress be defined if not from a Western perspective? Hospitals, universities, malls, and highways: these are modern constructions of progress. And progress, when imposed over a society which does not comprises the appropriate means to make such transition (and further progress), can result in catastrophic consequences.

Take clothing, for example. It is highly dubious whether Burundians used to have westernized standards of clothing over 60 years ago. Nowadays, especially amidst the female population, a hybrid fashion has become the rule: typical African long skirts mixed with t-shirts (readily available at any Wal-Mart). T-shirts are not endemic to Burundi; progress has found a way to incorporate such ideal into the culture. Yet, the population cannot afford to purchase such goods, as progress would ideally require; hence, present lacks the means to transition into this desirable progress.

Not only clothing, but also most of the population lacks all the necessary commodities considered basic in western societies. Medications are dependable on donations. Middle school students can hardly afford proper supplies. Transportation is a two-legged word. And food is directly collected from the Earth: no lines, shopping carts or bar codes.

Such argument does not favor past over progress, after all problems also existed before westerners arrived in these lands. In other words, Burundi should not seek isolation in an attempt to maintain its traditions intact; even because, at this day and age, such feat is rather impossible. The true argument behind these words is politically and economically saturated. An underdeveloped society, such as present reality in Burundi, must forgo most of their traditions in order to achieve progress.

Of course, these societies are constantly evolving; thus, hybrid traditions are created along the walk. Whether a positive or negative creation, progress certainly brings constructive changes to societies. The important detail of such transition is to maintain past traditions active components of the present, so progress does not develop equally destructive.

After clearing customs, there was no Sister Celina waiting for me outside the airport. The long minutes of an apprehensive one-hour wait were not sufficient to plot out a plan B; gladly, it was not necessary. Apprehensions gradually solidified into thoughts, feelings and memories during the course of these eight days. The close contact with the community increasingly progressed into fraternal ties. As much curious as they were about my personal background, I was eager to learn and understand their culture.

Despite an intense incident in Bujumbura (in which an individual trying to steal our bags and further belongings attacked our truck), the overall experience has been unmatchable. Surely, I have progressed along the walk – in the true sense of the word. The people of Masango thought me how to appreciate the goods and commodities I enjoy on a daily basis. And even though I left with an emptier bag as a result of donations, fulfillment is the only word to accurately characterize the progress we have made.

For pictures from the people of Masango: