From the air, Bujumbura looks like it’s yet to be let in on the joke. On the table where he sits, the rest have sort of gotten it; Kampala is giggling over there in his banana print silk shirt, Nairobi is seated at the head of the table, palms flat on the table, a bit cocky, a bit crafty, a mischievous twinkle in his eye, chuckling softly because he has told the joke many times and he likes the attention it evokes. Dar is trying not to laugh too loudly because, well, he didn’t really want to come to this damn dinner party. Such gatherings are not his kettle of fish. He’s a bit introverted, a loner who never combs his hair or wears socks. He has frequently left this Whatsapp group. He grins at the joke, reserving his laughter. Juba is laughing loudly. He is the only one who brought a date even though it was clearly stated that this was a men’s thing; no spouses or girlfriends, or both, considering this is Juba we are talking about. Mogadishu is sipping soda water with ice and is intentionally seated as far away from Nairobi as possible. Bujumbura will get the joke later, when he’s back home.
That’s how Bujumbura feels from the air; the roads weaving between houses are mostly weathered roads, the houses are clustered, it’s like landing in Malindi without the eclectic architecture.
We landed on wet tarmac and walked out of the plane in single file. A small girl clutched the neck of her stuffed animal. It looked like a frog or something. The girl looked like the kind of girl who asked the mother many adult jokes. Mom, what goes around the world but stays in a corner? A stamp. The sky was the colour of dull silver. A lady at a desk pointed a gun at my forehead and muttered something in French. My body temperature was normal; the gun announced. All around the airport were signs in loud French and meek English translations below them. The airport resembled Malindi airport before its upgrade; still innocent, still believing in the ways of humanity, still opening doors to strangers.
There was a form to be filled. Then a compulsory Covid test to be done. Someone – a Kenyan – was complaining loudly, an exercise in futility. He was saying how preposterous this was. Have we not taken a Covid test a day ago? What’s the use of taking a test again? This is extortion! A travesty! The officials paid him no mind. He looked around for support but nobody was joining his crusade. He could tweet about this, get the KOT gang behind it, but there was no free wifi. We were a hole in the wall.
A Covid test costs 100 dollars; a big sign announced. It was bigger than an ad for a network. It was so big you could see it from Kileleshwa. I didn’t mind paying for the test, besides, the client would reimburse it. What frustrated me was that the process was bound to take long. It was after 5pm and I was tired, I just wanted to get to the hotel and stand in the shower. When my turn came I bent at the counter and slid my Debit card below the slot. The uniformed airport official said something. I pressed my head against the window. He repeated it. He was speaking French or something Kidum would understand. He repeated in English; “Cash, cash, hundred dollar.” I didn’t have cash.
You have an ATM machine?
He pointed in a way to suggest that he couldn’t be bothered, especially with someone who didn’t understand French. I looked at what he’s pointing at; the back of someone’s head. Certainly not an ATM machine.
Cash machine? I made the universal gesture of an ATM. You know the universal gesture of an ATM, right?
He pointed again to the exit, past a desk manned by a grim-looking fellow in another uniform. When I tried passing the desk the grim fellow held up a surprisingly wide palm and said, “Covid test.” I said, “Yes, let me get to the ATM out there to get cash to pay for the test.”
He said, “What?”
Cash machine, I told him, right outside there, then I will be back.
He shook his head, “No, pay first. There!” I told him ‘there’ doesn’t take cards. I held up my debit card. Cash only, I told him. “No, no. Covid,” he said and motioned at the fellow behind me, ending this little discourse of ours.
I was in a pickle. There was a driver waiting for me outside. I had his number but I couldn’t call him because I wasn’t roaming and there was no wifi. I suddenly had a wild idea. At the Duty Free shop I asked the girl at the counter if she could run 100 dollars on my card and just give me cash to pay for the Covid test because the guys at that counter didn’t take cards, only cash and I couldn’t get cash because that fellow over there with the palm of an Ostrich won’t let me pass because I haven’t paid for the test. She shook her head and said she could only run my card if I was buying something. I sighed, “You sure you can’t help me?” She said she only works there. I stepped out of the shop and stood there thinking, what would Jesus do?
A man came over, he was wearing suede boots. I had seen him on the flight. He and his wife had a small baby with big startled eyes. The baby kept staring at me with those big startled eyes. Like he knew me. Like he remembered me from somewhere; where have I seen that big foreheaded fellow? I wasn’t in the mood to be stared at so I kept staring at him muttering, “Yeah, let’s see who blinks first.” That baby really had a hard stare, I will have you know. Anyway, the baby’s father said, “Excuse me, do you have a pen?” He’s one of those people who travel without a pen to fill forms at the airport and then borrows your pen and never returns it. I know his type; they never carry pens, all they do is have babies who don’t blink. This is Africa, you are always going to fill a form at an airport. Carry a pen. I had a pen, all right but I was tetchy as it was; I was stuck in that airport and he was going to fill the damned form and leave me there. I wanted company in my misery. That baby needed to get home and have milk so I gave him my very nice pen. Yes, I have nice pens. It’s pointless being a writer if you are going to carry those biros. You might as well be in HR.
The Kenyan had stopped complaining about the Covid test and was now queuing to pay. He was wearing a half constipated and a half disgusted face. I saw a cop. OK, there were many cops around, but I saw one with a friendly face. He looked like someone’s father. He looked like the kind of guy who would water a potted plant if he thought it would die. Someone who liked cactus. I said, “Excuse me officer,” then I told him how I was between a rock and a really hard place. He stepped on the rock with one foot and listened. He said in rickety English, “Follow, find cash machine.” I followed him. As we passed the guy with wide palms, he told him something and the guy with the wide palms gave me a murderous look. We walked past the immigration desk, onto the wide area where other passengers who carried cash were collecting their luggage from the carousel, to the door manned by two cops who looked bored. My cop conferred with them. I think he told them, see that rock and that hard place, this guy is between them, he needs a cash machine asap, so I will walk him there and then bring him right back. One of the cops said something that I suppose meant, kiss my ass, he looks Kenyan, I’m coming with you; so he offered to accompany us. So there I had two cops accompanying me to get money from the ATM. I don’t know what he thought I’d do, make a run for it? Sprint hard across the parking, jump over the fence and seek political asylum in Burundi? From Kenya to Burundi? If they knew anything about me, they would have known that I wasn’t going to leave my pen behind.
When we got to the ATM it was dead. Just peachy. I turned and looked at the friendly cop. “It’s dead,” I said pointlessly as he could also see, “is there another cash machine?” He shook his head. This was the only cash machine. The next one was in Kampala. I stood there and stared at the ATM as if that would get it working. What rotten luck was this? I thought to myself. I knew who was to blame for this; that baby who didn’t blink. I shouldn’t have gotten in a staring match with him.
The cop told me he couldn’t help me. I said, may I use your phone to call someone; the driver must be here somewhere. I showed him the number and he said, it was from a different network and he didn’t have the units to call that network. I looked at the bad cop and he looked away. I was escorted back.
I believe in the expression; if in a hole, stopping digging so I stood there and focused on my breathing. The crowd was now thinning considerably. There was a chance I was going to spend the night standing there. They were going to close up the gate, the guys in the graveyard shift would come in their big night trenchcoats and thermos flasks and they would speak their French and ignore me. I would probably spend Christmas there. And possibly New Year’s, who knows. Anyway, I suddenly remembered that I had given out my pen. I watched the goon I had given my pen. He’d finished signing his form and was at the next counter having paid for his Covid test. He had gotten so comfortable with my pen he imagined it was his. People truly forget very fast. I wanted to see what he would do.
Outside, a plane that had just landed roared as it taxied to a stop. The unblinking baby was asleep, his legs dangling from the baby carrier. Well-fed, chubby legs. Baby legs are cute. This baby would grow up not knowing that his daddy was the kind of guy who never returned people’s pens. The clerk at the window handed him some forms. He turned and walked to his wife. She said something to him. He picked their bag from the floor. The baby slept through all this, I could see the back of his head with his fluffy dark baby hair and probably soft scalp. I bet his head smelled of Johnson and Johnson. A lady’s voice on the intercom announced something in their language.
As the man made his way to the desk with the man with wide palms I quickly walked to him and tapped him on the shoulder. I said, “My pen?” He pretended to be shocked, that he had completely forgotten about my pen. I knew this act. He said, “Oh sorry, sorry,” then pretended he had forgotten where he had kept it, patting his breast pocket. He was wearing a t-shirt, for crying out loud? What t-shirt has a breast pocket? He then patted his left trouser, found the pen and handed it over. He thanked me. His wife stood there and pretended that her husband didn’t do this all the time. It was not a dealbreaker for her, marrying a man who didn’t return people’s pens. I took my pen and walked away.
I had my pen back but I still didn’t have a plan. I wasn’t thinking anymore. I was tired. Then I heard someone say, “Did you get the 100 bucks?” in very polished English. The last time I heard someone say bucks, they were referring to Kibaki. The person addressing me was a middle-aged gentleman wearing all black. I was in all black. I said I hadn’t gotten the cash. He said, “What brings you here?” I said work. He said, “I will give you the money.” He handed me a crisp 100 dollar bill. “Listen, just have my number, the onus will be on you to return it.” He used the word “onus” When was the last time anybody you know used the word ‘onus’ in a conversation? Don’t lie. People just use made-up words like ‘irregardless.” Onus is a rare word in most conversations.
“Of course, of course, thanks a lot!” I said, I was quite chuffed. And grateful. What were the odds? I didn’t know this fellow from Adam yet he was offering to front me 100 dollars without a guarantee. As I took his number he asked casually, “Where are you staying?”
“Kiriri Gardens,” I told him.
“Oh really? I’m also staying there!”
“Perfect. I will hand it over at the hotel then!”
So he handed me the 100 bucks and left me with the onus. I paid for my Covid test, did the Covid test and when I stepped out of the airport, just as the sky was turning the colour of exhaustion, I saw a man carrying a placard with my name. He spoke Kiswahili with holes. He put my bag in the boot and asked “Hiyo naweka hapa?” He pointed at my onus. I said no, I was going to sit with my onus in front.
On our way up the hill I saw a great deal of people jogging. I thought of the girl from the flight and how she held the neck of her stuffed frog. The hotel sat on a hill. Dusk had now descended all around it as I was deposited outside the glass doors. The foyer was busy with businessmen in suits and businesswomen in heels. I saw the gentleman who had loaned me the 100 bucks waiting to check-in and returned the money I had gotten from the driver. We chatted a bit, the usual banter, what do you do etc.
They gave me a sweet room with a great view of the city. I also had a big desk and large windows. I never draw my curtains in hotels. I like dawn to wake me up. I walk naked in my room, it makes me feel like I’m going to war. Or I’m from war. If my room faces another room, too bad. You will just have to call the reception; I’m sorry, I can’t stay in this room, there is a naked man in the opposite room who keeps pacing up and down eating an apple.
I went downstairs to the restaurant and ordered dinner. A long grilled fish and some veggies. The fish had a snout on it. I poked it with a fork. I then dripped lemon juice all over its lean body. I pushed away the fork and knife because eating fish with such things invites curses in my culture. I started with its tail. Its tail was crusty, like firecrackers in your mouth. I then delicately rid it of its meat until it was all bones before turning it over. If you turn the fish over and its spine breaks then you are no better than someone who eats the fish with cutlery. A disgrace. I turned it without breaking its spine…and it had a long delicate spine. I wiped my hand on a towel and WhatsApped the gentleman who had given me the 100 bucks. I thanked him for his generosity. I told him I was having dinner downstairs, would he care to join me?
He came after my plate had been cleared. He studied the menu as we shot the breeze. His name is Herculs Bizure. He is from Zimbabwe but works in Uganda. A Tech consultant. He had been to Burundi half a dozen times. We chatted as we waited for his food. [I told him the fish wasn’t too shabby]. The restaurant filled with sounds of cutlery and footfalls and the humming of the fridge. Outside, in the garden balcony, Bujumbura blinked in the glitter of a million lights below.
I asked him what compelled him to help me. He said simply, “Money is just money. I was going to spend it on something unimportant but you needed help. I could tell you were in trouble. You didn’t look like the dishonest type, so I thought, why not? So what if you don’t honour it? Money is just money.” He shrugged.
I went back to my room and stood at the window and stared at the lights. The AC hummed in the room like a lullaby. I thought of what he said, about money, and about his unsolicited generosity and suddenly the world seemed simple. It all seemed so simple again; giving doesn’t take away something from you. It just brings something to you. And I wondered if I give enough. When people help you like he did, it makes you contemplate your own generosity. And that’s the beauty of giving I guess, it recalibrates your humanity.
Anyway, I’m off to the villages of Burundi. Think about what you can give someone today…do a Herculs, because it seems to me that his name is a verb.
Thank you, Herculs. God bless.
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