Eventually a neatly groomed, slightly built man approached me and said, in perfect English “Are you Alan Mills? I have to take you to the project office”. I smiled gratefully at Mamert and we chatted as we went over to his Toyota in the car park. As we drove into town, I found out that he had come to the airport, but since he did not know what I looked like, had not been able to pick me out when I came through the customs. He had passed by me four times. Now, I know in other countries people hold up placards with your name on, or the project or company you work for or something to identify. But apparently this was not right for Mamert. Kelly, the project supervisor in Burundi, had told him to look at the project web site, which had my picture emblazoned with all my contact details. But he had not got round to it. So we were left with the infallible process of elimination – when everybody else has left the airport, the person who is left is obviously the one I am looking for.
To be honest, this was the only mistake I ever saw from Mamert. Both in Burundi and whenever I had to deal with him by phone, fax or email elsewhere in the world, he was nothing less than supremely efficient, resourceful and friendly. Precisely what you wanted for a chief administrator for a regional project in a difficult African country. Mamert had cousins at the airport, so he could get anything through customs in ten minutes, no duty to pay. He had cousins working for travel agents, so you could get ferry or air tickets at half the price at the drop of a hat. He knew stockists of everything that was going in Bujumbura, so you never wanted for anything. He had cousins in government, so red tape could be cut through immediately. But all the time, he never made you feel that you were in his debt; he was the project administrator, all these things were part of his job. If I had had to flail around on my own while in Buj, I would have achieved nothing, probably done a lot of damage and could have ended up in prison…or dead.
Mamert was proud of his car. He had bought it in Djibouti, a tax free haven. It had been shipped to Dar es Salaam and he had driven it, very carefully, across the rough Tanzanian roads before they arrived in the neatly tarmacced Burundian Roads. Several of the main roads in Burundi , particularly in and around Buj, were the best I had ever seen in Africa; you could drive at seventy in a normal car without fear of bending an axle. We sped along a straight highway through flat fertile fields , and then through a large industrial estate. The Lake Tanganyika Project Office was in a compound towards the end of this estate, close to but out of sight of the lake itself. We stopped there and I was shocked at the gleaming white paint everywhere, my sunglasses just could not cope. I met up with Kelly who recommended that I go and freshen up, have a rest after the flights, and she would catch up with me later that day. I was quite happy with that plan; it made a nice change from hitting the ground running. Mamert instructed the main driver for the Burundi Office, to take me in the Land Rover up to Kelly’s house. A medium height, young stocky-without-being-fat guy, he spoke little English, but I found out that his name was Africa, which summed him up neatly. He was at ease with himself and took a lot of pride in being the driver of this gleaming white vehicle.
I later found out from Kelly that he was a cousin of Mamert. He had only just been “promoted” to driving the vehicle, because the previous driver had been caught in a dragnet operation by Mamert. To the north east of Bujumbura, a road rises steeply up the escarpment and towards Gitega in the mountains – a route I was to take quite soon. Mamert had become suspicious that more fuel was being used on the Land Rover than the short errands he knew of around the city. He had a tip off that this driver had been seen coming off the escarpment during office hours, and with Mamert’s usual clinical rigour, he went in his Toyota and positioned himself at a suitable junction with the escarpment road at the edge of the city, out of sight of any traffic coming down the hill. Sure enough, he saw the guy coming back into town….with a young woman in the passenger seat. He had been using the project vehicle to visit his “girlfriend” up on the ridge on a regular basis. He was so busted. I always knew that I would never be able to pull the wool over Mamert’s eyes.