I won’t bore you with the meetings, but they were enjoyable chats and I learnt a lot about what data were available (little) and what capacity there was for GIS (little) and what ongoing projects could assist the Lake Tanganyika Project (none). We all came together at about 1:30 for lunch in a lovely open air restaurant on the edge of town. The temperature out of the sun was cold, but it was still good to go al fresco, and we enjoyed a local meal. But the service was so slow, it took half an hour to get a round of sodas, that were finished in five minutes. The food arrived about 2:15, and Kelly was already getting nervous. It was over an hour’s drive back to the escarpment top and we had to be through the barrier by 4:30.
We chatted comfortably for a while; not only were there a bunch of technical and scientific staff there, but the heads of the institutes were present, not for me, but for David and Kelly. David asked , for sake of conversation more than anything, whether they felt better treated by the Belgians or the Congolese. Judging by the stony silence followed by some pointed questions like “What do you mean?” it was quite clear that they viewed neither regime with pleasure, and independence, for all its war torn troubles, was a far preferable state. Despite this, the connections with European institutions were strong, and in a way I have found repeated across the world, the French in particular have a rather paternalistic influence on their former colonies even today. One example of this form my own work was in map making. In the former English colonies, while the British Ordnance Survey kept an eye on the maps, the surveying was fully under the control of the country involved. All maps were copyrighted in the country itself and it was up to the Surveys Departments to decide how to best use it. In Burundi, the maps were still produced and stored by the Institut Geographique or IGEFRANCE. IGEBU, the Burundian equivalent was incredibly underfunded and had little control over what it could collect. One major achievement of the Lake Tanganyika project was to rebuild some of the capacity to do the job, but of course, once the project ended, the level of activity and capacity dropped drastically once more.
The conversation never really picked up from there, and although we parted on good terms, a little of the atmosphere had been lost. But I loved Gitega, its prospect and situation, the people there and the potential for some decent scientific work to be done away from the daily intrusion of politicians…unfortunately not realised due to a lack of funds.
It was well after three when we set off back to Bujumbura. Africa drove as fast as possible. I tried to take some photos as we moved but they came out as curious blurs. We were making good progress when we returned to the road block we had been at in the morning. A new shift had come on. They took longer over the perusal of our passports. They handed them back to us, but held on to Africa’s ID card. They ordered him out of the vehicle. Africa’s cool veneer vanished in an instant, and as he dropped down out of the Land Rover, you could see from his short stature that he was a Hutu being pressured by a Tutsi guard. Even Kelly did not intrude on this situation, and she had become an honorary Burundian after working there for so many years. A colleague of ours from the University of Bujumbura who was travelling with us, managed to have a discussion with the guard and found out that the date on Africa’s ID had expired. It was a stupid oversight, and Africa could have been in big trouble, and us too. Fortunately, the situation was diffused; possibly because of our UN status, or partly because the guard wanted an easy day, and we were under way again, but we had lost a further ten minutes.
Africa really put his foot down and we actually arrived at the village at the top of the escarpment around 4. The scene was much busier than in the morning, everyone rushing to get to the right side of the barrier on time, and a whole load of vendors trying to sell you any manner of stuff. They forced their baskets up against the windows and screamed prices at us. One of the specialities of the village is strawberry growing, and Kelly wanted to get some, but the crowds at the main junction were so vast, that we judged it unsafe to open the windows and Africa inched the vehicle towards the barrier.
We were through soon after four and with much relief we dropped down the hill. Every few hundred yards, we were met by taxis, lorries and motorbikes lurching as fast as possible up the hill in the other direction, and as we descended the increasing urgency of their lurching was plain to see. We did pass some very close to Bujumbura, by which time it was twenty past. There was no way to get to the top of the hill in time.
“What happens to them?”
“They just have to sleep in their vehicles on the roadside all night and pass through next morning”.
It seemed that there was potential for a flare up at the barrier if people could not make it through, but the system seemed to work. We dropped our people around town and headed home; Kelly contacted the UN office to tell them we were all back and accounted for.