In the end they did go, and David came back with a big grin on his face, his own personal fears conquered for the sake of a great experience, and a bit of a coup for the project that he was able to make much needed contact with the Congolese scientists. They had travelled down to the border with Africa, but the Land Rover was not allowed into Congo, so they had to clear immigration and then walk a few hundred yards the other side to pick up taxis. These were no ordinary taxis but motorbikes with special pillion seats to take you into town. They went to CRH, the centre for Hydrology, a vast building dating back to King Leopold’s time, which the project had helped to re-resource. It was a bit stop go, the war in Burundi, then in Congo, meant supply lines were fragmented and there had been some looting of equipment from the centre. But it was getting there and a lot of basic infrastructure work, rebuilding, painting and the like, had been completed. The only disturbing part of the centre was a small concrete pool in which a couple of crocodiles were kept as pets. Far too small for these creatures, and with poorly maintained water, it seemed cruel to keep them when there was an enormous lake just yards away.
They also went to see one of the bomb craters in Uvira, they missed buildings by yards and apparently the only casualty was a policeman that had been knocked off his bike as he cycled past. But the raid did make both the CNN and BBC World News broadcasts that day.
It was the weekend; and I always enjoyed my weekends abroad, especially when they were in the company of good people like Jerod and Kelly. David had headed for the UK and Kelly very formally invited me to join her on the Saturday to attend the World Environment Day 1999 event for Burundi, which was taking place at Gitaza, a fishing village about forty miles south of Bujumbura. I always wondered why she asked me in the way she did, as if I might have some other pressing social engagement in this hostile foreign country that I had never visited before, but I was pleased to be asked and went along.
I take the view of my father on excursions. Get on with it, don’t organise it. As long as I have a wallet in my pocket, a set of house keys and some means of getting myself around..oh, and a good map, then I want to be on my way. But most other people I meet want to spend ages getting ready, and it not only means putting physical items together; a lunch, cagoules, three changes of clothes, walking boots, umbrellas, sweets etc., it also seems to mean making a lot of phone calls, and spending the first two hours driving around town seeing to a load of errands. It gets quite frustrating.
On this day, I had two options, I could either go on a boat down to Gitaza or come in the vehicle with Kelly. I decided to go with Kelly as I wanted to see some more countryside. We first went down to the Port, one of those curious moments when you look like you are at the seaside until you remember that all the water is fresh. We watched a host of people board this sizeable ship, the RV Tanganyika Explorer, owned by another multinational project – the Lake Tanganyika Research Project which dealt with fisheries more than anything else. Then we drove off round the town running a whole series of errands. About an hour later we reached the edge of the southern suburbs and headed along the main road along the lake. The views once more were spectacular, the hills to the east were less steep and were packed with fields and settlements, the little bays to our right were full of fishermen, bathers or launderers. We passed a village which tries to claim, as they do in Ujiji, that this is the point where Stanley met up with Livingston, and they have a metal sign to prove it. We easily overtook the boat and arrived at Gitaza well ahead.
Gitaza was hardly a village. After you crossed a small river, there was a bare slope leading down from the main road. Fishing boats were hauled up here and there were some shacks. Fish were obviously sold from here or directly from the boats as they were pulled up onto the hard. To the south there were a few houses and farms, but it hardly looked more densely packed that the countryside we had already passed through.