Lundi méchant à BujumburaPosted: June 9, 2011
It’s Monday night – which anywhere else in the world mightn’t be the most auspicious night for partying but here in Burundi thanks to a local institution known as lundi méchant (mean Monday?) its normally a good night to go out for both expats and locals alike. Tonight especially more than any other Monday promises to be a big one as tomorrow is a jour ferié, a national holiday.
I had barely heard of Burundi, probably couldn’t locate it on a map and until I got there didn’t know its capital was called Bujumbura – or Buja as it known to the local expats – but having exhausted all other avenues of entertainment in the short time that I had been there I was open-minded and eager to check out the nightlife.
Burundi is Rwanda’s twin state with which it shares much of its history. Both countries have some of the highest population densities in Africa, straining resources and food production and both share a similar colonial legacy of racial tension between Hutus and Tutsis. Burundi was racked by civil war for most of ‘90s and even now peace is tenuous. However Burundi’s genocidal episodes, being overshadowed by the sheer scale of the genocide that took place over the border, received far less international attention than Rwanda’s and consequently far fewer aid dollars flowed into the country afterwards for rebuilding. As a result of the war and widespread corruption Burundi is now somewhere near the bottom of the ten poorest countries in the world; hard to say where as they stop ranking them once you’re into the bottom ten. In any case over eighty percent of the population live in poverty and the economy is essentially one of subsistence agriculture.
Unsurprisingly there’s not too much to see or do in Burundi – unlike Rwanda it lacks populations of wild animals like mountain gorillas to attract tourists – and even most of the handcrafts on sale in the markets come from across lake Tanganyka in the DRC. After a couple of days in Bujumbura I have done pretty much all there is on offer in the way of tourism. I’ve visited the empty and dusty tourist office, bought some of the most boring postcards I have ever seen for the incredible sum of $1USD a pop (more than the average daily wage). I posted them at the post office but they never arrived at their destination, the stamps were probably lifted off the postcard as soon as I left with the cards discarded and the stamps resold [edit: actually, all six of them turned up stuck together in a soggy clump at one address around six months after I wrote this. I have no idea what they were doing in the interim]. I have visited a market where I was warned not to take my wallet or camera because of the risk of theft. There was nothing much worth buying or photographing anyway, but I did provide entertainment to hordes of locals who happily pointed and yelled ‘Mzungu! Mzungu!’ at me. I have visited the ‘zoo’ where I appreciatively tipped my guide for fulfilling the wish of every small boy who has ever got frustrated at the lack of action from the animals in the cages by alternatively prodding with a stick or kicking the cage of any animal that wasn’t doing anything. I had my reservations when it came to antagonising the chimps but didn’t say anything, secretly hoping the chimps would catch the keeper’s hand as he taunted them and rip his arm off. Evidentially my camera has more of a conscience than I do though as it chooses this moment to die, just as a chimp throws a handful of sand at me. We shrug and move on to the crocodile cage where we both get in and I get to tug the tail of a fourteen foot monster. I don’t know whether to be disappointed or relieved when he doesn’t do much in response. Apparently on feeding days you can buy a guinea pig to feed to the crocs. I was glad it wasn’t feeding day.
Now it’s Monday and I’m still here for a few more days. There is pretty much only one entertainment avenue as yet unexplored; going out and getting drunk. This is an area where Burundians shine; pretty much their only distinguishing national characteristics that I have been able to make out are friendliness (what country doesn’t claim this as a national trait?) and being good drummers. These two factors could spell the makings of a good evening I think, if combined with their national pastime which seems to be drinking judging by the number of men I have seen drinking the day away in the shade while the women work the fields. Apparently Burudi’s one surviving industry is the national brewery. It produces Primus, an eminently drinkable brew. Banana beer is the cheapest intoxicating liquor but they also produce a spirit called bourasine made from pineapples. So far I’ve stuck to the Primus.
I meet a bunch of expats; a collection of UN and NGO workers plus a handful of private sector workers (here the private sector workers are mostly in telecommunications – Africa’s boom industry – but there are also visitors from Congo where they mostly work in mining or in ‘private security companies’). We eat at an Indian restaurant and ponder the mystery of how Indians ended up here. Afterwards we go to someone’s house for someone else’s leaving party. Apparently there are a lot of leaving parties – young UN and NGO workers come and go without ever staying for long. There are a few Burundais at the party too, wealthy kids from the elite.
So far the evening has been fairly tame but there is an whisper of anticipation in the warm evening breeze as everywhere we go people are talking about one bar in particular – the 5/5 , cinq sur cinq or ‘five on five’ as one girl helpfully translated into English via a thick Belgian accent (never mind that we were already conversing in French). Cinq sur cinq is apparently the bar to be at for lundi méchant.
Around midnight we finally depart for this now thoroughly hyped-up bar. Everybody drives; apparently driving drunk is less dangerous than the alternatives of walking at night or taking a taxi, although the state of the roads – many unpaved, even in the capital – and the stories my new friends tell me about near-accidents or ending up in the deep culverts bordering the roads cause me to doubt this wisdom. The bar is located in a neighbourhood described to me as being “populaire”. This doesn’t translate as directly as I initially think, I guess “decidedly working-class” might be a better approximation although even that doesn’t give an accurate sense of the place. Burundian working class? It’s a slum. I think of Heart of Darkness as we drive through the night and feel a bit melodramatic.
We’re riding dirty in a huge armour-plated and bomb-proof (blindé motherfucker!) Nissan Patrol that belongs to the local US marines so I’m about as secure as its possible to be, ensconced as I am with three others in the boot of this huge two-tonne tricked-out whip, behind two sets of doors, one bullet proof one with glass so thick that it barely emits a clink when I tap it. The windows don’t roll so we’re sealed in.
Arriving at the nightclub, the car is immediately surrounded by a crowd of jostling men who either wanted to steal shit from the car or to get paid by us to protect the car while we are in the nightclub (or ideally both). They jostle and tap on the windows but I can barely hear them through the two inch glass so it all feels rather removed and therefore funny. As soon as we step out though the reality hits me with more force than the steamy equatorial night after the air-conditioned interior; there are people surrounding us who would like nothing better than to separate me from my wallet or even my shoes.
“Are you sure this place is safe?”
“Well it’s on the UN’s list of places that UN personnel aren’t supposed to go to but then so are all the places worth going in Buja.”
“Why aren’t you supposed to go here? Is it dangerous?”
“I’m not sure, probably because of muggings and stuff.”
Reassured I follow the others and push my way through the crowd, hands stuffed into pockets tightly and we head to the bar.
The bar is an unpromising looking one story corrugated iron structure. It’s packed and there is music and people spilling out onto the street. We pay cover and make our way inside through a dense crush of bodies. It is dark, stiflingly hot and humid and reeks of sweat, cigarettes, beer and worse. The stench from the toilets – conveniently located next to the dance floor – radiates out in ammoniac waves.
“Ugh, this place smells like the ass sweat of a thousand Africans in here.”
The marine who drove us here spits in disgust and promptly leaves. He’s right on – the body odour in here is certainly unique – though I can’t understand why he came in the first place if he hated the place so much. I can’t stand it for long either at my current level of sobriety and head outside for a drink. I need to get blindé d’alcool – armour-plated with booze – before I can handle it.
I order a beer and get asked whether I want it cold or warm. The locals prefer their beer warm, (perhaps making a virtue out of the frequent lack of electricity for refrigeration) but the bar tenders know that mzungu like their beer cold so at more upscale drinking spots you get the choice. I go with a cold one and take it outside where I get chatting to a young Burundais guy called Patrick. Patrick is around twenty. He’s fashionably dressed, flamboyant, well spoken and surprisingly, openly gay. A recent law change re-criminalized homosexual acts and there have been protests in the streets of Buja against homosexuals. Patrick says he just wants to be himself and live in a place where his individuality is accepted and I admire him for his courage in being open and out in such a closed society.
Later on the dance floor thins out a bit, the smell cools down a little inside (or am I now too desensitized to notice it?) and the mzungu join the dance floor. There’s something beautiful about the music that lets it sound both joyful and mournful at once, like the feeling of nostalgia in a song. The rhythms are great too and everyone loves dancing.
Straight away I have two girls grinding on me, one bumping her ass in my crotch as she bends over nearly touching the floor the other grabbing me from behind, whispering in my ear promsing me very good sex if I come outside behind the fence with her. I’m under no illusion as to her primary motivation and, according to one of the expat guys, a foray behind the fence with her would cost me the princely sum of around two bucks).
I buy one of them a beer in the hopes of getting rid of her but she latches on firmer. “I love your beards,” she purrs as she tugs at my face, “you are my Jesus”. With this masterful line it looks like the other girl has lost out in the struggle for my attention but at then she steps in and whispers in me ear “don’t go with her, she has SIDA [HIV]”. The first girl knows the other girl has said something mean and things look tense. It’s time for an extraction and one of the expat girls comes to my rescue, pretending to be my girlfriend and dragging me away. This works to a point – I am now grinding an expat NGO worker instead.
The dance floor pretty much looks like that scene from Blacksnake Moan where Samuel Jackson is playing guitar in that bar and everyone is getting their freak on. It’s pretty sexy, bodies writhing in unison, locked together at the crotch, asses bobbling around at speed, groping and grinding. Two girls turn on an impromptu simulated sex show, making out, spanking each other and generally getting the guys worked up. One of them is down on all fours twitching her ass rapid fire and rocking her pelvis at speed and the other girl first pretends to mount her and then presses her face against the first girl’s ass.
Eventually I stagger outside for a cigarette and catch the beginnings of a lurid dawn. To my now jaded eyes it appears mournful. Perhaps its the illumination of the poverty around me, juxtaposed against the fresh beginnings of a new dawn; the sunrise framed by a tangle of power lines above rusted red corrugated iron roofs, mud buildings and a red mud road. While taxi drivers vie for our business, we dither, transfixed in the moment. Five minutes pass before the spell is broken and we pile into someone’s ute – again too many crammed in the cab and the rest sitting behind on the tray. My somber mood evaporates in the first rays of the sun as we drive home through a city waking up in front of us. It’s not even five and already the streets are lined with people, no cars just pedestrians, up already and going somewhere. Judging from the baskets of produce they carry on their heads or the implements in their hands they are off to market or to tend to their crops. We lean out the windows as we drive along, laughing and waving at the people who shout mzungu.