Yesterday it was an American called Tom (also known as Chief)’s birthday, so I bunked off work early in the afternoon to go to Bora Bora and play beach volleyball with the marines and other US Embassy staff. Which I’m pretty sure I’ve never played before, but which was actually pretty fun. Considering that I have more or less the worst hand-eye coordination in the world, and avoid ball sports like the plague, I was also less awful at it than I expected – definitely an experience to repeat! I also just about managed to avoid making any gratuitous Top Gun references… until now, that is!
The evening ended at the marine house watching movies and staring open-mouthed at their utterly sweet house – huge pool, gym, massive TV, playstation, airconditioning etc. At one level I was jealous, thinking grimly of my cold hand-held shower, but at another, it highlighted for me one of the big problems with expatriate living. They had everything shipped in from home, and really only talk to other Americans – with some honourable exceptions, they interact with Burundians so little that they might as well have stayed home. They have cars and drive themselves – so no need to get their heads around the local public transport. They never go to the market. They have their own hangouts and talk to each other (partly due to different tastes – I seem to like totally different places to my Burundian friends!).
The expatriate scene can be all-encompassing, fuelling its own assumptions and prejudices about the host country, and is a major problem when it comes to international agencies staffed by foreigners who never really interact with locals – causing a lack of understanding that can derail projects. Even when people want to get to know local people and the local scene, it can be difficult – they don’t know where to start, and anyway, there’s always another party to go to. This is definitely something I’ve experienced – when I lived in Uganda my HQ was very definitely Bubbles O’Leary’s, the Irish pub frequented by expats.
Here I’ve had the opposite experience – for the first month or so I didn’t have any bazungu friends, and instead I’ve made some great Burundian friends who I hope I will stay in touch with and maybe one day see again. Lack of transport and a determination to demonstrate my independence forced me to take on the mighty beasts of the local buses and the marche central – encounters that left me flustered, but more or less victorious. I’ve lived in Africa in a way I haven’t before – and I hope that I won’t go back.
Having said that, my month of total immersion did drive me slightly crazy, leaving me escaping to Rwanda for weekends. I realised that I do need to speak English, make jokes that I don’t have to explain, and, occasionally, laugh over Burundian idiosyncrasies (personally I still find the way they talk about Rwanda hilarious, but of course I can’t say that to Burundians!). In the last week I’ve finally made some bazungu friends, and jumped into the expat scene feet first – making up for lost time. Everyone is great, and I have fun with them. But I’m starting to feel claustrophobic already – obligations every night, and always the same people. And the guilty feeling that I’m neglecting my Burundian friends has crept into the pit of my stomach. Next week is my last week, and I think it’s time to leave expat land for Burundi.