Burundi’s canvas

I’ve been trolling youtube lately, watching videos of Burundi (like this one), in preparation for my trip there in July.

In the videos – if you look past the incredibly skillful Burundi drummers – you will see a landscape and people that look just like what I remember from back in the mid-80’s, when I lived in Malawi. Not surprising, really, given that they’ve just come out of a long civil war that set them back decades in terms of development.

 The women are dressed just the same: tops of all sizes and shapes, but always worn and faded, ill-fitting, and often with the sleeves cut to allow for the women’s muscular upper arms. Below that: what in Malawi is called a chitenje, a length of cloth printed in a bright, multi-coloured pattern, wrapped around the waist that hangs to about mid-calf. Bare feet, or perhaps a pair of worn flip-flops or plastic sandals. I could not see a single woman in shorts or pants.


a street scene in Malawi

a street scene in Malawi

The men do wear pants or shorts: again, worn and faded and ill-fitting. Sometimes a length of rope holds them up. The tee-shirts the men wear are often a surprise: Nike or DKNY or the NY Mets. Some men have sunglasses or a watch. If it really is like Malawi of 20 years ago, then the watches often don’t work, but are simply worn as a sign of status.


The ground is bare earth for roads and paths. Dust flies when a car drives by. The cars are generally SUVs, but most people walk, often carrying goods on their heads. The women use chitenjes to strap their babies to their backs, so that only the children’s heads are visible.


The buildings in the background have thatched or corrugated metal roofs, and have clearly seen better days. The whitewash or paint, if there ever was any, is faded and the doorways and windows have crumbled, showing the earthen walls underneath the paint. Sometimes there are no windows, just square openings on the dark interior.


What this all reminds me of, though, more than anything else, is the smell. I haven’t thought about that smell for 20 years, but it comes right back to me when I see those video images.


Of course, there are lots of smells there, as anywhere. If you’re riding a bus, for example, you won’t be able to escape the strong body odour, mixed with the caustic smell of the black smoke that invariably belches from all of the cars and buses.  In a market, the pungent odour of the piles of dried fish mixes with the smell of 20 different curry powders, the sweet aroma of fresh papayas or mangos and the sickening stink of freshly-killed ox or goat meat. In a village, the dominant smell is smoke, from the cooking fires that burn all day, mixed with a distant occasional whiff of urine and excrement from the nearby latrines, if the wind is blowing the wrong way.


But any of these smells could be replicated here, or anywhere else in the world. There’s another odour that I haven’t experienced since I was last there in 1988. I’m not even sure what it is, but I like to think of it as the smell of the African earth. It’s a red clay soil where I lived in Malawi, and the smell of that soil seems to form a background to all other odours, like the canvas that underlies a painting.


I know it’s odd, but I’m quite looking forward to seeing if Burundi’s canvas has the same smell.

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