Dawn Encounters…

Here’s how the first two hours of each day go for me:

I’m a terrible sleeper, so invariably I’m awake by 4am. I get up at 5am, read the Bible until 530am, and then wake up Lizzie before leaving the house to go for a jog and a swim. I creep out, trying not to wake up the kids. It’s still pitch black, so I vary my routes up the hill through our neighborhood’s various side streets, in case someone unpleasant might plan one time to mug me, thinking I might provide some easy pickings – but what could they take? Maybe my shoes and my wedding ring, but not much else. Still, security is definitely on my mind until the rising of the sun, which happens pretty quickly but not yet.

The only people on the streets apart from me our people on their way to pray in the large new Catholic church, and prostitutes returning from their night’s work – an interesting contrast of lifestyles. By 6am that church is packed with faithful folk lifting their concerns to the Almighty. I guess I’m doing that as well – running is always a good time to pray – but I’m sweating my socks off at the same time!

I get to the pool, strip off, and do my mile in 35mins. Meantime the hues of pink change to orange and yellow as the sun imposes its presence on the new day. There are usually three other men in the pool with me, all in their fifties, with significant paunches to work off – although paunches are aspired to here because they show you have enough to eat! They all swim breast-stroke painfully slowly, and often eyes-shut because I invariably bump into one of them who’s accidentally swam diagonally across my path – hakuna matata. They’re nice guys, and can’t believe it when they hear about the ironman I’m training for and what that involves.

Still wet, I begin the jog home. Now things are getting busier. There are kids on their way to school, and the braver ones shout out at me. I usually run towards one such group and then say nonchalantly: ‘Murazi yuko, igihe abazungu barasonza, bafungura abirabura!’ at which point I start chasing them and they totally freak out, because what I’ve just said is what they were taught as infants, which is: ‘You know that when white people are hungry, they eat black kids!’

The homeward journey is such fun. Some kids jog with me for a while, others exchange high fives as I pass them by, enjoying the chance of touching a white man’s hand. I get shouted at so many times with the word: ‘Muzungu!’ (‘white man’). Probably one in three times I shout back ‘Umwirabura!’ which means ‘black man’, and without fail everyone who hears it starts laughing out loud, and I hear them in my wake exclaiming to each other words like: ‘Did you just hear that? That white guy just said umwirabura, that’s hilarious!’ because very few white people speak Kirundi, so they feel like they’ve been caught out! It’s a very easy way to have a laugh, which you’d think would get boring after a while, but no, it always works and is just good-natured banter.

Busses, cars and 4x4s are cramming the main streets now, so I duck down the more obscure alleyways to minimize the dust kicked up by their wheels, which tastes gritty and unpleasant. Women are already at work on any manner of spare strips of grass, often with sleeping babies tied to their backs, until the increasingly aggressive sun. I feel for the women in this culture, their lives are really tough. Many men sick at home drinking home-made beer whilst expecting their wives to do all the work. I come across Margarita. She’s old. And each morning she’s slogging her guts out on a small scrap of land. I see her straddling the ditch of open sewage and using a plastic cut-out container to slop the waste onto her meager plot as fertilizer. Old but strong. It’s not rude, so one morning a few weeks back I asked her: ‘Margarita, ufise imyaka ingahe?’ (‘M, how old are you?’). ‘Imyaka mirongw’ itanu’ (‘50’). ‘Oya! Umgire ukuri’ (No way, tell me the truth now!’) ‘Imyaka mirongw’ itandatu.’ (‘60’). ‘Oya, s’ukuri!’ (‘No, that’s not true either!’) (OK, imyaka mirongw’ indwi!’ (‘OK, 70 then!). And we settle for seventy! Life expectancy in Burundi is currently forty eight, I believe, so she’s doing really well. I wonder what her full story is in terms of surviving through the various wars and the horrific things that happened during those times…

Another lady, self-confidence heightened on her home turf on a street corner surrounded by a few men, blurts out to me: ‘Muzungu, watuzanye iki?!’ (Muzungo, what have you brought us?). The implication is that I should give them money. I reply: ‘Ndakuzanye urukundo rwinshi!’ (‘I’ve brought you lots of love!’). Again they all crack up laughing, as she thought I wouldn’t have had a clue what she was saying. But she carries on the mock exchange: ‘Oya, singomba urukundo. Urukundo s’amahera. Ngomba amahera!’ (‘No! I don’t want love. Love isn’t money. I want money!’) ‘Pole sana. Mfise urukundo gusa rwo kuguha, kandi urukundo rufise igiciro kinini kuruta amahera!’ (‘Sorry, love’s all I’ve got, and love’s worth a lot more than money!’)

That’s a very typical start to my day. Your average Burundian’s life is really tough. I think of those precious prostitutes eeking out their living in a way they’d never have wantonly chosen. I think of those myriad schoolkids scuttling to school with dreams and hopes that I long to see enacted rather than crushed in the years to come. I think of the many wrinkly Margaritas slopping away in the sewage to survive. I think of that lady on the corner and the many like her who have sadly resigned themselves to handouts, but nevertheless in the midst of their misery have kept a sense of humour. And then there’s me. Absurdly wealthy me. I can afford, for fun, to waste 1,500 calories in a workout each dawn because I can go back to a fridge and get out a load of food to stuff my face with and replenish those depleted stocks. Truly what different lives we lead…

And no, I don’t feel guilty about keeping fit – it feels great and helps me to thrive in this oppressive climate. And I don’t feel guilty about being wealthy and having the means to eat enough. But I do feel deeply grateful. And I do then go to the office and crack on with the new day, fiercely resolved to make it count, to do something that will somehow impact someone’s life for the better, for God’s glory.

So have a great day! And make it count!

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