“Chen, unfortunately, you have pneumonia.”
At 9.30am on December 31, 2021, as I was crossing the border from Kigoma, the westernmost city of Tanzania, to Burundi, a thin African man in a white coat and medical mask told me with a straight face.
Because of the vacation, five members of our organization came to Kigoma, thinking that Burundi is so close that we could just cross the border and walk around. When we arrived at the border, 30 or 40 passengers from our minibus were summoned one by one to a mobile housing set up by the Immigration office for a “rapid test”.
So-called rapid detection, it is to use the slender test paper that grows 15 centimeters or so to poke into nasal cavity quickly, take out quickly again, 10 minutes or so, kit can show one (negative) or two (positive) red line.
“Are you kidding me? I eat and drink with the other four of us every day. They are all right. I asked the white coat.
“Go to the isolation waiting area at the back of the house and wait for instructions. There are already two people there.”
So I took my legs and went to the quarantine zone.
The so-called quarantine area, formerly an outdoor washroom, is now cluttered and rambling with short wooden sticks and nylon ropes pulled by them. On the nylon rope every ten or twenty centimeters, a section of plastic bag torn from the length of ten or twenty centimeters of black plastic strips, presumably to make the place look more “keep away from pedestrians.”
A middle-aged man stood on the outside of the “exclusion zone” with his hands tucked in, pacing back and forth while talking on the phone. A woman with a boy of three or four and a baby girl of several months was sitting on one of the benches, nursing the baby. They glanced at me with little sign of surprise.
I said hello to them and sat down on a bench. I looked around at the green hills and the mist. Are my four friends going to be quarantined for this? Or the whole bus? After all, it’s a very high probability that three out of 30 people will be found. If so, would it be in Tanzania or Burundi?
Not a clue.
There was only one slide left in the projection: How can I get it?
This is obviously a stupid, unsolvable problem. How, when, where, when no one epidemic prevention, also does not have the possibility of prevention of East Africa, it is possible that at the time of taking the bus, go to market to buy food, and the fishermen out to sea, sitting in a local restaurant to eat when the Nile perch, with hundreds of believers from villages in the church, pray with my eyes closed… Anything is possible.
At this moment, another white coat came out of the simple board room, not wearing a mask. He crossed his waist and asked us impatiently: Have you three discussed it well? What to do?
The caller finally choked off the phone and said to the white coat in a half-angry but soft voice, “300,000 for Bujumbura, that’s too much, isn’t it? Can’t you reduce it? …”
“300 thousand let you three people carpool, this is a pie from heaven let you pick up, we are generally rigid rules must be one person a car! You can haggle with the driver and we’ll just do the test and get the results.” The white coat pointed at a short man with a broken nose who was standing quietly behind us. Then he turned and went back to the plank house.
The driver bit a toothpick in his mouth, turned the car key with a Harbin red sausage like a short thick index finger, half narrowed his eyes and asked us: “Should WE go? Take you to the hospital in Bujumbura for medicine. If you don’t want to come with me, wait for the ambulance.”
‘Will we go to Bujumbura with you and take the medicine and then we can move about freely? Still have, one person 100 thousand also really too much, reduce point you!” “Said the young mother.
“A quarter of a million Burundian francs, no less! As soon as the money is paid, in free, happy and peaceful Bujumbura, you are free to move about without stopping anyone. Isn’t that enough to buy a trip to Burundi without quarantine?” The driver said to us with a half-smile.
It was the young mother’s turn to look at us. As she changed the older boy’s diaper, she asked, “How’s it going? Anyway these people make such a is also for making money, a person 80 thousand, free activities, walk?”
Without speaking, the man looked back at me.
The only Burundi
“I’m sorry, but MAYBE I wasn’t there at the beginning of the first half of your conversation, so I don’t understand what’s going on… But in summary, suppose the three of us really do get pneumonia, but instead of receiving official treatment and isolation, we just need $250,000 to carpool to the public hospital in Bujumbura to get medicine, and then we should do what we do. Is that what you mean?” I asked.
“You’re right.” The man said.
“Give it to the man in the white coat. He’ll do it for you.” The driver said.
The white coat appeared at the same time and he asked us, “Huh?”
“Give him the Visa money.” The young mother said to me.
So $40 each, and we both handed him the passport and the money. The man has gone somewhere.
The white coat did not go into the boarding house this time, but went to the immigration bureau. In less than five minutes, we came out with our passports, which were indeed stamped with Burundi entry permits. But far away, my four companions, but also in a face of helplessness in the long line.
The white coat handed our passports to the driver and said, He will take you to the designated hospital, take medicine well, and you will be all right in three days. Then he looked around and asked, Where’s the other one?
“He took a minibus back to Tanzania from there and said 250,000 was too expensive to go to Bujumbura.” The driver said.
“Whatever he wants, he’ll have to go back to Tanzania and get the same test result. He’ll have to go back to Tanzania with the ambulance and be quarantined. There can’t be another country in the world that is so easy to talk about, except Burundi.” “Said the white coat.
“Unfortunately, now we have to pay 125,000 each. Hold the small one while I change the big one’s pants…” The young mother said as she handed me the baby.
Chen, I’ve been a big help. No matter what, you should buy me a bottle of water. The white coat suddenly changed his tune.
“How can you be a great help to me, Doctor?”
“Don’t be tough, there are more problems, give him 5,000 [equivalent to 10 yuan], we hurry to go.” “The young mother whispered to me.
To tell you the truth, I’m not really tough, I’m not deliberately asking questions, but REALLY confused… But to save trouble, I gave him the money. After all, having lived in Africa for six years, I know all too well the usefulness and convenience of “give me some money and get out of here”.
The young man in the white coat took the “water money” and laughed heartily. “That’s right,” he said. “It’s not easy for anyone. This is not, found you 3 out, we still have to find 7, in order to complete today’s indicators to go home.”
Then he turned and entered the plank house. So we, too, got into the “ambulance” (actually a typical taxi) in disguise and “sped off”.
At the first gate, the police asked us for money to drink, and I gave it two thousand. After 20 meters forward, the second fence, a group of similar traffic police stopped us again, looked around the east and west, and finally “money to drink water”.
As I ran out of change, the driver turned to the young mother and said, She’s given it twice already.
The young mother scolded “a group of losers, really take it”… With one free hand he fished two grand out of his bag and tossed it to the driver.
The driver started the engine again, and we finally drove out of the border, into Burundi’s territory, to the sound of grumbling young mothers.
“Oh, I said no pull you go to self-pay isolation, spend you one thousand two thousand dollars, you ah don’t get cheap also sell good, in addition to our Burundi, you in the world which country can be detected pneumonia can only give chicken excrement so little money can immediately direct hand to leave? Just shut up!” “The driver snapped.
The young mother saw the driver seemed really a little hairy, actually really closed the mouth.
There was a sudden silence in the car, and the two children, who had probably been tired out for most of the day, fell asleep as soon as their eyes closed.
The heart of Africa
The car was already in the mountains, a jagged, mist-shrouded vista of banana and palm trees punctuated by irregular terraces of corn, beans, black tea and yams. There were occasional twos and threes of women walking to the market, carrying baskets of coal or other goods on their heads, and groups of ragged children squatting in the mud by the roadside.
In 2005 Burundi’s civil war, which had lasted nearly 15 years and had complex origins dating back to two genocides in the last century (the first, tutsi against Hutu, in 1972; The second incident took place in 1993, when Hutu massacred Tutsis. The war spread to Rwanda, and in April 1994, the Rwandan genocide shocked the world. The two massacres in Burundi total about 480,000 deaths, according to official statistics), the Belgian colonial period in the forties and fifties, and even the German colonial period from the end of the 19th century. Since then, Burundi has received a lot of foreign aid, and it is said that the reconstruction of the city is still going well. The capital, Bujumbura, is known as the “heart of Africa” because it is surrounded by mountains, beautiful scenery, pleasant climate and green places.
But in a 2021 FAO report, Burundi was ranked fourth from the bottom in the world in terms of “food insecurity, risk of famine”.
On the way, we were stopped ten times, and each time the driver frantically rolled down half the window and told them: Pneumonia patients, hurry to Bujumbura. Anyone outside, no matter who they were, would hear that, glance at us in the back seat and wave us through.
After four hours of zigzagging along dirt roads, we arrived in Bujumbura.
As it was New Year’s Day, the streets were bustling with traffic, and it looked like a holiday. The driver pulled us to the official center for Health and Disease Control, counted $250,000, gave us our passports back, rolled down the window, said “Happy New Year” and stepped on the gas.
Street children are seen in the capital Bujumbura
There were a dozen or twenty people sitting inside the CDC, all waiting to “pick up the medicine.” A middle-aged man wearing a license plate told us: free medicine was taken out, but you can take the prescription to any pharmacy to buy.
The prescription read: azithromycin 500mg in two boxes, hydroxylated chloroquine 36 boxes, zinc supplement 20mg, acetaminophen 500mg, vitamin C1000mg.
Of the hydroxychloroquine, at least 10 pharmacies I asked were told they were out of stock and had to buy the other four for 20,000 Burundian francs ($40).
For three hours, after half past six in the evening, I finally meet success and my companions, everyone sighs and glad to sigh a narrowly missed, take a bath, change clothes to dress up, go out looking for a restaurant had a $20 per person (in 2018, is almost a burundian) a month, but it’s not delicious “reunion”.
The next day we ate grilled goat meat and Ugali (one of East Africa’s most common staples, cooked with corn flour and water, stirred until it forms a solid surface and eaten with your fingers) at a local restaurant down the street for less than half a dollar each. Uka Li is as big and firm as a small ball, with a few pieces of meat, the meat is very salty and fragrant, one piece can eat a lot of starch, the five of us almost burst belly, but still did not solve the half of the portion.
“There’s nothing good about Burundi, but when it comes to meat, there’s nothing to talk about,” said Fahiri, the taxi driver who took us on a tour of the city. His mouth was full of sheep fat.
“What do you mean?” I asked him.
“Why do you ask? There was no port, no railway, and too many people… The farmers in the village worked so hard to grow food, but because they could not store it properly, they had to be eaten by insects. The city looked so normal on the surface, but few people could find decent work except driving taxis and running small restaurants. Shabby primary schools with no classrooms and desks, beautiful universities with no teachers, what country is like Burundi? … Forget it forget it don’t say, eat meat.”
“Where is that beautiful university? Can I go in?”
“National University of Burundi? Can ah, where the guards are good to talk, generally a car to give them money to drink water can enter.” “Fahri said.
National university in 1964, founded by Belgium, then just after the Burundi colonial rule (1884 to 1962, successively by Germany and Belgium), the reconstruction work has just started, the whole nation everywhere, still like a pair of holes, then by foreign capital of building history of the country’s first university, its symbolism and meaningful, You can imagine.
Taxi drivers Faciri and Jeff
A snack vendor at Grand Central Station early New Year’s morning. Photo/Chen Youli
Located on the top of a hill outside the city, the university is simple and grand in design pattern, material selection and architectural style. As a result of the large area, overlooking the surrounding mountains or valleys, coupled with lush vegetation, clouds and smoke, people vaguely produce the illusion of being in a College in Europe.
Facieri showed us around the quiet, empty campus, stopping and going, as if he knew his way around the structure. He turned left and right and led us into the tallest teaching building after the church.
The classroom and laboratory doors were strangely open or ajar. Desks, unbound textbooks, stained Windows, half-erased medical notes on the blackboard, and even solitary flip flops were scattered aimlessly in the dust.
We followed him up to the top six floors. The terrace offers a clear view of Bujumbura’s bustling city centre and of Lake Tanganyika, surrounded by traffic.
Lake Tanganyika as a whole is a long canyon, from north to south longitudinal across Tanzania, Burundi, the Democratic Republic of Congo and northern Zambia, is the first deep lake in Africa, the deepest up to 1.4 kilometers.
In the heart of Bujumbura, the lake takes on a dusky, ink-gray hue and stinks when the sun shines, presumably because most of the excrement of all Bujumbura’s men, women and children is hidden unobtrusive at the bottom. But in that moment, as we looked out over Tanganyika from the top of the hill, and the 5pm sun hit the water, turning the lake a warm, eye-pleasing orange, she suddenly became lovely.
Happy or not
A German fellow took out his DSLR to record the beautiful scenery in front of him, but suddenly we heard an angry voice from the ground. We looked down and saw an old man in casual clothes.
“Uncle is all right, it’s me, Fachiri, just taking some friends to see the old classroom, relax…” Fachili called down.
“It’s you. Why didn’t you tell me? Look around, don’t take pictures, you know the situation here…”
As he turned away, I asked Facieri, “What? Did you go to college here?”
“Medicine department, difference a year did not finish.” Fachili looked at the lake with a loose expression.
“Why didn’t you finish?”
“It’s no surprise that an estimated half of Burundi’s university students finish university… Plus, I chose this major because it was popular and easy to apply for student loans. After studying for a while, I realized I didn’t like it at all, so I just walked away.
“What year did you leave school?”
In 2015, the first year I came to East Africa, another Girl from Switzerland and I visited various countries around Tanzania during the Christmas holiday in December. When we reached the border of Rwanda and Burundi, we looked for all kinds of gateways, but we could not get in, so we had to temporarily change our way north to enter the DRC.
The climate in Burundi that year was decidedly unfriendly to foreigners. In April, the two-term president Pierre Nkurunziza sparked widespread unrest in Burundi when he announced he would continue his bid for the presidency, which was blamed by the country’s opposition camp. The government banned all demonstrations and closed universities to prevent opposition mobilisation in schools. Since April 30, a group of university students, unable to return to campus on time, have camped at a construction site next to the US Embassy in Bujumbura.
“Did you run to the American embassy?” I asked Faciri.
“No, I’m not interested in politics, and I was actually going to leave school before the riots started. After all, it wouldn’t do any good to stay in school in such a chaotic environment. Fortunately, I could still make a living by driving a taxi. Several senior students in the department of Medicine, who left school with me at that time, were all driving a taxi…” “Fahri said.
More than 400,000 Burundian refugees have fled to neighboring countries including the DRC, Rwanda, Tanzania, Uganda and Zambia due to the unrest in the country, Xinhua reported on June 20, 2017.
But Nkurunziza was eventually elected, and Burundi’s civil strife continued into 2018. According to 2018 World Bank statistics, Nkurunziza’s Burundi, with one of the lowest GDP per capita in the world, was called the unhappiest country in Africa.
Nkurunziza died in 2020, aged 57. Officially, he died of a heart attack, but multiple media outlets have pointed to COVID-19 as the likely cause of his death.
As it grew dark and we started down from the top floor, Fahri, 35, an undergrad at the National University, showed us the classroom and chemistry lab where he used to teach.
Since its establishment, Burundi National University has been closed more than 30 times due to political instability, operational crisis, mismanagement, failed fundraising, brain drain and other complex reasons, the most tragic of which was in 1994 after the Rwandan genocide. Even Pierre Nkurunziza, who had completed his undergraduate studies at the Institute of Physical Education at the National University and had become a fellow teaching assistant, was forced to leave the university and flee Burundi because of his Hutu identity when 70 hutu students were massacred in a reprisal by Tutsi students on 11-12 June 1995.
The last time the university was unofficially shut down was a month ago, when it was unable to pay faculty salaries.
“I heard that even the canteen cooks have quit, and there are no markets or cheap restaurants nearby, so students have to fend for themselves… It’s amazing how many years have passed and still nothing has changed.” Faciri snorted as he spoke.
We left the National University and drove back to the city before it turned dark a few more degrees.
Useful or not
“You studied medicine for three years. Does it work in real life?” “The German fellow medical student asked Fajiri and his friend Jeff. Jeff and Facieri majored in the same dorm, dropped out of school together, and eventually became taxi drivers together.
At that moment, we were wandering the streets, trying to find something to eat. Still, most downtown restaurants closed early for the New Year. The colorful lights of the closed shops on either side of the road fell faintly on Facieri and Jeff’s faces.
“That’s a tough question to answer. It depends on how you use it and for what, and also on the amount of time, energy, money, and return you get.” “Said Fachili, kicking a pebble.
“Well, look at all these drugstores, what do you think they’re doing?” Jeff asked.
In fact, when I arrived in Bujumbura yesterday and went to the pharmacy to look for “COVID-19 miracle drugs”, I was already very surprised by the ubiquitous pharmacies in the city. Take any street and a drugstore will pop up within ten or twenty meters, far outnumbering restaurants, hair salons, small supermarkets and grocery stores. Looking for hydroxylated chloroquine, I quickly scanned the products on display, and they were almost identical or even identical from pharmacy to pharmacy.
National University of Burundi. Photo/Chen Youli
“In African countries, pharmacies are overwhelmingly driven by the interests of the pharmaceutical industry behind them, and it’s really hard to say how useful they are…” “Said the German.
“You are right, but in Burundi, unique Burundi, things are different. For example, in 2012, when we were preparing for the national examination, the World Health Organization conducted a random survey of medical conditions in Burundi. The results showed that 40 per cent of the patients admitted by the Health organization in Bujumbura were malarial and 47 per cent of them died in hospital due to lack of basic drugs and medical equipment. Since that year, our government has received substantial financial assistance to expand pharmacies and provide loans for students to study medicine. So…” “Jeff said, patting Faciri on the shoulder.
“Ha ha, so, so we’re like turtles in a jar…” “But it’s like this pneumonia. Take those four pills you took at noon, zinc and C alone. They work for almost everything. It actually works a little bit. You want to say it works? It is not conclusive against COVID-19. On your list, the only hydroxychloroquine that might be useful, because the Indian pharmaceutical company that dominates Burundi’s pharmaceutical industry doesn’t make it, so you can’t find it in Burundi without breaking a leg. So what about the cure for pneumonia?”
“… How do you know I have the prescription?” I asked Faciri. Because I didn’t want to cause panic, I hid my medicine at noon.
“Ha ha, come on, no one in Burundi is afraid of COVID-19, because if they are, they eat, they sleep, they lose their jobs, they are poor, it’s not a big deal.” Faciri laughed again.
“What about you, anyway? Do you, as medical students, think that this street full of drugstores is useful for solving your country’s health problems?” “Asked the German.
“Do you want to improve your health by taking medicine without changing your eating habits, living environment or sanitary conditions?” Jeff asked rhetorically.
The German young man did not continue the rhetorical question, and we naturally changed the subject and continued to laugh without worrying about whether it was useful or not.
Back at the hotel shortly after dinner, I went for a swim in the empty hotel pool. Suddenly it began to rain cats and dogs. Raindrops patted my spine. All day but didn’t find a little sense of reality, in the water at that moment, I finally started to believe and feel all this, believe me in the original forest had sent ten days ago that a source of unknown high fever, believe that after a week of intermittent cough, believe kit on shows that two looms, and no obvious fine lines, Believe that even though nothing seems to have happened, it has happened. Believe me, I’m most likely to get pneumonia.
I was so tired that I couldn’t keep my eyes open until 12 o ‘clock. 2022 just crept in. Half asleep, I heard cheering crowds in the streets at midnight.
We always look to the future that has not yet arrived, telling ourselves and others that tomorrow will be better.
But is it really possible to get better tomorrow? The answer to this question is as unknown as happiness or usefulness. The only thing that can be said for sure is that in this year-by-year world, it’s always good to hope.