Bristol City Limits

The last in my series of 2010 Africa posts.

For about six weeks I was a celebrity. Being a white woman walking around downtown Buja still makes you unusual, but it is no longer a rarity. If you are a white woman driving her own car you are a bit more rarefied, because all the white women working for the NGO’s have drivers. But middle class Burundian women now drive, so you don’t get too many looks. But a white woman, riding a moto, with a beautiful Burundian girl sidekick, in matching green fluorescent vests on a shiny new red bike equipped with strobe lights, well, you are officially a spectacle. You not only get looked at and pointed at, you get cheers from the sidewalks, and you become the answer to the dinner table question, 
“Well, what did you see in town today?”

But as with all celebrity, the reaction wasn’t completely unmixed. It was about 85% Hosannas and the other 15% considered us to be an abomination to God and an insult to African manhood. Especially the part of man that would never own a moto. There is always a part of the crowd that wants to see you fall. I couldn’t always tell the difference. 

On one of my regular shortcuts there was a beer hall on the street and the men there always greeted me with a distinctive call. I always smiled and waved. 
Kama Kawaide, it was up to Dani to educate me.

“Peggy, those men are not cheering for you.”

“Really, they seem very friendly.”

“They are very drunk. And they are ex-rebels.”

“How do you know that?”

“Because that noise they are making is their battle cry, it is what you hear coming from the bush before they come and kill you.”

“Ah, do you think they plan to kill me?”

“Probably not, they want to scare you, and make you crash the bike, then they would laugh, and maybe steal the bike, and maybe...”

Better informed, I developed my own version of a rebel yell to give back to them; they threw a few pebbles, but eyes on the road, Milagro never faltered.

The cadre of fellow moto riders, almost entirely taxi-motos, was much more supportive. They understand solidarity. On about my third day they accepted me, and I rode as one of their own until the end. They called me “Madam Moto-Mazungu.”

One day, on one of the terrifyingly complex roundabouts, at the height of morning rush hour, a moto stalled mid-stream. Death. The swarm that I was a part of surrounded our comrade and stopped en masse, raised our throttle hands, and shouted in Kirundi. Can’t kill us all (probably). Traffic stopped, and we escorted the man and moto safely to the side of the road. An Ad Hoc repair committee was formed and the rest of us rode on our way. Hakuna Matata - it’s just what we do.

By the end of the six weeks I was well known, and I recognized many of them as individuals. Be-beeps of greeting in the morning and at night. They work 12 hour shifts 6 days a week. I was more irregular, but always welcomed.

Then my time ran out. I wanted to arrange an escort to accompany Milgro back to Miracle Motors, but with little functional Kirundi, I did not know how to arrange it.  So with an escort of Angels we quietly surrendered our steed. We did sing the doxology at the top of our lungs for the final three blocks. Mr. Muni Raju was out to lunch so I wrote a thank-you note and gave the key and helmets to the secretary, and walked away - Lone Ranger Style. I did leave the deepest blessing I knew how to give, on the bike and the man who would become her new master, though I knew him not. I adjusted my African explorer hat and became a foot soldier again.  

I took a regular taxi home. The car taxi men are a union all their own, and also very tight. They pride themselves with a "knowledge" of the town and its goings on that would make a London cabbie blush. This man kept sneaking hard looks at me. Finally he said “Why are you in my cab, Madam? Where is your moto? You are the one? No? Madam Moto Mazungu?” I explained that I was on my way to America and that the moto would stay. “Ay, this is a sad day for the moto boys.”

The next day I was downtown with Eli and Dani. We walked past the biggest motostand in the core. I smiled and bonjoured the boys but not a one of the acknowledged me. They did not recognize me without the helmet and bike and vest. I was once again just some old white woman. Sigh. Fame is so fleeting. 

I understood in a new way, “He came into His own country - to his own people - and they did not recognize Him.”



She is gone. We do not know where she went, but then we did not know where she came from. She was with us for such a short season. But when she was here we shined.

The boys on the south end of town say she lived in Kibenga, and that she came to them first, and they claimed her, but they do not know which compound she went into at night, nor where she is now.

The boys in Kamenge say that she was a teacher and pastor and went every day to the church to teach. But that is ridiculous; no church would let a mazungu lady-pastor ride a moto! Those boys drink too much beer.

Those bad men in Bwiza were seen throwing stones at her and trying to frighten her. But she was fearless, and if they had gotten her we would have heard about that. And she would not run from men like that.

A taxi man claims that she rode with him and has gone to America. But you cannot trust taxi-men.

A downtown boy claims to know the girl who rode with her, but the girl denies that she has ever worn the beautiful green vest.

Someone asked Mr. Ken Johnson, and he smiled and said he was sure she would return some day. We can only hope.

But she is gone, and the days are less bright, and the rains have come.
Ah, Peggy, I sympathize, no longer driving the blue pickup with the white vet box and the DR JOE license plate, nobody waves at the little Honda. Bit it's a good reminder for all of us that we're nobody special. Sometimes circumstances make us special, and it's a huge temptation to feel that we're someone special, but not so. Just another old white man, keepin' on. God it is, who is special.
Joe, I hope that even in the city you will keep your boots and hat. We may not be anything truly special. But that doesn't have to stop us from being distinctive!
Peggy, you remind me, at the end of a hard day as an ordinary high school English teacher here in the United States, that what we need to do to be able to give our strongest blessings is to pay much greater attention to the drivers of taxi-motos than to the belligerent ex-rebels at the side of the road.

"Hakuna Matata - it’s just what we do." Gotta see the beauty in order to build it up and keep it safe and strong.

As always, thank you for your writing. It tends to come when I need it.

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