I felt a strange comfort crossing into Burundi yesterday. It caught me by surprise, and I couldn’t help but smile when I saw the first national flag painted on a small, rundown building. There’s been so much uncertainty leading to this point that part of what I felt was definitely relief, but there is also a sense of attachment to the country.
Since the BFC started, I’ve often felt like an unofficial Burundian spokesperson. And the films themselves, having played in so many festivals, undoubtedly gave thousands of people their first look at the country. So being here again reminded me of what’s unique about this place and worth sharing with the world.
Still, a number of people asked me before my trip if it’s safe in Burundi. I asked my friends on the ground here that same question many times before deciding to come this year. The country is still dealing with the first national elections since the civil war ended – highly contested elections that ended up with only the incumbent’s name on the ballot. Then two weeks ago, al-Shabab vowed to bomb Bujumbura for having African Union troops in Somalia. The threat came after an attack killed 70 people in Uganda (watching the World Cup final) for the same reasons. So clearly conditions are not ideal, and security has noticeably been ramped up since I was here in 2007.
To that point, tonight I was stopped by police and held on the side of the road for an entire hour until I could get someone to retrieve my passport. Sounds like a rookie mistake, I know, but in the four times I’ve been to Africa, my white skin has usually given me a free pass from undo scrutiny. It was also usually safer to keep our passports locked up than on us at all times. Not anymore.
Another nuisance has been the fact that none of the living options were very convenient locations and so I’m currently staying in a hotel. If I’m not able to walk between where I’m staying and training (right downtown), life gets a bit complicated. So until we can find a better solution, I’m stuck living like a tourist just when I was starting to feel more at home here.