Travels in Africa

Quebec youngster learns close up about the horrors of child soldiers and poverty and the warmth of locals who give openly to visitors

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Photo: Courtesy of Blair family
Miriam Blair meeting children in a Burundian village


"My hands tied behind my back, I watched as my friends dug a pit for my body to fall into. As soon as they had finished, I would be shot."

I listened in horror as a former child soldier told me of his experiences when he was not much older than me (I'm twelve).

I thought I had sufficiently prepared myself for what I would see and hear in Burundi, Africa.
Apparently I was wrong.

"So how come you're still here?" asked my cousin, 17-years-old. Aimé answered her question in Kirundi, and our host Deo translated for us. "The enemy started firing," he said, "so I was released to run and get my gun. Then I managed to shoot the man who was going to kill my captain. The captain owed me a life."

I tried to imagine what it would be like to see my own grave being dug in front of me as I waited to die.
But it was too hard.
I tested my imagination again, trying to imagine me or my fellow classmates killing people.

My imagination failed again.

"What did it feel like to kill for the first time?" I asked, a little scared of his answer.

"I felt joy and pride," he said. "All my friends applauded."

I tried to stop myself from gasping.

He was proud of killing?

"If I managed to kill, I would be less likely to die myself," he added.

After this explanation, my disgust was replaced by pity for these children forced to kill to survive.

My aunt, Allison Blair, works in Burundi with demobilized child soldiers like Aimé.

At her school, Jeunesse Sans Frontières, the boys learn auto mechanics, and the girls, who often end up in prostitution after being demobilized, learn to sew.

Before arriving in Burundi, I had raised money for the school by playing the violin in a mall, and in a concert at the Anglican Cathedral.

My cousin also raised money at her school.

At Jeunesse Sans Frontières, the child soldiers also learn about solving conflict without violence, and how to live together with people of different political and ethnic groups.

They learn about forgiveness and about self-esteem.

"What was your worst experience?" I asked Aimé.

"We caught an innocent villager who was carrying drugs with him. We had orders to kill anyone carrying drugs. But when my band asked me what to do, I said, ‘take the drugs away and let him leave.' Later on, my captain caught the man again, and said, ‘it's your life or his.' The choice was hard, but I decided to save my life. I didn't mind killing the enemy, but I hated killing innocent people."

I wasn't sure how much more I could handle.

I was grateful when my aunt said, "We really have to go."

Clearly visiting my aunt in Africa was not going to be about going on safari, or lazing around on the beach.
Meeting these child soldiers was just a start.

It broke my heart to see small children begging for empty water bottles, or beaming at us when we shared small chunk of stale bread with them.

I doubt if I will ever forget seeing children living in huts made of a few planks and plastic bags, wearing clothes that looked as though they had found them in the garbage.

I went to Burundi with my mother, my grandmother, my uncle and my cousin. (Louisa Blair)

We toured the country in a battered old van.

We'd have breakfast in one province, lunch in another, and supper in yet another. Whatever the province, many people we met ran toward us screaming Alli's name.

They were always thrilled to meet her family and would tell us how much she had helped the country and, often, how

knowing her had changed their life.

With were no seatbelts in the back of our van, and with about five potholes per minute we were flung around a bit, but still managed to hear Deo's and Alli's stories.

As we climbed the steep mountain roads, we came face to face with bikes hurtling down the mountain carrying huge sacks of charcoal, a stack of furniture, or the whole family.

In some places the road had fallen away down the mountainside and we had to crawl gingerly around the edge.

The place we enjoyed most was a village called Karuzi. We walked across the hills all day to visit the family of a widow called Collette, who was taking care of twelve children from three husbands who had either abandoned her or died.
She lived in a small mud hut.

The family borrowed a chair and a bench for us to sit on, and put fresh straw on the floor as a carpet.

They put brightly coloured cloth over our seats and served us tea and burnt corn on the cob and bread.

This was to them the biggest feast they could imagine anyone eating.

They sang us a song, and we sang them a song.

To be with a family as poor as them was overwhelming: they gave us things they could never afford for themselves, such as tea.

Are we ever that generous in Quebec?

I don't think so.

We make sure we have enough for ourselves before we give to others.

Joy and generosity seem to be big part of this most unpredictable culture.

Their generosity goes back a long way.

 

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Miriam Blair sharing some cake with passersby on a roadside in Burundi.

 

An old story tells of an ancient king who banned urubanzas, or celebratory feasts, because people would pay an arm and a leg to throw a party, using up all their money and then starving for weeks afterwards.

Their gratitude is equal to their generosity.

They pray to their Lord for 15 minutes in thanksgiving even for the simplest glass of water.

I will never look at a glass of water with the same eyes again.

I lived & worked as a teacher in West Africa in the mid-70's for 2 1/2 years. It was not a war zone, but, compared to North America, it is VERY poor.

As Ms Blair mentions in her article, the people in Togo were also very generous and very open, in spite of the misery Whites have caused to many generations of Africans.

Paul S.