No, I’m not swearing at you. OAF stands for One Acre Fund, an agriculture-based social enterprise operating in the East of Africa. Last year, I applied for a position with the organisation and, after two Skype interviews and a written assessment, I was finally invited to an in-country interview at their Burundian office. As I boarded the plane in Swaziland, I was filled with anticipation. Anything could happen……and anything did.
Getting to Burundi is not an easy affair. Taking the first flight out of Swaziland, I had to fly to Johannesburg, change airlines, fly to Nairobi, change planes, then fly to Bujumbura. Unfortunately, even after all of this, the weather was too formidable to land in Burundi so it was off to Kigali, Rwanda, for a couple of hours until things settled down. I arrived in Bujumbura at 9pm, fourteen hours after I started.
Inside the terminal, I faced my second challenge. Despite a quick google search before my departure telling me that no visa was required for Aussies, I quickly found out that this was not the case. Furthermore, visas could only be purchased by cold hard US Dollars, of which I had none. No offers to pay by credit card, Australian Dollars, Burundian Francs, South African Rand, or Swazi Emalangeni could sway them otherwise. I found myself in quite the conundrum until an extraordinarily nice gentleman offered to pay on my behalf with little more than a thinly veiled plan to reimburse him over coffee. Chivalry does exist.
Finally, I was in Burundi. I was met by Emmanuel, who handed me a phone and details of my in-country assignment (very secret service), before taking me to my accommodation for the night. I had six hours to rest before the real fun would begin. Just to make things a little more exciting, I found out the next morning that the time on the phone handed to me – and thus, on my alarm – was out by an hour. I awoke to the sound of the driver arriving to collect me, and quickly jumped out of bed, threw on some clothes, shoved everything into my bag, before trying to exit the bedroom. I say trying, because it was at this point, that the handle to the bedroom door decided to fall off and I was stuck inside. With a few deep breaths, I managed to reattach the handle and open the door enough to squeeze my fingers around. I was out!
Sans breakfast, the next stop was Muramvya, a village an hour out of the capital. My in-country assignment involved two mornings in the field and two afternoons of office-based work to develop a presentation on the organisation’s impact, identify a new product or service to improve profits for farmers, write a concept note for this new product / service, develop an action plan and timetable, design the required monitoring and evaluation tools, and write implementation guidelines for field staff. Basically, I had 2.5 days to do what would normally take me around 2.5 months.
If this wasn’t overwhelming enough, I also had shock of having to complete all my in-field research and some of my written pieces in French – a language that I was never fluent in, and which I haven’t used for a good two years. The cherry on top of this whole adventure, though, really came when my computer became corrupted and spontaneously suicided. I managed to restart it after a few hours, but it spent the next two days leading me down a path of continual hyperventilation and despair.
All I can say is that I did my best, but the shock of being so far out of my comfort zone stuck with me for a few more hours. Back in Bujumbura, a beer and delicious Indian food helped to calm me, before I headed to the airport for my flight home.
Just when you thought the drama was over, Burundi had one more little surprise in store. It turns out that that Burundian officials’ definition of three days differs somewhat from my definition of three days – by a difference of two days. There was no chance of sneaking under the radar, with my passport being checked 7 times in the space of 10 metres. So came the questions:
Why have I overstayed my visa? Because we count differently.
Why don’t you have a South African visa? I don’t need one, and I’m not going to South Africa, I’m going to Swaziland.
Where is your vaccination certificate? Here.
No, not your yellow fever, you’re polio vaccination certificate. Huh?
It became a requirement in February. It’s 12:30am on 1st February! And, really?
Wait here while we take away your passport for an indefinite amount of time. Sigh.
Okay, you can go, but you need to buy a new visa. I only have SA Rand.
You can pay me Rand. Can I have a receipt please. No. I need one for my work.
You have to go to the arrivals hall to get that. Okay.
I was escorted by armed guard to the arrivals hall, where I had to wake the staff, and where the guard explained the situation in Kirundian (so I couldn’t understand), before being escorted out again and having my money returned to me with the words “They feel pity for you because you’re a volunteer”. I have never felt so happy to be pitied. I have also never been so impressed by my ability to navigate the system, and come out unscathed, while conversing only in French!
After all this, it will be another three weeks before I hear whether I was successful in the position or not. In the meantime, I want to hear your thoughts:
Is this a sign that Burundi is not meant for me?
Was this my test to prove that I can now, and should, take on whatever Burundian challenge is thrown my way?