Lesson Learned from African Roads

(from Eric)

Stephanie wrote a while back about their misadventure on Burundian roads, but after our past weekend, it seems that there is (perhaps unfortunately) more to share.

Our family is heading back to the US for a spell in about six weeks.  As Rachel and I thought about it, we weren't at all sure that our kids had even gotten in a car since early January.  Such realizations can give one a bit of cabin fever, so we thought we'd have a family weekend down on a beach resort on Lake Tanganyika.

The drive down was three hours, one of which was on Route Nationale 16.  Here is a picture:
Lesson 1:  Even though something carries a national highway designation (and there isn't a level above this, though many roads are nicer) you cannot make assumptions.  

And a GPS on your phone is invaluable, but there should be limits to the extent you trust a road that you have not yet seen.  But we arrived safe and sound, and were treated the following morning to one of the loveliest rainbows we have ever seen.  

Lesson 2:  African beauty is all around us.  Getting out can help us to see that, and we need to see it.

The kids wanted to do nothing else but swim.  We splashed and floated and played.  We applied sunscreen liberally and then reapplied in an hour.  And we promptly got burned.

Lesson 3:  White missionaries in equatorial Africa are among the pastiest white people you will meet.  

It's a little difficult to explain exactly why this is the case, but it is undoubtedly true.  Maybe it's that we take the perfect weather for granted too often, or the cultural norms that cover most of your body most of the time.  I don't know.  But the combination of pasty whiteness with the intense equatorial sun means that there is nothing that you can do to sufficiently protect yourself.

Two mornings later, and we're ready to head back to Kibuye.  Despite being in the full swing of rainy season, our time at the beach was rain-less.  Until we got in the car.  Right around the time we hit RN 16 in all of its unpaved, rutted glory, the rain starts falling.  We made a game of it.  Whenever a particularly hairy section was coming up, we would tell the kids that we could do this only by "grunt power".  Everyone in the car would then grunt loudly until we cleared the present obstacle.

About two miles from the end of the bad road (and about 1 hour from Kibuye), we came face to face with an obstacle that no amount of grunting was going to help.  A river was running across the road.  It was solid water for about 30m across, and we had no idea how deep.  The river was swift.  We stopped at the edge and studied it for a while.  A couple guys with bicycles waded through the downpour.  At least where they stepped, it came up to knee deep, and threatened to knock them over.

I forgot to take a picture.  Luckily, on returning to Kibuye, I found a picture of it on google images.  Here is RN 16 at the moment of our encounter:

Lesson 4:  Hold your travel plans loosely and prioritize safety.

After considering our options for about 20 minutes, we decided that this wasn't going to work, and proceeded to travel back on wet, bad (and increasingly dark) roads for the next 4 hours in order to get to the capital city, where our very gracious friends the Guillebauds put us all up for the night at the last minute's notice.  Yes, we wanted to get back, and yes, we needed to get into work the following morning.  But sometimes things happened.  

On the flip side, our trip back down the mountain did get us another stunning view (during a brief pause in the rains, see Lesson 2 above).  The hills of Burundi followed by the largest lake in Africa, followed by the Congolese mountains.

So, this morning, after more than doubling our trip the day prior, we drove another three hours back to Kibuye, where we were delighted to be home.  Six weeks until we get in a car again?  Definitely doesn't sound too long.

Lesson 5:  The quickest way to solve your African wanderlust/cabin fever problem is just to go somewhere.  Anywhere, really.


As a final aside, whenever Rachel and I travel, we are struck anew at the difficulties people undergo to seek care at Kibuye.  Burundi is a small country (about the size of Massachusetts), so to say that every week we get patients from every province in the country, that doesn't seem like too big of a deal.  But it is not a uniformly accessible country.  The areas that we were slogging through were the provinces and communes that usually elicit a "well, that is a bit far" response from me when I think about my patients.

Lesson 6:  Good roads are not just a matter of convenience.  They save lives.  Take a moment and thank God for the roads that you have.


Rebekah said...

Love the picture you found of RN 16 ;) So glad your family could get some time away and that you made it to and from safely (although unconventionally).

Marina said...

Hi, we just returned home from 2 weeks in Burundi, divided our time between Buja & Muramvya. Any chance you will be anywhere near Arizona during your six weeks in USA? Would LOVE to meet you, treat you to dinner, you guys are our heroes! Marina dot Berryman at gmail dot com.