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World Portraits

Travel-inspired blog about people, spaces, and the details that make up their essence.

Colonial re-encounters: Madeleines in Bujumbura, Burundi

Drawing of madeleines in their baking tray. Source: www.longreads.com

Drawing of madeleines in their baking tray. Source: www.longreads.com

What does a madeleine remind you of? If you grew up in Europe, what comes to mind is probably Marcel Proust’s Recherche du Temps Perdu, which we all had to study in high school as a key classic of French literature. In the first volume, the author recalls how, as a child, his aunt gave him these typical French butter cakes dipped in tea. For him, the madeleine symbolizes the past that emerges unintentionally. I also used to associate madeleines with Proust. But now, what I think about is Bujumbura, Burundi’s largest city. In particular, I think about one of Bujumbura’s local gas stations, that sort of places where you can only buy cheap snacks, soft drinks and cigarettes.

I found myself in Bujumbura for the first time a few days ago, on a work trip. One of my local colleagues offered to take me on a Saturday trip with his family to the Tanganyika lake, one of the city’s must-see spots. On the way to the lake, he stops to buy something at the local gas station and – surprise, surprise – comes out with a plastic bag full of madeleines.

I had never seen a madeleine in my life, I think to myself. I only knew its shape because of Proust. Who would have thought that the first place for me to see one would be Bujumbura? Seems random, but of course it isn’t. Belgian colonialism has left visible footprints in Burundi and especially in its ex-capital, which is full of restaurants and hotels with European architecture and French names: Le GourmandLa TerrasseLe Village… 

But the traces of colonialism go well beyond appearances. They are still very much reflected in the large, gated houses where richer (often white) people live and in the disparity of salaries that expats and locals are paid to perform the same job.

The burden of colonial history is something that makes working here uncomfortable, at least for me. Despite people’s welcoming and open attitude, I often feel illegitimate when trying to express my opinion on something, just because I’m white. Being constantly aware of one’s skin colour and of its historical baggage is a strange feeling to have – although once again, the very fact of it being exceptional reminds me of my privilege. 

What is also striking is how much neocolonial thinking and language can unconsciously come out in our thinking and speaking. I caught myself telling my colleague’s five-year-old child, who is fluent in Kirundi but not yet in French, that ‘French is very important because it allows you to communicate with others.’ Did I say that, really? I thought to myself a second later, when the child was already nodding.

But Burundi also made me wonder how much these should be read as traces of colonialism or as blended parts of 21st century Burundian (urban) culture. After all, it’s true that French allows young journalists and bloggers to reach the rest of the world. A certain passion for refined cooking, maybe inherited from the Europeans, could at some point constitute an important source of employment of the country’s youth, most of whom are today unemployed. 

Driving back to the airport, with the mind full of these thoughts, I witness a scene that summarises them all. As we approach what seems a local overcrowded bus, I notice that everyone is singing in Kirundi, big smiles and local clothes, beating their hands on the windows to keep the rhythm. ‘It’s a marriage’, my driver explains me. As we surpass the bus, I see the line of cars. First, old cars with the driver’s seat on the right (‘they’re cheaper because they’re imported from Japan,’ my driver explains), then slightly more expensive cars with people wearing suits, and finally the newlyweds’ white car, where I see the spouse dressed in a beautiful white tulle dress. A caravan of sounds and colours that blends the most traditional and the most western styles. But maybe this dichotomy is somewhat artificial, maybe I should just look at it as one happy caravan, which it is after all. But the best is yet to come: in front of the newlyweds’ car drives another car with the boot open, where two cameramen are filming the whole thing. No doubt they are violating any existing – but never enforced – traffic laws. I just wish I could join the party.