May 30, 2008: Our African Home

At the end of May most North Americans start thinking about holidays and travel. The summer is just around the corner, the weather may already be good enough to do interesting things outside. Along with millions of others, I’m daydreaming at the moment too, but I doubt that I’ll ever again have quite as amazing a trip as the one I took to research The Violets of Usambara.

The idea was simply to check out the background for my story: a Canadian politician goes missing in Burundi in 1997 while his wife back home in Montreal tries to get news about what has happened to him. I had no problem with the sounds, smells and setting for the Montreal part of the story since that’s where I live, but I needed to go to Africa to tell the rest. What I hadn’t expected was that the trip would bring me face to face with our past as humans.

Scientists are now nearly unanimous in saying that everyone alive today is descended from early humans who evolved on the savannahs of East Africa. The great pleasure that people all over the world take in green grass and flowers corroborates the fossil evidence. Closed cropped green grass means big grazing animals to hunt, while flowers frequently signal that berries, nuts and fruits will soon develop. Like birds who can instinctively tell from the air that a marsh or wood will be good for nesting, the people who chose to live on good savannah lands there left more descendants than those who didn’t.

Did I feel at home in Africa when I was there? The question has come up more than once these last weeks as I give readings and talks about The Violets of Usambara. The answer is yes and no.

The setting of Bujumbura reminded me of the way Burlington, Vermont sits on the shores of Lake Champlain with the Adirondack Mountains to west and the Green Mountains to the east. The plains I saw in Tanzania reminded me of grasslands I’ve seen many places in North America. And the people I met displayed a kindness toward me that gave me hope for humanity at large even though I knew that many had been witnesses to—or maybe even involved in—horrific events.

Perhaps the welcome I received was due in part to a respect for someone with grayish hair: I was 58 when I made the trip. I was on my own, so perhaps amused curiosity toward a woman who didn’t fit in the usual mold was also a factor. When people could categorize me they seemed more comfortable, in fact. In Tanzania when I went out walking in the morning on country roads, people greeted me with “Jambo, Sister:” Irish nuns maintained a maternity hospital in the hills nearby and I guess with my formerly red hair suggested I might belong to them. More than once people assumed I was German, possibly because Canadian, British and American women of my age travel infrequently alone to the sort of places I was visiting. My guide at the Amani Nature Reserve seemed inordinately pleased that I could scramble down a rocky hillside as well as someone much younger.

But I also think that nearly all human beings have a fund of positive attributes—perhaps as much as part of our built-in psychological baggage as our preference for certain landscapes--that can be used to make things better. The big question is how to tap into that energy, how to use it for the common good and individual benefit. Both Thomas and Louise Brossard, the central figures in The Violets of Usambara, want to do the right thing. That they frequently fail, even when they want to demonstrate their devotion to the other, is at the heart of my story.

It is a story of love, pain, good intentions and missed opportunities. It is, I hope, true in many important ways even though it is an invention. The difference between truth and fiction, after all, is often as subtle as that between chance and destiny.

Photo: The savannahs of East Africa are where human beings evolved ov


May 28: Burundi in Spring 2008

The political situation in Burundi seems better than it was when I was there, and certainly much improved from those days in 1997 when The Violets of Usambara takes place. According to the IRIN, the UN’s humanitarian news and analysis group, until recently Burundi was experiencing a “period of relative calm after more than a decade of political conflict and civil war.” The country held its first successful post-war democratic elections in August 2005. A ceasefire with rebel groups was signed 18 months ago. One group, the Front national de libération (FNL,) continued to hold out, but violence dropped substantially.

In late April 2008, though, things suddenly got worse. FNL forces shelled a university and the Vatican’s compound, stirring up memories of the murder of Archbishop Michael Courtney in 2003. Courtney had been Apostolic Nuncio—the Pope’s special envoy—and since then the FNL has been charged with masterminding the ambush.

Let us hope that this is only a blip in the peace process and that greater troubles are avoided in the future.

One thing sure, however, what is happening in Burundi is unlikely to make headlines here unless something truly horrific happens. The country is not on the radar in North America, nor is Tanzania, the other country I visited. As I continue to mull over what I saw there and what I’ve been able to learn since, I begin to think that lack of attention is probably a good thing.

In 1997 when Violets takes place, African countries were embargoing trade to Burundi with the hopes of pressuring the various sides to come to the bargaining table. Nelson Mandela, the great statesman of sub-Sahara Africa, was deeply involved. It took several years, but a plan to share power was worked out. Its implementation is not complete—the breaches in the cease-fire agreement make that clear—but it is an excellent example of Africans solving their own problems. The talk now in the region is of more regional economic sanctions, and perhaps they would will help again.

In the meantime, Burundi is going to need help over the long haul. The IRIN warns that “the cumulative impact of extremely low living standards and a continuous deterioration in social and economic conditions means at least half the estimated 7.5 million inhabitants live on less than US$1 a day."

May 26: The Montreal Connection

The Violets of Usambara also takes place in part in the Mile End district of Montreal. It’s a neighborhood I know well, having strolled its streets for three decades. We live just a few blocks away from the house where I imagine the Brossards living, although I’m not quite sure which side of Waverly Street it’s on. While I feel strongly about being true to the spirit and details of the location where a story takes place—that’s the reason why I went to Africa after all—this is a fiction, and I think it’s fair to take a few liberties with the setting. Similarly I give made-up names to the churches where Louise worships and to the stores where she trades, but people familiar with the neighborhood have told me they know exactly what I’m writing about.

That verisimilitude can be dangerous if it goes too far, though. When I first started writing the book and I explained that the hero Thomas Brossard was a Franco American from Boston who came to Canada in part to avoid being drafted in the Viet Nam war, and who then got involved in Federal politics, people would say: “Oh you mean so and so?”

Of course, I didn’t. Thomas and Louise are both made-up characters, but if readers see in them shadows of people they know, I’m pleased.

Photo: Part of The Violets of Usambara takes place in the Mile End district of Montreal, a neighborhood built before the First World War for working and middle class families and which has become gentrified.

May 23: Success at Last with African Violets (in More than One Way, Perhaps)

African violets have become one of the world’s most favourite house plants, and now I’ve finally succeeded in getting them to bloom.

Most of my adult life I’ve had house plants, but I’ve not had much luck in making African violets bloom more than once. That’s why I felt particularly pleased this January when some combination of natural fertilizer and winter sunlight produced buds on the three plants I’d been cosseting for more than a year. I noticed them just about the time that the very final corrections were being made to Violets.

As the days lengthened perceptibly I watched to see how the plants did in the stronger sunlight. By late February, I had to transfer them to a north window since the spring sun was beginning to burn lighter patches in the leaves. But by the time the book was off the presses all three plants were in gorgeous bloom. It seemed singularly appropriate, and I’m pleased to say that they’re still blooming profusely.

We had book launch parties for The Violets of Usambara in Montreal March 25 and April 2—lots of fun, many good friends dropping by to say hello, some books sold too. But one of the nicest things came two weeks later when a lovely arrangement of African violets showed up on our doorstep. When I tore open the envelope, I found a card saying a writer friend and his partner had sent them. “It was so good to read a Canadian book that wasn’t set on The Farm,” he joked when I called to thank them.

Yes indeed. The Violets of Usambara takes place a long way from a Canadian farm, but I’d like to think that despite the fact that part of it takes place in such an exotic location the novel speaks to all sorts of people.

Photo: Finally I get an African violet to bloom at hom

May 21: Gardening in Montreal, Plants from Africa

This is the big planting and spring gardening week in Montreal, which brings to mind flowers and the violets of the title The Violets of Usambara. Louise Brossard, who waits anxiously back in the Mile-End district of Montreal for news of her husband’s fate, takes solace in her African violets. She shuts herself in her garden room and loses herself in their beauty. That she is so enamored of them is important to the way the novel develops. Her dozens of plants and her experiments in violet breeding are a substitute for the control that she’d like to exercise on the world at large and her family in particular. From the beginning of my work on the novel it was clear that one of the things I should do when I was in Africa was visit the place where African violets are found in the wild.

Baron Walter von Saint Paul-Illaire, administrator of the Tanganyika colony for the Germans, collected seeds in the East Usambara mountains in the mid-1890s. He sent them home to his father, an amateur botanist who in turn gave them to a friend who propagated them in a botanical garden. By the turn of the 20th century the flowers had become the toast of horticultural shows all over the world. Their botanical name, saintpaulia, is tribute to the two German flower-lovers.

The Amani Nature Reserve is the best place to find wild African violets today, and that’s where I headed when I left Bujumbura. To get there I had to fly back to Nairobi, then take a flight to Dar es Salaam, arriving around midnight. In the morning I caught a bus to Tanga, Tanzania’s fourth largest city, stayed the night there and then hitched a ride to the nature reserve with a Finnish botanist. The trip was not without its adventures (see my story in The New York Times about how I missed the bus I intended to take but by early afternoon I was standing by a small stream beside which little purple flowers grew out of rosettes of soft, velvety green leaves. It was one of those moments when you just have to sigh and say: mission accomplished!

Photo: Wild African violets frequently grow on rock faces next to streams in the East Usambara mountains of Tanzania

May 19: No Grubby Travelers in Africa

People waiting in North American airports this holiday weekend will tend to be a pretty sloppy looking bunch. Part of that is because of the sloppy way passengers are treated, but also in the years since airplane travel became a middle-class commonplace, the idea that one should dress up to fly has gone the way of real meals on flights. In Africa I found that not to be the case. In fact, I found that any travel experience brought out the festive in people: women who road the intercity buses I took in Tanzania were as carefully dressed as those on my flights from Bujumbura to Nairobi and from Nairobi to Dar es Salaam. Whether they were wearing well-cut dresses with jackets or brilliantly coloured robes and wraps, they looked lovely.

My own travel clothes tend toward the very practical: easily washable light weight trousers and skirts, a couple of long sleeved shirts, tee shirts, a jacket that matches one of the skirts. Not dressy enough, though, I realized when I saw the looks women at the Cathedral in Bujumbura gave me on Sunday when I lingered with worshippers outside. The cotton trousers and matching cotton knit top which I thought looked pretty smart definitely were not what was considered proper. Clearly, their looks said, I should be wearing a skirt, and afterwards I wore one more frequently. Of course, I would never look like I belonged, but at least I could look like I respected the Burundais enough to conform to their standards of dress.

May 16: Morning Walks and Starving Children

Morning is the best time to go out to walk around a city. People are focusing on their own lives then, and do not seem to mind if you walk along with them for a while observing what they do. It also is a time when those most likely to prey on outsiders are least likely to be around.

I would go out, map in hand, as soon as it was fully light, and head in a new direction. Often the streets I took were full of people on their way to market carrying packages and baskets on their heads. Other streets which climbed the hills took me past houses protected by walls and hedges of spiny bushes, or by the multi-story structures built by banks and foreign governments.

Later in the day if I went out, a group of children attached themselves to me as soon as I stepped out of the hotel grounds. “Faim, faim” they said, pointing to their mouths. They did look famished too, but I steeled myself to ignore them and after a few steps they gave up.

On my last day there I stopped by the internet café to to e-mail home the news that I was leaving that afternoon to fly to Dar es Salaam in Tanzania. As I came out, I quickly counted the handful of small Burundais currency, all that I had left of the money I’d changed. When I looked up I saw that five boys were squatting at the curb. I had five bills, one for each. Perfect, I thought.

But no sooner had I handed out the money than a half dozen other children appeared from the shade where they must have been resting. “Madame, Madame,” they cried. “Faim, faim.” I started to run, and they ran after me. It was only when one of the men who had been lounging outside the café stepped forward, shouting something at them in Kirundi that they stopped. How foolish of me. How kind of him.

May 14: Cows and Pirates on Lake Tanganyika

Cattle are still extremely important in Burundi, where Tutsis were traditionally herders, and Hutus, farmers

But Bujumbura consists of far more than its colonial heritage. It is
surrounded by acres of informally-built housing, which have grown enormously as people have come to take refuge in the city from violence in the hills.

The fall I was there, many Tutsis—the traditional herders--who owned cattle were bringing them down from the hills because of the trouble. Among them was Francine’s husband, and he wanted to show me his cows. He met us late one morning and drove us in their white SUV to where the animals were being sheltered in corrals made from unmilled logs down by the lake. Traditionally all women and cows were said to belong to the king, but the land belonged to the cows. Today cattle are still very important, even among well-educated city dwellers: Alain’s pride in his herd was readily apparent.

The city was quiet all the time I was there, but everyone was on edge. My plan had been to stay in Bujumbura for several days and then take a ferry down Lake Tanganyika to Kigome where the trans-Tanzania railroad ends near Jane Goodall’s chimpanzee reserve. But pirates had attacked the ferry shortly before, so it was no longer running, and even if had been, it wasn’t a trip I should take by myself, I was told. I’d do well to think of another plan.

Photo: Cattle are still extremely important in Burundi, where Tutsis were traditionally herders, and Hutus, farmers

May 12: The Colonial Legacy, for Good or Ill

Everyone told me not to leave Bujumbura by myself, because there was trouble in the hills. The slow process of finding a power-sharing formula so that Hutus and Tutsis could live together was beginning, but there were weekly ambushes on roads to the interior. Francine, the young woman who worked for the NGO based in Quebec, gave me the grand tour of the city, but we had to stop before she reached the lookout from which she’d hoped to show me the view because some sort of military operation was going on.

Bujumbura lies on the eastern edge of Lake Tanganyika, the longest and deepest of Africa’s Great Lakes. The land which now is Rwanda and Burundi was colonized by the Germans at the end of the 19th century, and then administered by the Belgians after World War I. The European influence was still very present in Bujumbura nearly 40 years after Independence. French is widely spoken---Francine and her family speak it beautifully—and many aspects of the city show the hand of European city planners. Wide boulevards take off from a central circular park and climb toward the hills. Both the airport and the cathedral were built in classic modernist design from the 1950s and early 1960s.

The Club Tanganyika still serves excellent food on the shores of the lake, as it did before the Belgians left. Its elegant rooms have seen much drama over the decades, most particularly as the new nation was becoming independent. Prince Louis Rwagasore had just been elected prime minister of an interim government in 1961 when he was gunned down at the club. A local man of Greek descent was convicted of the murder, but it is generally believed that Belgian agents were also involved. This was the same time when Patrice Lumumba was killed in the Congo with the connivance of the CIA, remember.

Had these two men lived, chances are the histories of their two countries would have been much less troubled, most observers agree.

Photo: A remnant of colonial times, the Club Tanganyika sits on the shores of the lake.

May 9: Travel in Troubled Times

Before I left Montreal I’d set up a number of contacts for the second part of my trip which would take me to Tanzania and the Amani Nature Reserve in the East Usambara mountains, the home of wild African violets. Louise Brossard, my novel’s major female character, has a passion for the plants, and I wanted to see where they came from originally. The internet is a terrific tool, and without too much trouble I began a correspondence with botanists working at the reserve and with innkeepers in eastern Tanzania.

When it came for my Bujumbura stay, though, I ran into a little difficulty. I picked hotels with good ratings in the Lonely Planet guide to East Africa and tried to fax for reservations, but couldn’t get a response. Both the US and Canada had travel warnings for Burundi and Rwanda at the time, saying in essence that their nationals entered either country at their peril. My sister in Seattle was alarmed by them. Her e-mails for several weeks always included a sentence in the middle: “This is a subliminal message. Don’t go.” And I must admit that, while I didn’t say anything to my husband, I was a bit concerned about making sure that I had a place to stay.

Enter our neighbor Jean-Louis Bolduc. As an executive for Hydro Quebec, he had travelled extensively in Africa, and knew just how to shake the mangos from the tree. Within a day he had a faxed confirmation of my reservation at the Novotel, probably the best hotel in town. In another bit of good luck it also was the hotel where two officials from the Canadian ministry of foreign affairs and international trade were staying. They’d been on my flight from Nairobi too—the only other white faces—and we began chatting over the breakfast buffet the morning after I arrived. That afternoon they invited me along to meet some of their local contacts, which gave me a ringside window on what might happen if trouble erupted. Among their guests was the Canadian warden, who would be the man for Canadians to contact in case foreigners had be evacuated in an emergency. A man of South Asian origin—his grandfather had come to Africa to work on the construction of the Mombasa to Nairobi railroad at the turn of the 20th century—he was just completing arrangements to bring his wife and children to Canada. “It’s for the children,” he said, “everybody wants to allow their children to grow up in peace.”

May 7: Stolen Wallets, Missed Flights and Happy Coincidences

What, in fact, is the difference between chance and destiny? A friend tells about persuading one of his Navy buddies to attend a social gathering at International Christian University in Tokyo when they were stationed there: my friend wanted to talk to an old teacher who was on sabbatical at the institution. His friend agreed, somewhat reluctantly, but met the woman of his life there, an American foreign student who attended, somewhat reluctantly, at the persuasion of one of her friends. My friend says it was a happy chance, but his friend says it was destiny.

However you define it, chance played a big role in the success of my trip to Burundi. Armed with good advice from Bonaventure and several other friends who knew the African Great Lakes Region well, I made plans to go to Africa in the fall of 2001. My daughter was studying early music at the Royal Conservatory in The Hague then, and the idea was that I could fly from Montreal to Amsterdam, stop over a few days with Elin and then go on to Nairobi, catching a connecting flight to Bujumbura. There was a moment when I considered not going at all—September 11 was just two weeks before I left—but the fact that I’d put up a lot of money for tickets and vaccines and visas was an argument for persevering. So was the thought that things might get worse, and that this window of time was the last I might get. Luckily, that hasn’t proved to be true, but it was with a certain amount of trepidation that I left Montreal.

The Dutch leg of the trip was terrific. Elin showed me around, introduced me to her friends, and I wandered the incredibly civilized city with great pleasure. Until, that is, my wallet was stolen from my purse, probably in the train station in The Hague.

There followed a few moments of panic and comedy. I couldn’t remember the last name of Elin’s roommate or of her boyfriend. I didn’t have her phone number with me, I stumbled into the conservatory to ask help from the secretary who went to great lengths to find her number. He also provided me with the telephone numbers for Master Card and Visa, since my wallet also held my credit cards.

The result was that I had to wait a few days longer in Holland to get replacement cards. That meant that I had to take a different flight to Bujumbura than I’d planned, which is when my unfortunate incident took a dramatic change for the better. My seat mate on the flight I finally took was a Burundais who had taken pilot training at the Canadian forces base at St. Hubert across the river from Montreal in the 1970s and whose daughter worked for an NGO based in a Montreal suburb. They took me under their wings and showed me things I wouldn’t have seen in Bujumbura otherwise.

Chance, or destiny? Whatever if contributed greatly to The Violets of Usambara.

Photo: The peaceful canals of The Hague

May 5: Chance or Destiny?

Sunday (May 4) I had the pleasure of reading from The Violets of Usambara at the Blue Metropolis International Literary Festival in Montreal. It was a treat to take part in Blue Met’s 10th anniversary version because the festival was deeply involved in its genesis. A former Blue Met staffer, killed in a tragic accident shortly afterwards, helped me greatly before I went to Burundi to research the novel.

Violets—my tenth book—takes place over five days in March 1997, when Thomas Brossard, a Canadian politician, goes missing on a fact-finding mission to Burundi. When his wife Louise back in Montreal gets the news, she frets while she tries to ferret out more information. The novel grew out of the horror I (and the rest of the world) felt in 1994 when Hutus killed Tutsis and moderate Hutus in Rwanda. How to understand what had happened? As I looked for an answer, I learned hat Rwanda has a non-identical twin, another small country in the Great Lakes Region of Central Africa, where ethnic divisions are also acute. Burundi’s president was killed in the same plane crash which killed Rwanda’s president, but unlike Rwanda, Burundi was not plunged into genocide by the event. What made the difference? Do Europeans and North Americans bear a responsibility for what goes on in Africa today?

By 1997 I began to understand a bit of what was going on. Burundi has not been spared horrendous massacres, although none have been of the scale of Rwanda’s, I learned for starters. But other countries in Africa had begun to pressure Burundi’s Tutsi leaders toward a peace process by then, notably through a trade embargo. At the same time I found myself being haunted by a character—a Canadian politician turfed out of office when the Conservatives lost to Jean Chrétien’s Liberals. He had a wife who helped guide his political career and who was mad about African violets. Maybe, I thought, there was a story worth telling there.

There was. A short story, “Violettes d’Usambara,” was published in a literary magazine in 1999, and shortly thereafter I got a grant from the Conseil des arts et lettres du Québec to work on expanding the story into something bigger.

Bonaventure Murigande, a Hutu from Rwanda, was part of the communications staff for Blue Met’s fourth version in 2001. He was very busy during the festival, but I introduced myself and asked if I could ask him some questions when things quieted down. He graciously agreed and gave me much valuable information that helped prepare me for the research trip to Burundi. He is one of the people I thank abundantly in the acknowledgements at the back of the finished novel.

Unfortunately though I haven’t been able to thank him in person. After escaping from genocide, making a great start on building a new life in Canada, and finally getting approval to bring his wife and children here too, he was drowned in an accident on a lake north of Montreal a few years after he helped me. The ironies are as disturbing as the history of his region is tragic. If I were a mystic, I’d wonder about the hand of destiny…

Photo: Bujumbura, the capitol of Burundi, rises into the hills on the eastern shore of Lake Tanganyika