Thursday, August 31, 2006

June 27, 2006

It’s about 5:30 a.m, still dark here in Bujumbura, and hot. It doesn’t seem to cool down much in the evenings. The air is still, still, still. Just a short while ago I was awakened by the muezzin’s call to prayer, just as I was in Addis Ababa yesterday morning. It’s a haunting sound, very melancholy. At the moment I’m sitting in my bed, in the dark, under my mosquito netting typing into my laptop. I have to do this so I can go to the internet café and very quickly write my emails. Yesterday, as you know, I lost the long missive I had written because the electricity in town went off. This is also my clever new strategy to reduce my internet time, and to avoid the hell of typing on a French keyboard.. Interestingly, when the power went off, everyone in this packed internet joint (very few people have internet at home, much less a computer -- only 1 or 2 percent of the people in this country even have electricity) just patiently waited for it to come back on. It is what it is here in Bujumbura.

I can hear someone moving about just outside my window in the courtyard of Mamman Lyse’s compound. It is probably Gaspar, the cook, preparing food for breakfast. From time to time he sings – so softly, and so beautifully. Mamman Lyse is Aline’s aunt. During the worst of the war, at age 8, Aline left her village and was sent to the city to be raised by her aunt because it was safer. At present, this little compound is inhabited by Mamman Lyse, her four children, Lyse, Solo, Doe Doe, Francis, and Nadine (Aline’s 15 year old sister), Aline when she coes to visit, Gaspar, the cook, Feddie the babysitter, and Chao, the other BEP volunteer from Kenya. Chao graduated from Penn State and lives in State College. Of course, Beth and I are here as well, making it a very close gathering of humanity, at least by US standards.

Mamman Lyse’s husband was killed by political foes about five years ago. She’s a smart, strong single mom raising these children on her own. She coaches basketball and track and does other things, but it is still unclear to me what those things are! She has one or two rental properties that help her support the clan here. Jobs in Bujumbura are scarce, and most of the population is unemployed, at least the population of Bujumbura. It’s sort of like a cross between Haiti and Calcutta…..children of almost all ages, orphaned from the war, live in little packs, steal to get by, and sleep wherever they end up sleeping which appears to be outside on the ground. The roads probably haven’t been worked on since Belgium pulled out in 1962. Most are dirt, even in the city. It’s the dry season right now, and the dust is amazing. Occasionally large water trucks spray water on the roads to cut back on the dust.

You might think Mama Lyse is wealthy because she has a cook and a babysitter, both who live with her on this compound. In fact, this is true compared to most of the “middle class” folks who live in Burundi. She has an old car, and when she comes home, Gaspar magically appears to open the gate and let her in. How he knows she’s coming is a mystery to me! However, since we’ve been here, she only has electricity and water for a few hours a day, and you never know when that will be. They have no washing machine, or dryer, or dishwasher or air conditioner, or fans. Last night the electricity went off and we lit candles all over the house. No on complains - it is what it is. And yesterday, in the dark, everyone just sprang up and started singing and dancing in the common area – pure joy, really!

Dinner is served by Gaspar and Feddie who live for free on the compound and receive some money -- $15 a month -- which they often send “upcountry” where their villages are. Dinner usually consists of cassava leaves, ugali, another dish made with the cassava root, lingalinga, a dish of greens, fried bananas (igitoke), fish from Lake Tanganyika, rice, and always a sauce with very little meat in it -- mostly for flavor. They don’t have a kitchen, but cook outside over a little charcoal stove and they wash dishes in the courtyard at a sink. There is no hot water. But hey, gotta love that in this heat! Actually, this heat is no worse than any we’ve had back home – it’s not bad at all! It’s constant, and you never need to go in and out of air conditioning. It simply is an unalterable reality that no one besides Beth and I notice much, to be honest.

This morning – June 27 – Beth and I are going to register at the US embassy. If the security situation gets really bad, they will call us to let us know, It actually feels pretty peaceful here, at least compared to Addis Ababa. The military guards at the airport there carried around AK 47s and looked a little menacing. The airport in Addis was incredibly chaotic, with men grabbing your bags out of your hands and then scampering off, god knows where. The hotel we stayed at was incredibly challenging, let me say. I ended up sleeping with Egega, an older Congolese woman who needed to be escorted from Dulles to Bujumbura. She spoke no English, and her Swahili was incomprehensible to other Swahili speakers because of her dialect. Egega did NOT want to sleep in her room, she was basically glued to our hips until we delivered her safely to her relatives in Bujumbura who were then going to deliver her to her village in the Congo. Egega prayed at night, kneeling next to her bed – these very long and melancholy chant prayers. I don’t think I’ll ever forget this very traditional African woman. She had lived with family in the US for one year and could not wait to return to her home.

Yesterday Beth and I attended one of Aline’s English classes. About 7 or 8 nuns – teachers, librarians, nurses. What a lovely group of young women. There was quite a range of skill levels, so we wonder how she is able to reach them all. They come, and they are very eager to learn. Mostly they want to learn the bible.

In a few days Aline will be resuming her classes with young people—she had trouble finding a location, but thinks she’s worked it out. Beth and I will be attending her classes while we are here, and will be teaching as well. We’re still trying to figure out how to fit into the whole gig. After class yesterday we heard this amazing singing and dancing in another classroom across the way. We followed the sound and found these young adults doing the most amazing traditional dancing and singing. We spoke with them and found out they are preparing for a competition that is happening this weekend in the stadium. We will be going, for sure! We are also planning on going upcountry to Kiganda, Aline’s village, this weekend--despite the warnings against leaving the capital. With the current ceasefire agreement, I think we’ll be OK. July 1 is Independence Day here and the entire city is required to attend – the workers and military march, and the unemployed throngs get to watch. You can go to jail or get fined or something if you don’t go. So, in order to stay out of jail, I guess I’ll be going.

So far, Beth and I are having a GREAT time. It’s a little daunting sometimes, and people definitely gape at us, calling us umzungu (white person!). We just reply with Bite (bee-tay) which is Kirundi for “whut up?” Beth’s husband suggested that Beth and I try to blend in, but hey, it ain’t easy. I think I’m going to get up and take a cold shower. I can hear the sound of Gaspar and Feddie in the courtyard, and can smell food cooking. By the way, it’s incredibly quiet in Bujumbura at night. Ya gotta love government imposed curfews.

Next day: Spent a few hours in Bujumbura’s central market. It’s the most unbelievable scene – one is accosted by beggars, hundreds of them, many of them children. The throngs of people are dense, dense, dense.

There are apparently no traffic rules, and everyone drives 60 miles an hour minimum IN TOWN, dodging the thousands of bicycles, cows, goats, wandering children, and pedestrians that seem to be all over the road. I am always amazed when I survive a car trip, especially when we take a taxi, which we do often. I try to concentrate on the scenery, and hang out of the window trying to take photographs. It’s a challenging photography scene. The military does NOT want to be photographed, and everyone else wants money if you take their photo. Of course, if you give one person a dollar for taking his or her photo, you are instantly surrounded by a crowd of eager subjects with their palms out.

There are many UN vehicles around -- we’ve seen peacekeepers from Pakistan here as well. You can’t miss their huge SUVs with the UN emblazoned on the side. We’ve seen only a handful of white folks, maybe five since we’ve been here. Most are generally unfriendly. I guess they’re also trying to blend in.

Tonight we had a great spontaneous gathering of local young people at Mamman Lyse’s house. They talked about their hopes and dreams, the corruption of the Burundian government, stereotypes about America, education, and their ideas on how to help Burundi recover from the war. Whether peace will be maintained is uncertain, from their perspective. Aline said the war could return in a minute – “you just never know.”

Nevertheless, life is good in Bujumbura, at least in our little compound. I have met some incredibly wonderful women and children. Not much contact with men yet, other than Gaspar and a few short visit by male family members. And I see very few old people. I think they must have died in the war….? And then there’s the fact that the average age at death is 50. Medical care here is minimal, to say the least.

Next day: It’s really hot. Last night is was so hot that I couldn’t sleep. They don’t have AC, of course, and no fans. I thought of buying them a fan, but more often than not there’s no electricity, so what’s the point?

Just finished an art lesson with Francis, the oldest son. He’s a good artist! Last night he came up to me with a photograph in his hand of his mother and father on their wedding day. He wanted me to draw it. He then did the same. Very poignant.

I’m off to the airline office to confirm our reservation. Ethiopian Airlines is pretty notorious for bumping people from their flights, especially if you don’t confirm your reservation. We leave for upcountry on Sunday and stary through Tuesday to visit a couple of villages and work with the women of the Duhinde Ikibiri project. We are hiring a driver and renting a vehicle (I hope he remembers gas and that it doesn’t break down). A couple of days ago our taxi ran out of gas, blocking traffic for a long way. Our driver ran somewhere to get gas in a little can and left us standing there. Then, a bunch of angry people start talking about lifting the car (where I could not tell you), and then a huge truck full of the military drives up and about twenty soldiers with AK47s hop out. Aline, jumps right into the morass and advocates for the taxi driver. He miraculously returns, gasses up, and off we go.

At first I was pretty overwhelmed at the poverty – it feels a little (completely) hopeless at first. The problems feel insurmountable Then again, I think that if you can make a small difference, it’s better than doing anything at all. We are going to visit the source of the Nile and the Lake Tanganyika soon as well.

We’re going to treat ourselves to goat shish kabobs (brushette) today! It feels good to be here.

June 29, 2006

The adventure continues. After today’s meeting with the higher up in the minister’s cabinet, we were able to score front row seats at the Independence Day parade festivities scheduled for July first, AND permission to take photographs (this took a good 45 minutes of negotiations, I kid you not), which brings us to the topic of negotiations. From an outsider’s perspective, it looks as though this is ALL anyone ever does in Burundi. Virtually everything that requires a monetary transaction of any sort is argued- from buying fabric in the market, to exchanging dollars for francs on the black market. It all seems like theatre or ritual to me. People are loud, emphatic -- as a dance, I’d compare it to an aggressive form of the Tango. This of course makes shopping incredibly daunting for anyone who is shopping phobic and conflict avoidant! At the market where we wanted to score some African fabric, we were literally descended upon by aggressive sales persons asking us to buy this or that piece of material. Mamman Lyse, the consummate negotiator, was always able to talk the seller down from prices I already thought were probably reasonable if not ridiculously low. I said that it was OK, I would pay the asking price, and she looked at my like I was completely out of my skull.

After 20 hours without electricity, it’s back! Yay! This is when we recharge batteries, watch TV, and hang out. Yes, they have TV and satellite. Because there is only one TV station in Burundi, people need satellite to learn what is going on in the wider universe. The genocide in Rwanda was easily orchestrated because of government control of the media. Unfortunately, very few Burundians even have electricity, so having no access to information makes people vulnerable.

Cell phones are also everywhere – at least in Bujumbura -- despite the poverty. People seem able to come up with the bare necessities, one of which appears to be ways of connecting to other people. For example, we’ll be driving along, Mamman Lyse will suddenly stop her car, make a call, and then about 6 men will descend on her trying to sell their black market exchange rate francs. At the same time crippled children press themselves onto the car windows, begging). It’s a little surreal, to say the least. Then, off we go, with a bunch of bananas, some crumpled filthy bills, and images that I will never forget.

Today we went to the Zoo in Burundi. This Zoo consisted of about a dusty acre of land with some small building and three tiny cement pools. A million huge bats were in the trees overhead, all the birds in the aviary were dead with the exception of about three guinea fowl, and a little man took us proudly on a tour of the serpent house which was a room with cages, mostly empty. The few that had snakes in them were just wire, so that the green mamba snake could easily bite a small child who might put a finger to the cage. He also took a huge viper out of the cage with his hands, threw him on the floor in front of us and smiled! It was all very strange. There were a few turtles and crocodiles as well, which were poked with sticks to provoke them to showy antics. It’s been one of the more memorable experiences of the trip. I got a great shot of our guide, too, a beautiful old man with a brightly patterned shirt.

There is very little art in Burundi. In fact, Gloria, another Burundian girl who stayed with us over the spring break, noted this when I asked her how Burundian homes and American homes were different. According to Mamman Lyse: who can think about art when you don’t have any money? It’s a luxury which few can afford. Gloria, however, comes from a wealthy family, but art is just not a part of their world. I gave the children an art lesson a few days ago, and they’ve been drawing like crazy ever since. Every few minutes they come up to me to show off their artwork. Yesterday, Beth found a little face on a tiny piece of paper placed carefully on her bed. Very sweet. I’m going to buy them art supplies before I leave.

There are no toys or books here. The children -- Francis, Dodo, and Solo – fold paper planes out of scrap paper and toss them around the back yard. They are happy children, always laughing, very sociable, respectful. They never complain or throw fits. Spoiled they are not. I think of all the billions of toys that US children have. Too much and too little.

Tonight we spent a lot of time trying to learn some phrases in Kirundi. The children love hearing us try to speak their language. It has many sounds that are alien to the Western tongue, and I have to admit, my auditory processing skills appear to be degrading with age, although they were never particularly strong. Ndakunda UBurundi (I love Burundi), and Ndakunda ibitoke (I love bananas). Ivi (knee). That sums up my Kirundi skills.

There are “boutiques” everywhere and are not what you imagine. They are little places where things are sold – as in VERY little. Houses in the city are surrounded by large walls -- sometimes topped off beautifully with broken glass to fend off intruders -- and in many of the walls are openings where people sell things. One boutique might sell bread, sugar, and bananas – another boutique might sell Primus, rice and Fanta. People hang out around the boutiques and are incredibly friendly. However, Aline did ask Gaspar to come with us tonight to buy beer. It appears we are not allowed outside the compound unless accompanied by our keepers.

Guns. Everyone’s got them. I asked Mamman Lyse if she had guns, and she said, “of course, everyone does!” The children do not know how to use them, but Gaspar, the cook, does, and I guess he’s in charge of protecting this compound of women and children should hostilities resume, or should an intruder enter. He’s the sweetest man, though, and I just can’t imagine him raising a gun to anyone. Yesterday I saw a truck that belonged to the United Nations Commission on Refugees, and on the side of the truck was a decal of an AK47 with the round red circle and slash (no AK47s). I don’t think people are ready to pay attention to that message. Actually, what it means is that this vehicle is not armed. I’m not sure I’d advertise that, but hey, I’m paranoid.

Time doesn’t exist here, so planning is ridiculous. Nevertheless, Beth and I continue to make a fruitless effort to “get things done.” People make general plans, but there’s so much schmoozing and negotiating, that you rarely ever get anything accomplished within a timeframe. The African way is very slow, and there’s a lot of hanging out. And kissing. Kissing, kissing, and more kissing. We are close to surrendering. I’m going to remove my watch for the duration of our stay.

Beth and I have a question we ask each other about twenty times a day: Nettie, Guess what? Beth, Guess what? When we ask each other, we often laugh until we cry because there is only one answer: It’s fricking hot here!

Beautiful moment: At dinner the other night, Mamman Lyse just started to sing the most beautiful song. It made us all smile.

We are umzungu, there’s no way around it. When Beth and I walk down the street, people call out and point, Umzungu!!! Umzungu!!!! Anyhow, we’ve been told that it’s not derogatory, it’s just that umzungu are so strange and unusual. Craig, as much as we are trying to fit in, we simply cannot!!!! We feel a bit like circus freaks.

Susan, I have worn the purple heart you gave me very day. It’s working like a charm. Thanks to all of you for all of the support. Richard, thanks for sending me Andrea’s missive from Rwanda – I didn’t have time to read all of it, but I will in the next day or so. Funny coincidence! I wish you were here filming. It’s an amazing place with a complex history and politics -- and wonderful wonderful people. Let’s do it next summer!

I can tell that the time will pass too quickly and that it will be hard to leave. It’s late, and I need to turn in. Tomorrow morning is the big dance competition and then in the evening we’re going “clubbing” in downtown Buja!

June 30, 2006

Rather than write a long missive of my own this time, I’m going to insert Beth’s journal entry. We’re off to the worker’s parade!

From Beth, my intrepid travel buddy:

Today we sat through an incredible Burundian drumming and dance competition. Some groups had drums, others dance and sang, some just sang, but they were all impressive. We were the only umuzungu (white people) in the approximately 800 people there. Groups from all over Burundi were performing. It was in an outdoor stadium, and we were sitting in covered bleachers in the VIP section, thanks to Maman Lyse. The theme was PEACE.

Near the end of the afternoon (we were there from 10-5), Nan wanted to venture into the crowd around the competition field to photograph some of the performers. The crowd’s attention immediately shifted from the stage to the umzungu with the camera, and Nan was swarmed by performers and street children wanting to get a piece of the action and cash. Aline saved the day, and we were glad to get off the field with Nan in one piece, camera intact. Not everyone was thrilled to see the white people (Chau could hear commentary in Swahili and I was observing facial expressions), and watching Nan being enveloped by a large crowd was a bit unnerving. (Nan here: I never felt afraid, even though it was a very intense swarm of humanity – and one group did let me photograph them, so it was great. It’s very challenging for a photographer here. If you shoot out the window as you drive along, it’s very hard to focus. Although I’m willing to pay people, if I asked someone if I could pay them to take a photograph, I’d instantly be surrounded by hundreds of people wanting to do the same thing. Aline tells me that things will be different in the villages.)

Now, back to Beth:

All is well, it is still hot, electricity is sporadic (which is fine ~ when it is on, the kids watch TV), water is often on first thing in the morning (which is great), and then off by 7:30am until sometimes the next day. As soon as possible in the morning, Gaspar and Fede furiously fill pails of water to leave in the bathrooms to flush toilets and wash hands. The hard thing for them is that they have to have water to clean the enormous number of dishes that are used for each meal. There are 10 of us to feed, and we all have plates and glasses for every meal, and all of the containers that the food is in, and the serving spoons, it adds up!!

We are still having fun, though. Aline took us out to a restaurant for breakfast the other morning where Nan and I sucked back coffee as though it was a good wine, and we enjoyed a day in town. It is all so fascinating how so many people can survive with so little money and limited employment opportunities. The street children are probably the most depressing thing I have seen here. These are orphans living literally on the street, thieving and begging for food, money, or anything else.

Time no longer matters – we get to where ever we are going when we get there, so I have given up wearing a watch. Nan and I continue to laugh hysterically at the irony of it all. Two planners (us) stuck on someone else’s clock. It is STILL hot, my feet are STILL filthy, but the food is excellent and the people are wonderful, and the sights are unbelievable. Nan has been taking great photos and I have been taking video clips, so we should have some great stuff to show upon our return. (It is now Saturday) We went “clubbing” last night, and danced to Dire Straits and techno-ABBA along with African pop music. But really. How does one dance to Dire Straits? And how dumb do we look dancing with people who have evolved with real rhythm???

We will attend a parade today, and head upcountry tomorrow through Tuesday. There will be NO electricity or water or internet cafes for the next few days. It will be good for us. This has been pretty posh for living conditions.

Observations: Coffee in a thermos for 20 hours is still pretty good. Mosquito bites do not always hurt. It is hot here. No one wears shorts in public (except the occasional male child). No one drinks anything between meals. However, Fanta is the soda of choice. Regardless of what we do, we are not able to “blend in.” I don’t know what the UN or any of the NGOs are doing here except drive their large 4WD vehicles around the city, adding to the already insane traffic. Although no traffic rules or laws are obeyed, people do use their turn signals to pass. That is the only traffic etiquette (other than honking horns to let the car, bus, person or bicycle rider know that they are about to get hit) that we have seen.

Enjoy your air conditioning and hot showers while we enjoy having a cook and fresh mangoes in our lives. Cheers! Beth

Me (Nan) again; Tomorrow we’ll be venturing into Bujumbura Rural to the villages. This is the area that is most interesting to me, but also probably the most dangerous. Like I said, we have hired a driver and a car and will be traveling with about 9 Burundian women and children – during the day. I am trusting Aline’s judgment. And if anyone could successfully negotiate a rebel encounter it would be Aline and Mamman Lyse! Look for our next communication on Wednesday or Thursday. Don’t worry, we’re in good hands.

Ndaguku mbuye! (I miss you!)

July 2, 2006

This morning Beth, Chao, Aline, and I went to church. Big church. Crazy church. FUN church! Somewhere in Buja is a huge shed with a tin roof where 2,000 people are seated around a stage. There’s a band, a bunch of different preachers, and an interpreter for the “Canadians” that were visiting. We didn’t correct them. Everyone came dressed to kill, African style. It’s like a bouncing ocean of passion flowers. It’s very evangelical with channeling, speaking in tongues, healing, dancing and singing, dancing and singing, and more dancing and singing! It was really amazing, if not a little overwhelming. Chao and Aline are really into it – and Beth and I “tried” to blend in, but I’m afraid our heathen nature revealed itself when we didn’t go up to the stage and get saved. At any rate, the people at the service definitely were making a joyful noise.

We are leaving soon for upcountry. We rented a car and a driver, as I think I said before. I thought the kids were coming, but they’re not. It appears to be the driver, Gaspar our cook, Aline, Chao, Beth, Me, and Mamman Lyse. The governor of the province found out we were coming and has generously offered to provide us, free of charge, four armed militiamen with, guess what? That’s right, AK 47s. Sigh. In addition to going with us from village to village, they will also be guarding us at night. We have to bring them beer. What fun. Four intoxicated military guys with guns. I decided not to tell you guys about this situation until we returned safely. I knew you’d worry. I must admit, I’m a little apprehensive, but seem to be the only one. I suppose this is the new normal. I feel a little strange getting the preferential treatment as an umzungu. On the other hand, our whiteness makes others with us targets as well. So it’s for everyone’s benefit that we take these precautions. It’s called risk management or some such nonsense.

Last night the house was full to the brim with Burundians. Everyone was on top of each other with little blackboards and we were all learning words in English, French, and Kirundi. It’s great fun! The kids are still drawing – Mamman Lyse was able to score a bunch of school/art supplies from UNICEF, so we finally have something to draw on!

July 5, 2006

Back from an amazing three days upcountry where we stayed with Aline’s grandmother. The weather is very different up in the mountains – very dry and pleasant during the days and cool at night – so cool that you need a jacket. What a difference from Bujumbura. The upcountry is beautiful, but heavily overpopulated. It has taken its toll on the land. The mountains have been stripped of trees, and there is little old growth wood anywhere. People use everything they can find to survive. In the little province we were in, one hospital serves 44,000 people. We met the hospital director, Ciprien Niyonkuru, who took us on a tour of the facility, if you want to call it that.

The hospital had a women’s ward, a men’s ward, and a maternity ward. There is little to no medicine, no doctor, no generator. The conditions were abysmal – and can I say that’s a gross understatement? The maternity ward “delivery” room, had one ancient bed with stirrups. If two women are giving birth at the same time, it’s extremely difficult or impossible. If there are complications, the women simply die on the table. There is no doctor, no oxygen, no pain medication, no surgery.

The men’s ward was empty. The hospital “beds” are metal cots that are mostly broken. Some have no mattresses at all, some a rotting half piece of foam pad, others a pad covered with a dirty plastic covering. Patients must bring their own food. We saw many, many sick children with distended bellies, head colds, eye problems. The two biggest problems, according to Niyonkuru, are malaria and dysentery -- both treatable if you have medication. The men’s ward was empty – it seems that men don’t go to the hospital when they are sick. They also don’t have money to pay for the ‘services’. If they can’t pay their bills eventually they are put in jail. There is one car in the province of 44,000 people. So getting to the hospital is impossible, and the roads are barely passable anyway. Poor Chao. She was really depressed after the visit. We all were. It was almost beyond comprehension.

I visited the school Aline attended when she was a child, and before she moved to Bujumbura during the war. Children have to share books, and the conditions there are pretty bad as well. We met with the woman who runs the province and she said one of the biggest problems are the 400 orphan children who cannot afford to go to school which costs $9.00 a year, or $25 a year if they go to a boarding school. Of course, no one here has that kind of money. Even if we paid for all of them to go to school, there aren’t enough teachers to go around, and no money to pay them.

Most of the children we saw had no shoes at all, and not by choice. Some had a top on but not bottoms. Some had nothing at all.

The vast majority of people here scratch out an existence by growing yams, beans, cassava, linga linga, sombe, bananas, tomatoes, etc. The weather makes it difficult because there’s so much rain in the rainy season, and no rain the rest of the time. If there’s no rain during the rainy season, they’re in trouble.

Beth and I had the opportunity to visit the 30 women of the Duhinde Ikibiri project. I can’t tell you how wonderful that encounter was! We had to hike a short ways on a dirt path to get to where they were miraculously gathered on the hillside waiting for us. I have no idea how the meeting was set up, but that’s how things work around here. When they saw the four of us coming -- and despite the fact that we were followed by the four drunk guys with huge guns -- they rose from their feet and started singing and dancing. Then, we had to kiss each of them three times (that’s the custom) and say Amahoro three times to each one… the math! Then more singing and dancing, and then down to business. Mamman Lyse led the women in a ‘code’ – they were shown an image of women sitting in a circle doings some transactions. The women described what they saw and a very lively conversation followed where they discussed problems that might come up, the importance of good communication, record keeping, fairness issues. They were all thrilled that each of them would be getting a goat, some digging tools, and fertilizer. At the end of the meeting, there was more dancing and singing and then the ritual banana wine was brought out where women sit around communal bowls and drink the wine out of long hollow reeds. There were children and babies with them, as they all go to the fields to work. Word eventually got around that umzungu were in in town, so by the end of the session a rather large crowd had gathered.

(An aside:No one seemed worried about the guards, and we even forgot they were there from time to time – especially since they refused to talk to us or look at us. We found out that most of them are Hutu ex-rebels who are being reintergrated into the military. No telling what these men have seen or done against the Tutsi minority, or vice versa for that matter. With the exception of the commander, the guards were pretty unfriendly and didn’t want their photographs taken. Now, back to the story.)

The women said they need hoes for digging as well. They only cost about $3 each, so we will get those for them before we leave here next week.

(Note: For those of you who don’t know, Proliteracy Worldwide contributed $1500 for this women’s project, it is not really connected to the BEP. Aline told them about her Aunt’s project in the village and they decided to partner with the women – if it goes well they will continue the funding. Aline is hoping to return to Burundi over the Winter Break to check in on the project if Proliteracy will pay her airfare and travel expenses.

The people in the villages were much friendlier to us compared to our reception in the city. The first question Burundians ask is, “How do you find our country?” A simple question that deserves a complex answer. Generally our answer is that we love the people and are aware of their poverty. Our discussions are amazing, and misperceptions are debated. One perception is that there is NO poverty in the US. Zero. When we said that there were poor people here, they just couldn’t believe it. Of course we said that the magnitude of it didn’t compare, but yes, we have our poor. The other is that there is NO theft or crime in the US. That was surprising. I think that since they imagine we have no poverty, that there would, as a consequence, be no reason to steal. They area also surprised that we eat rice and beans! Also, they thought that everyone had a job. Again, in comparison, US unemployment problems are dwarfed by the problems in Burundi.

Now that we are back in Bujumbura, we will be resuming our classes with students. We will be taking another wild ride through the crazy streets of the city. Believe me, I think that the traffic here and the drivers are far more dangerous that the RPF (rebels) that supposedly lurk both inside and outside of the city. By the way, as we left town for upcounty, we saw military guys with weapons almost the entire way up the mountains. At 4:00 you are no allowed on the roads outside the city because the military don’t work at night. There is a curfew in town which really doesn’t pertain to us since we can’t keep awake past curfew anyway. I guess we stayed out after curfew on the night we went to the disco (weird, sweaty, and LOUD), but it appears no one really obeys the law around here. We just met a member of Parliament (he stopped by to pick up Mamman Lyse for a meeting0 who said that peace is what Burundi needs, and that people are happy since the elections and the relative peace..

There is so much more to tell you, but Beth wants to write, so I need to sign off.

July 8, 2006

We have only four nights left in Burundi before we leave. Although the time passed quickly, Beth and I are ready to come home. We’ve had wonderful times with our students from the Burundi Education Project. On Friday they were crestfallen that we would be leaving on Wednesday (we’ll be teaching our last classes on Monday and Tuesday – and Aline and Chao will be teaching until August 18th ). Many of them said, “please, do not forget us, we need your help”. It has been decreed that, in the fall, English will be taught in the primary schools. This is great, but one of the problems is that they don’t have enough teachers who speak English to teach the classes, much less college or even high school graduates to teach the children their other subjects. Teachers and educated people were primary targets during the genocide, so there really is a paucity of educated Burundians. Plus, so few can afford to go to school.

The high school students and college students who did not receive English instruction are so eager to learn. Two men who hung about outside the classroom where we taught approached me after class. They said that we should be teaching people with no secondary experience, that the masses need to learn English too. They said people in the “quarters” are organizing and trying to find people to help them learn. Burundi needs a thousand English teachers!!!! Wait, 6 million people --- they need one hundred times that.

There is a lovely young woman named Joyeuse who desperately wants to go to college. She is bright and eager to learn. She wanted to read to Beth, so she picked up the book we were reading, Across the Red River: Rwanda, Burundi, and the Heart of Darkness. She started on a random page and started reading. She has pretty good decoding skills, but found it hard to understand all the vocabulary. Beth would, about every other sentence or so, help her understand the passage. The content was getting a little heavy and Beth and I were afraid it might be too traumatic for her to read. We asked her if she was comfortable reading this material. She said, “No, it is very difficult.” We asked her if she wanted to stop, and she said, “No, we must learn about this, and we must talk about it. We must.” And on she went into the Heart of Darkness. It would cost her about $200 in tuition per year to go to college, plus transportation and books and living expenses (there are almost no jobs in Bujumbura). I have this idea that perhaps we could identify worthy students from the BEP and assign them to a willing sponsor – someone who would cover their expenses and develop a relationship with them via email. Anyhow, just sharing one of a thousand thoughts and ideas I’ve had since I got here. This is such a small place with such massive problems.

Last Thursday, Beth and I were invited to lunch at a Burundian family’s home. The mother, Madelaine, works for the UN and the father (can’t remember his name, sorry) has a business doing typesetting or something. Also invited was Marco, a guy who works with Madelaine at the UN and who works with human rights issues. We learned a lot. As it turns out, there are more problems here than I imagined. Two weeks ago there was a mortar attack in the market (some crazy rebel who was pissed off threw a grenade into the market, killing his mark and injuring a bunch of other people. Naturally we didn’t learn about it because we aren’t connected to the news.

After our lunch with the family, Beth and I met with the US ambassador to Burundi, Patricia Moller. A lovely woman led us to the Ambassador’s office, and said, “You are really brave to have come here.” Beth and I looked at each other and said, “we are?” Once we got into the ambassador’s office, she gave us some good insight into the culture and the problems faced by the Burundian people. It’s going to be a long long time before this country emerges from the scars of the war -- generations. We also found out that there isn’t a ceasefire yet – just a very tentative “cessation of hostilities”, and that talks are underway to have a formal ceasefire. We came here thinking there was a ceasefire. Oh my.

The Ambassador invited us to a formal luncheon next week with some other people who might be able to help us better direct our energy and resources.

We’ve gotten very spoiled here, in a very strange way. We don’t have electricity a lot, or running water, but we are served breakfast lunch and dinner everyday by Gaspar, the cook. To be honest, we like it! Cooking is an all day ordeal. Since there is no refrigeration because of the power shortages, Gaspar has to go to the market every morning after serving us our breakfast of coffee and bread. Same thing every day. On rare occasions there are eggs scrambled with tomatoes and onions. Lunch and dinner are identical assortments of 5 of the following igitoki (some sort of banana dish), linga linga (greens), some (another type of greens), rice, beans, foo foo (cassava), potatoes, noodles, and always always always sauce with either a few pieces of meat or some little tiny fish. With so few choices it takes the guesswork out of what to have for dinner NO cheese or dairy products. . I’m all for it, to be honest.

I will never forget the dust. It’s the dry season and hasn’t rained a drop since we got there. According to Francis, our 11 year old expert who has no idea what we were asking, the rain will come again in May. I think he is wrong. Anyhow, most of the roads in town are either dirt or dirt and asphalt that is seriously rutted. It’s hard to breathe sometimes if the car windows are open……and at the end of the day you feel like you’ve been bathed in sweat and then rolled in the dust. When there is water, a cold shower is heavenly.

Last night a bunch of us sat around under the stars on Gaspar’s large reed mat. Beth and I learned a lot about Gaspar and Feddie with the help of Aline, our interpreter. When Gaspar was ten, his father died in the war and he was-- in the confusion-- separated for a long time from his mother. He was taken care of by various people, and joined the military eventually where he too fought in the war. He got out of the military and got a job as a cook“upcountry” at Aline’s grandmother’s. He was there for years before he came down here to work for Mamman Lyse. He wants to marry his girlfriend and move back upcountry to work the land. He has started a house there, but can’t finish it. I asked him how much money it would take to finish his house so he could marry his love and he said $100 00. So little to us, but an astronomical amount to him. It could take him ten years to save up that amount of money. He’s a lucky man in some ways. He eats and has a roof over his head. He is a member of this family in many regards. Still, it is a hard, hard life. It is easy for the “haves” to romanticize the simple lives of the poor. “They seem so happy!” In reality, they would like the money to send their children to school, to visit a doctor when their children are sick, to NOT die in childbirth, or of Malaria, or dysentery.

July 9, 2006

Last night Aline’s wealthy aunt from the states arrived. She recently built a home in one of the “wealthy” section of the city, so she invited everyone over to bless the house. She has hot water, a generator, and a large lot by Burundian standards. Interestingly, people must show that they are improving their lots or they are taken away and given to someone else. You need to either build on it, plant vegetables or fruit, or something. Anyhow, in addition to the blessing ceremony, which involved a priest saying prayers and sprinkling holy water all over the place, a group of war orphans sang and danced for us. The children were so friendly and very inquisitive. We did what we always do -- try to communicate in three languages. Beth and I try to show off our impressively limited knowledge of Kirundi and French, and then the lessons begin. They loved touching Beth’s smooth and silky hair – she must have had ten little pairs of hands stroking her head at any given time. There were 18 dancers, aged from 5 to 15 or thereabouts. Many seemed very small for their ages. They loved having their photographs taken and struck some interesting poses – a little gangster influence was evident (I guess they watch TV from time to time). We will miss the little ones.

Tomorrow we will be going with two van loads of Burundians (and two recently arrived umzungus) to the source of the Nile. I predict that it will be a typical day of Burundian confusion and miscommunication. No one knows when we’re leaving, who’s arranging the driver and the vehicle, or even where the source of the Nile is – not to mention how far away it is. It’s quite a distance into the mountains, much like upcountry. And we need to be out of there by 4 or 5 when the military closes the roads out of the city. Also, this time we are not bringing armed militia with us for security, just a couple of 11 year old twins. Someone will probably bring an automatic weapon, but I’m not sure who knows how to use it. The trip will cost $60 for each van (Beth and I are paying for one, and the other umzungus are paying for the other one). You might think it’s a stupid use of money, and you are probably right. No one here has ever been there, though, and they are all very eager to see it. We’re living in the moment in Bujumbura, and as Aline always says, “you just never know what will happen, so don’t worry about it.” Hakuna Matata!

In the middle of dinner last night, at about 11:00 p.m., the lights went out. Everyone in the house groaned for a moment, but then wandered around in the dark searching for candles and these little psychedelic light thingies, for want of a better description. I’ve never seen them before. They cast very little light but are very festive and psychedelic– kind of make you want to … psychedelic! Frankly, we’ve had a lot of electricity compared to when we first arrived. Last night the moon was almost full. Beth and I went to bed after dinner, but I could hear the laughter of the rest of the ‘tribe’ who had gathered on Gaspar’s mat in the rear of the compound. I slept like a baby.

This morning the electricity is on, and there is peace in our universe.

We’re looking forward to our four hour layover in Addis Ababa. There’s a decent looking Ethiopian restaurant in the terminal, and I hope we have time to transition from our starchy diet of rice, cassava, and igitoki with a meal of Ethiopian fare.

- - - - -

It’s late, and we appear to have survived the trip upcountry to the source of the Nile. The drivers arrived at around 11:00 a.m.—our estimated time of departure. Chao, Beth and I were typical westerners – all packed and ready to roll. Everyone else was scattered across the city – we knew not where. A steady stream of Burundians came and went. We had no idea if they were family, the drivers, or friends just dropping by. Aline, our interpreter had disappeared. Finally, we gave up and just sat around and read our books, waiting for instructions. Finally, at around 12:00, we piled about 22 people into two vehicles and set off.

As I think I mentioned in a previous email, Burundians move at a rate of about 2 kilometers an hour until they get into a car. Suddenly, they are in a crazed hurry to arrive at their destination. The average speed is about 125 Kilo per hour. Our driver, Eric, an adorable young man, drove like a bat out of hell. The mountains are incredibly windy (as in curvaceous), and jam packed with men, women, children, cows, goats, bicycles, etc. The driver would honk his horn constantly, urging people to jump out of his path immediately, which most of them did. He did not adjust his speed when approached masses of crowds in a little village. I had a minor panic attack and had to tell him to slow down after a number of near misses. He thought my request to slow down was hilarious – and he kept up his pace. Most of the other passengers coped with the situation by closing their eyes and pretending to sleep.

We arrived at the famous source of the Nile at about 2:30. The Nile, if you don’t know, starts from a tiny spring that comes out piece of PVC pipe on the side of a dusty hill. The “pyramid” at the top of the hill is about 12 feet tall and was built by some obviously underemployed Italians in 1938. A tiny child from an adjacent village latched onto me and followed me everywhere I went. Her name is Arlette and she appeared to be about 4 years old. The view from the pyramid was incredible, though, and the countryside is beautiful, despite the fact that the mountains have been destroyed by overfarming, poor farming practices, erosion, and deforestation. The ride home was a tad slower – since the other driver had caught hell from Mamman Tee Tee who said that the umzungu would start using the F word on them if we didn’t slow down. Did that slow him down? No, not that I could tell.

Unfortunately, but predictably, when we reached the edge of Bujumbura Rural, the dangerous area, we had missed the pass through deadline of 4:00 and the military was there to block traffic into the area. Our drivers convinced them that we should be allowed through since we had a nun in the car (Aline’s sister, Florida), and that God was on our side. We got through the restricted area without incident -- rebel, bandit, or otherwise, thanks to Sister Florida’s divine intervention.

The dogs in Burundi are really strange and very skinny. Most are not pets; they simply wander around the city attacking baby goats after dark, at least that’s what it sounds like. Every night at about midnight, just outside the compound, I hear this god awful racket that sounds like someone feeding live baby animals to two rabid dogs. It doesn’t last long, but it wakes all of us up. The also have barks that are completely different than American dogs.

Last night I was sitting with Mamman Lyse and Aline at dinner, telling them about how friendly the Burundians seem. Mamman Lyse said not to trust their friendliness, that they will smile at you one day, and kill you the next. What a strange thing, to think your neighbors will kill you. Yet this is what happened in Rwanda and Burundi. Neighbor turned on neighbor. Her own husband was murdered in 2001.

Saturday, August 19, 2006

July 11, 2006

Yesterday we taught, and then were whisked off for a surprises visit to Saga Reisha beach, a somewhat forlorn hotel and restaurant about an hour and a half south of Bujumbura. The water was warm and looks surprisingly like an ocean with smaller waves. It was a warm sunny day – as they all have been since we got there. We also visited Livingston Rock, where the first white missionary came ashore to throw a kink into the African works. It’s a rather strange monument to religious imperialism. No signage to get there.

Later that night we drove to another quarter of the city where we visited Aline’s three brothers. As we drank warm Primus and swatted at millions of mosquitos, we found out that Aline has been paying two of her brother’s school tuition with her work-study money and school loans. Everyone chips in to help because getting an education is very important, at least to the Burundians we have met. Aline is amazing. She has taken on so much, and continues to persevere both with her own education and her efforts to help her family back home.

Yesterday we received two engraved invitations to lunch at the Ambassador’s home (your tax dollars at work) – we will be going there today. The funniest part of the invitation was that it requires “business attire.” Beth and I laughed pretty hard on that one. Our illustrious ambassador, Patricia Moller, will just have to deal with our own version of that. I noticed today that we smell like Burundians. When everyone eats the same thing every day and it’s hot, it’s bound to happen.

I have cut and pasted a part of Beth’s missive about our luncheon with the ambassador below:

We just finished lunch at the US Ambassador’s residence. We were joined by Canadians and a Macedonian working for a USAID contractor, the director of the English Language Center in Bujumbura, a representative of the International Language Center, and an English professor at the University of Burundi. There were 13 of us at lunch, including the Ambassador, and it was a GRAND affair! WOW!! We had any drink you could imagine and delicious snacks, followed by excellent wine, most excellent gazpacho, real French bread and butter, followed by grilled fresh fish, real spinach, a baked tomato stuffed with rice pilaf, followed by a delicious fresh fruit salad that included passion fruit and pineapple that was the best I think I have ever had. Then good coffee and chocolate covered espresso beans. It was a gastronomic orgy – compared to our usual Burundian diet of rice, beans, bananas or potatoes, and smashed green leaves with lots of grit.

Nan and I had a few enlightening discussions during this luncheon about the security in Burundi. We have been slightly naïve, although safe, during our stay here. However, Americans working for USAID do not drive to the places we have visited. They travel by air to a “safe” destination close to the desired location, where their driver picks them up.

The people attending this luncheon will be excellent contacts for Aline after we leave, and for ourselves should we choose to follow up with any financial aid ideas for the hospital or schools in Kiganda. It was good, once again, to be in the company of adults with agendas, goals, ideas, actions, and time management skills.

This will be the last email before we return. Nan and I will MOST LIKELY not miss the dust, Primus beer, the lack of efficient organizational skills, the ever-present negotiating, the miscommunication (really, really bad between everyone), the lack of fiber in our diets, the mosquitoes, and the driving. How could I forget the heat?? But we WILL miss the eagerness to learn that is present in all ages here, the beautiful (although mostly all were sick) children, the straight white teeth that shine in the smiles, the incredible fresh fruits, the landscape, and the joy of not being busy. That was difficult at first, but today, I am really enjoying having only 4 things on my list of things to do, one of which is packing to come home.

Here is the last from me, Nanette:

This is my last email missive. Tomorrow we fly out of the city at 3:30, and will be arriving home on Thursday. Suddenly there is more we want to see and experience. We will miss our students and our chaotic and fun-loving Burundian family. It’s been a great trip. I vacillate between feeling hopeful and feeling hopeless about the situation here. Will peace prevail? Will Burundi advance economically? I don’t know – we’ll just have to wait and see.

With greatest affection to you all,