Archive for June, 2008



Day 4. June 24, 2008

You can’t tell from the above photo but there are two guns there. One is obscured by the Coke bottle. The other’s barrel is cupped in the folded hands of the man to my right. In the photo, the soldiers do not smile, but afterward, we are talking (kind of), sometimes laughing. We shake hands. I have to reach over to the man on the far left. My elbow, I realize, is directly over the gun muzzle. It’s a strange feeling. I sit back, try my Kirundi : « I don’t speak Kirundi well. » The man to my right speaks a few words of English. His rifle is not just pointed upward now, it’s leaning toward him, pointing directly at his chest. It bothers me. I reach over, slowly, push the gun barrel away from him. Nobody moves, no one tenses up. They all just watch me. He looks at me. He chuckles and lifts the rifle, pointing to the safety. « Strong, » he says. I give him a look that says, in any language, « Really? » He laughs again, restores the gun to its position. A few moments later, he looks down at the barrel aiming straight at him and leans it away from himself, against the wall.


On the street. Dust and sun.

A troop of uniformed men jog toward me. Blue uniforms, not camouflage – the police, but they use AK-47s, same as the army; some are ex-soldiers. Less structure, same guns, more dangerous. A van pulls near, it gets too close. The officers shuffle to their right off the street. A parked van to my left, the passage is narrow – the officers and I are going to collide. They run past, one turns to avoid the passing van, bumps against me. I feel a click in the impact. Metal, a bit sharp, protruding. I hit his gun. Did I unlatch the safety? Is the gun live? Does he know? No. He holds his gun by the barrel, his hand covers the muzzle. He rests it on his shoulder, the stock hangs over his back. Is he insane? They all hold their guns like this. 


Day ?. June 2?, 2008

I’m not sure but I think I just ate goat. I’m still in discussions about that. 


Day 6. June 26, 2008

Now that I’ve moved out of my hotel, you can know I ‘m safe enough to read about this. Ever since my arrival, I’ve stayed at a place called the « Christmas Club. » When I first arrived, there was a monkey in the trees that drape over the front of the hotel. Someone in the taxi said I should take a photo of it but Yaoundé pointed across the street and said it was not a good idea to take any photos around that place. All I saw was an archway leading into a few low buildings with no markers outside. I did note that the men guarding the place were heavily armed and more menacing and numerous then usual. Yaoundé called that place « La Documentation, » a rather benign name so I thought his reaction was curious. I didn’t fully understand what it was and why so many people quickly changed the subject when that name came up. I could guess it wasn’t a friendly government compound but I only really got it when I came across this article ( about a former dictator in Chad, whose intelligence agency, called « the Documentation and Security Directorate»  was accused of mass torture and assasinations. La Documentation, the place where « interrogations » are carried out. So that’s what I had been living next to. I never thought it too big of a deal – the soldiers sometimes waved to me when I waved at them, but seeing a heavy caliber machine gun appear yesterday was less reassuring. More suspect was when two youngish men wearing very non-descript civilian clothes came out of the compound, crossed the street and started chatting with me, asking me all kinds of questions. I knew what they were but I wanted to see how they would respond to my own questions. After a few minutes, I asked one of them if they worked « in there. » I was surprised when he happily said, « Of course! » Now, if you were an informant for the government, would you be so cheerful when you tell someone that? I don’t think he thinks too much about what his information can lead to.

My hotel was small enough that many Burundian drivers didn’t know it. When I did need a ride back to my room, I usually said, « You know  ‘La Doucmentation’? I live there. »


first post. it’s long so please, buke buke.

At the Airport in Kigali – One hour after arrival. June 18, 2008

I arrived on Wednesday evening to an incredible scene: a parking lot devoid of taxis. I cannot express how fortunate I felt not to be accosted by taxi drivers after days of travel. While moving my luggage to a grassy spot, I helped a pair of women move their bags down the worst situated and very steep concrete ramp leading to the lot. After a useless conversation with a taxi-driver/pirate, I thought for a second about what to do. It was 5pm; the sun was starting to set. And then I decided to enjoy the inactivity so I sat down on the grass to wait until someone else approached me. I didn’t envision too many such moments of calm and anonymity. I wanted to enjoy this. Most of all, I wanted to learn a bit of patience and see what would happen.

I fell into conversation with the women with the overstuffed luggage. A pair of women from Goma in East Congo: Betty and Charlotte – I’m in Antebellum Dixie. They wanted to get to Goma that same day but decided it was too late so they would go into town instead. After a while, they suggested we share a taxi. Betty said to me, « But you let me do the talking to the driver. » So while Betty negotiated with a driver, another approached me and asked my price. I told him: $10 – half of what everyone had been asking. He scoffed. I added a dollar, he let the offer roll around in his head, then he said fine. I checked on Betty’s progress. She told me the drivers say we are in opposite directions so I should go ahead. She said, « Here, take our phone numbers if you ever come to Goma. You will meet our families and we have boys your age. You can stay with us in our homes. » I happily wrote them down. Of course, offers like these often come to nothing, but who knows? I will call those numbers if (when) I do go to East Congo. I will ask for Betty and Charlotte and see if they remember me. I will (hopefully) meet their sons.

While I was in Chicago looking for field work, my current boss and the Director of International Programs for Heartland, Scott, wrote to me, « Someone just needs to take a chance on you. » He probably didn’t know he would be the one to do so, but he did. Now maybe I need to take some chances. Go fast, go slow – try everything and something just might happen. This may be a warning shot brushed gently across the nose, like the warmth from the setting sun.


Do you speak English ?

In Kigali now, but officially still in transit. Kigali just may be the stationery store capital of the world. Or maybe I was just in the largest stationery store district because all the shops that sell the same thing were grouped together. I saw this in China, too. Is this a developing country thing?

Kigali was Belgian-administered with heavy ties to France. This is what I read about, this is what I heard. Now, I know I can befuddle a lot of people by mere appearance around here, but the blank stares I got every time I asked someone a question confused me. I kept trying, in French. I said everything right, I kept my words simple, I slowed down my speech. Nothing. What was wrong with everyone? I walked into the sixth stationery store on the street to ask where I can find a phone store. The woman behind the counter had that nervous look, like all the others, but she responded. She looked at me, tilted her head, and asked me, « Do you speak English ? »

Why English? Because a lot of people blame France for playing a part in the genocide in 1994. The mix of youth and anti-French sentiment results in a whole generation of new English-speakers, which also results in a lot of 50 Cent t-shirts on the streets.

The other thing: motorcycles! At first, I thought all the motocycles zipping around were couriers because everyone wore the same type of green helmet. But when I asked someone (in English), she told me it was a taxi. I decided to take one to go to dinner to meet Sean’s friends (Who is Sean? Sean is one of my bosses but because he is younger than me, let’s call him my friend. He’s also thousands of miles away thus a good boss.).

Motorcycles are risky enough generally, but I wasn’t so concerned when we weaved through tight traffic. We were moving after all. However, when the driver pulled into the oncoming traffic lane for a good 50 metres, well, yea, that was kind of unpleasant.

All the taxi-motos have a spare helmet for a passenger. Each of these helmets has a faceshield but the shields are dirty and hard to see through. If you leave the faceshield up though and the motorcycle is going fast, the wind catches the shield and tries to rip the helmet off. I thought a lot of about how to tell the driver that the helmet is « back there. » But on that night, at eleven p.m., the streets were empty. On a motorcycle, you can go full throttle because the roads are well-lit and in good condition. On my second night in Kigali, I was on a too-fast motorcycle with my hand pressing a too-big green helmet to my head.


Day 0: On the bus to Bujumbura, around noon on Friday. June 20, 2008

I’m exhausted. I want to keep my eyes open but I can’t even though I was really excited about this bus ride. I keep drifting off. Finally, I just fall asleep. I have the strange feeling that my head is flopping around with each bump in the road. I’m pretty sure my mouth is half-open. I must have looked dead.

A hand tapping my knee wakes me; my eyes fly open.

« I did not want you to be bored, » my (new) neighbor says.

I think, «I wasn’t bored, I was sleeping! »

Meet Oscar. Oscar is a 27-year-old Rwandan pastor. We talk a bit about the work I will be doing and he tells me that he, too, was a child soldier. He shows me the scars on his hand : grenade wound. He says, « I was not in the genocide because I was in Uganda with the Rwandan rebels, the Tutsis. »

And so it began. My parting instructions were, « Make friends. » If not for the people described in these passages, I don’t think you would be reading this. For example, as we walked across the border to Bujumbura, Oscar said to me, « you should take a picture, your first time in Burundi. » Now, when has it ever been a good idea to photograph a border crossing, especially of a country coming out of a long civil war? But I saw his point : it was my first time in Burundi. I was convinced. I took a quick photo. As the border guard checked my passport, he started talking to Oscar in Kirundi, but I heard the word photo several times. Oscar laughed at him, said something or other, then the guard flipped through my passport and waved me through. Afterward, Oscar told me that the guard was asking why I was taking photos but that he (Oscar) told the guard it was only one or two so it was okay. So we were let through. If I understand right, Oscar basically admitted I was guilty but not too guilty and that actually worked. I would never have thought of that on my own.

No matter how I recount the next 12 hours and beyond, it will not be credible, but you’ll just have to take my word that I’m not pulling a « Cool Hand Luke. »

In Kigali, I was given a name and a number to call. Yaoundé. He is massive and wore a shirt buttoned to his belly. Within a half hour, I realized everyone in town knows Yaoundé. Another 30 minutes later, Yaoundé had escorted me through a crowded bank for an international transaction, no small feat. Then we dropped off Oscar at his hosts, who apparently also knows Yaoundé. More on the host in a bit. (On the balcony in the photo, you can see Yaoundé on the right, Oscar’s host, Mama Joshua, in the middle.)

Two hours into my stay, if you will believe me, I was on a football (soccer) field to watch Yaoundé’s team practice. It turned out this Yaoundé is the coach of a leading team in Burundi. And as everyone points out, he’s Rwandan and he used to be the coach of their national team. Everyone knows Yaoundé, including a lot of men who have guns apparently. Yaoundé introduced me to Innocent, the team’s technical director. We sat on the side of the field at a wooden table and sipped sodas. I thought, I’m dreaming.

That night, I met up with Leanne, the head of a contractor doing work with demobilized combattants, and her team for a group dinner. I met everyone. I remembered no one. This is a problem because everyone will remember me. I almost passed out from fatigue but I stayed awake long enough to watch Turkey pull off an impossible comeback in the Euro 2008 tournament and to make fun of the Macedonian guy who supported Croatia.


Day 1, Bujumbura. June 21, 2008

Sorry this post runs so long. I realize I can’t really do a day-by-day account for the rest of my time here so while I can and while everything is new and photo-worthy, I will try to keep up this pace. It seems like these days are like lifetimes though; I can’t believe how much is happening.

I can’t really figure out this feeling of serenity I’m having. Locals think I’m crazy and ex-pats wish me luck, but not in a confidence-building way. I sometimes wish I had a team or a mentor to guide me through this but I think I’m doing okay. I opened a bank account in a day and a half. My co-worker though ten would be optimistic. Kenneth Cain, one of the authors of Emergency Sex, wondered how much he could accomplish if he had a team of U.S. Special Forces with him. I would be happy with just a gardener even, but I’ll do what I can, on my own.

I’m sure the frustrations will come (damn phone!), esepcially when I have to start meeting with government people. But right now, I am really enjoying the balance of work, life and vacation. I’ve never been good at managing all three. I may give too much to one and not to another. I may make excuses for working hard by being totally inert in some other way. It’s terrible. Here in Bujumbura, one feeds into the other so easily; it’s quite exhilarating. There are a few minor improvements I would like to make. I’m looking forward to having a place to live (like always) where I can establish a better routine. Right now, the five to ten minutes I need to figure out what I need to to bring to go where to do what (e.g., bring special letter and money to get I.D. photos to open bank account) are a necessary nuisance, but I hope to have things more organized in my head soon. And when I can finally unpack, then I can really organize. Right now, I’m traveling.


(This is the ‘Don’t Tell Mom’ section.)

I have a bad habit of talking to the surliest men with the meanest looking guns. They’re actually very friendly (but not the guns – those are mean). It’s a similar dynamic in France with young North Africans – if you ignore them as they stare at you, then you might offend them. Here, I’m told many foreigners are hostile toward the policemen and soldiers because they are afraid of the guns. I’m going to get my picture taken with one of them.

(End DTM section.)

Funny bank note:

On the bank’s doors, there are signs similar to ‘No Smoking’ signs except instead of a cigarette with a red circle and a line across, it is a Kalashnikov rifle with a red line through the circle.

Probably the biggest thing on my mind is the role of international workers and the expat lifestyle. I’ll keep coming back to this topic but for now, I’ve been in Bujumbura for three days, walking around and talking to people (I’m making the most of my four words of Kirundi – lots of giggling ensues.). I’ve come across zero non-Africans in the streets but have almost been run over by a UN vehicle three times. They drive faster and more recklessly than everyone else. Their compounds are thickly ringed with razor wire and there are guard towers. Operationally, I don’t know what they do. They like to count things, I guess. Fine. I prefer to get things done. I count to three.

(This kind of false bravado is permissible before I actually attempt to get anything done. Counting to three is probably the only thing I can do effectively right now.)

Saturday, Day One. Oscar said his hosts invited me to lunch. He took me on a « shortcut» through a farmer’s fields. I explained to him the concept of trespassing. I also explained the right to bear arms and what happens when the two mix.

So we picked our way through the damp fields (that photo is of Oscar’s shoe), and everyone stared. I made a note to myself to calculate the lost productivity and resulting decrease in the GDP as a result of people stopping their work to stare at me.

Oscar’s host, Mama Joshua (as in, Mama of Joshua), prepared lunch for us while Oscar told me that Joshua, a two-year-old, had been waiting for me. Oscar said he promised Joshua that he was bringing a mzungu (a foreigner/light skin person). Joshua was so excited but as soon as he saw me, he froze, clapped his hands tightly over his face and started trembling. Eventually, Oscar coaxed him out of his defensive posture and after lunch, Joshua decided I was safe enough to approach and hang out with. Check out the photo of my new hand-drum.

We’re still in Day One. For the rest, I have a video that I can’t manage to upload.


Sunday, Day Two. June 22, 2008

Leanne invited me to a football game in a nearby commune, Buterere. Bujumbura is a compact city but just ten minutes out of town, it’s clearer why Burundi is considered one of the poorest countries in the world. Leanne told me she had been invited as a guest of honor at a girl’s football game between the Buterere team and a team from Uvira in Congo. The team from Uvira was late so we take a drive around the area and I got to see the famed beach. The sand is powdery and white. We ran into the Belgian Ambassador and his family in the parking lot. La la la.

Back at the field, we watched the game under shade while everyone watched us. The game was incredible. I don’t know of many high school boys’ teams in the U.S. that could match these girls for talent, skill or organization. And toughness. At least half didn’t even have shinguards.

After the game, I got my first taste of the speech-giving that follows any function where a government representative is involved. On and on it went and then we were moved to a classroom where we sat facing the players and drank sodas (most of the players drank huge bottles of beer) while more speeches were given. Then there was singing and clapping. Then there was leaving.

Next, I got a scenic driving tour of the hillside above Bujumbura. It was in the hillsides where most of the fighting took place so the U.S. staff were moved further downhill. As we drove along, the tour was punctuated by comments like :

« And this is the UN Head of Mission’s house. »
« And this is where the _______ Ambassador lives. »

« That’s the Marine house, the house where the Marines who guard the U.S. embassy live. » A house of Marines with little to do except drink and throw parties. Could the military could get more frightening ?

Then Leanne showed me her house. I’m not in Burundi. Am I?

Monday, Day Three. June 23, 2008

Leanne is leaving on vacation for three weeks and has offered to lend me her guest room. So what you see above, that’s where I’ll be staying for the next three weeks or so.

It’s pretty crazy here.


en route

Sitting in Heathrow at the moment, thinking of games to play to pass the 8-hour layover. Back in O’Hare, I tried to guess the flight destination by the way people were dressed. Too short khaki shorts, pastel tank top/t-shirt, sun-deflecting device in hand, fannypack proudly protruding at the waist: Orlando. Domestic flight. (“Shit, I’m in the wrong terminal.”) Slicked down hair on boys in rugby shirts and blue blazers with stiff disaffectionate father as accessory: definitely London.

Note to self: next time your (my) dad visits right before a trip to Africa, please don’t wave around a book called “Emergency Sex (And Other Desperate Measures).”

Last night, at my latest farewell dinner, while talking about the dangers of mispronoucing the Kirundi word ‘amahoro’ (“peace”) and saying ‘umohoro’ (“machete”) instead, my friend Elias (or Trey – depends on what you want to call him) suggested this mnemonic device:

‘amahoro’ –> “I’m a whore (o).” –> “peace” –> (definitely)
‘umohoro’ –> “You’re my whore (o).” –> “machete” –> (oh man, definitely, machete)

I forget what the name of this strategy is. Elias/Trey said it was a military invention. I’ll have to check on that later. Out of internet time. Up next: 9-hour flight to Uganda tonight and then another 8-hour layover before a quick flight to Kigali. I’ll be staying at the Sky Hotel ( in Kigali. More soon.

I also forget how hungry I get on long flights/travels.

I’m so hungry.


buj-toi ton cul, merde!

I have a departure date; I leave for Africa on the night of June 16. I arrive in Kigali on June 18 in time to see the full moon.  Then I will bus down to Bujumbura, the capital of Burundi, where I will be based for the next year.

So my aim was a little high with trying to go to Sudan and Chad, both of which are imploding astoundingly fast. I wouldn’t have lasted a week. Instead, Burundi. The idea had been kicking around, I didn’t want to go to grad school yet and had been wanting to get out of the U.S., the details of what I would do were sketchy – I accepted the offer on the spot.

I am trading one Great Lake (Michigan) for another (Tanganyika). Continuity, 10 extra credit points. My new title is ‘Great Lakes Regional Coordinator’, still (forever) for the Heartland Alliance. My first task is to implement a project so that I will have something to coordinate. Here’s the plan: “network” (booze and schmooze) my way into the good graces of international and local agencies so they will help me establish a residential shelter for female child soldiers who need assistance to reintegrate into their communities. Simple. In addition to this imaginary shelter that I have to set up from scratch, I also have to take numerous trips to Eastern Congo to do…something? Eastern Congo is up there on my list of shittiest places on the planet (Somalia, Haiti, Darfur, etc etc), but it also may be one of the more accessible (and beautiful). It’ll be worth seeing. Again and again and again.

Here’s some of what I know about Burundi: it’s a former Belgian colony with a population comparable to Chicago’s; by some measures, it’s the poorest country in the world, although that’s misleading; it’s where the source of the Nile is; Kapucinski was jailed in Bujumbura once when it was called Usumbura; and it’s got the hugest Nile crocodile ever seen – a prolific man-eater, it’s the size of an adult great white shark. So even though I’ll be based in Bujumbura, which has great beaches, I’ll probably spend a lot more time in its famous central market, looking for strange and delicious things to consume. Eat, not be eaten.

Burundi is technically a ‘post-conflict’ zone, which is why development money is going there. And I guess why I’m going there, because I only go where the money is. But ‘post-conflict’ is kind of hard to assert when the main rebel group never disarmed and is shelling the crap out of the capital. I’m hopeful this bit of bloodletting will lead to renewed peace iniatives, which will, I’m sure, all wrap up in three weeks.  (As of this moment, a new peace agreement was just signed.)

Giant crocodile in the water, unruly rebels in the hills, Eastern Congo just next door, Hutus, Tutsis…and me. ‘Cowboy’ doesn’t really begin to describe this, and I think ‘soldier of fortune’ is already taken by my friend MLE ( But I’m not seeking thrills; this actually makes some sense. Take some of the worst human rights abuses, many of which I’ve learned about during the last two years working with asylum seekers, add it all up and that’s a female child soldier. The persecution, the gender-based violence, the trauma and maybe most important, the complete obscurity of the issues.

The more I talk about this, the crazier it does seem, but finding out my departure date barely two and a half weeks out is a nice palliative. I don’t have time to get anxious. I do wonder occasionally where this puts my intelligence though (“somewhere between a rock and a frying pan”). At least, I read that more than 80% of the country has been cleared of landmines. I also have a photocopy of somone else’s business cards of people he kinda knows. I was told I should find a doctor through my networking. I’m not making this up. I can’t wait…to find a place to live. Awesome.

One of my bigger concerns is depression about the work and the solitude, but I think spending two years working with asylum seekers and comng out a reasonably well-adjusted person was one of my main qualifications for this gig.

This doesn’t have to be perfect, it just has to work. Or, I don’t have to be perfect, I just have to work. My two years in Chicago have been magical and very comfortable, but now that I’m committed to leaving, I feel less hung up about things and more able to discern what’s little and what’s important. I am really looking forward to the opportunity to make good decisions on my own. I am probably not ready for this (could I be?) but I’m ready for anything.

Wish me luck.

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June 2008