Archive for July, 2008



If Danny DeVito played Don Corleone from The Godfather, you might come up with Enzo, the Italian priest. He is something of a myth in these parts – the Italian priest who has been in Burundi since 1971, before the the 1972 genocide, before the 1988 reprisals and the outbreak of civil war in 1993. He speaks Kirundi perfectly and in the absence of an Italian consulate, he is a de facto consul, bringing together Italians of all stripes and ages to his rooftop for a home-cooked meal. Because what kind of Italian would Enzo be if he didn’t grow his own basil, make his own cheese or have his pasta brought to him by friends from Italy? Enzo probably has the only promegranates in Burundi, because he grows those, too. Many people have heard of Enzo, but I’m not sure most people know that he has been quietly building a Tuscan village up in the mountains about an hour out of Bujumbura. These photos probably don’t look like they were taken in the poorest country in the world (not Italy). Maybe this first photo could be Burundi with an Italian cloister photoshopped into the background.

It is actually chilly in the mountains that day, so Enzo dons his « mountain hat. »

Photo by Sean Casey

Photo by Sean Casey

I first encountered this site through my friend Eric, who is the ex-combattant mentioned in the previous Ministry post. A couple weeks back, I took a few trips to the Interior (20 minutes out of Bujumbura in any direction), and one of those trips was to this site in Bugarama. Eric talked about this facility that he has been helping out with in the mountains that might be a good fit for my project (residential shelter for female ex-child-soldiers), so I decided to take a look.

At the site, I walk around on the cobblestone and take inventory of the facility: clean living quarters with bathrooms to fit 20, a computer room (with computers!), a solar panel to heat water, a large meeting room, a fireplace, a fully-functional terrace bar-and-grill that sells homemade strawberry jam – this really is a perfect match for my project.

My Chicago-based colleague Sean was in town for a visit last weekend and we stopped by the site so he could see it. During the visit, which takes us to other Enzo projects (a mega-church, a fromagerie, a sculpture workshop), Enzo prepares us a meal of fresh tomato salad, bread and homemade cheese. I think it’s one of the best meals I’ve had in Burundi, and that’s saying a lot given the quality of the restaurants in Bujumbura.

After the tours, Enzo drives us back to his house while Sean and I think of how to discuss collaborating with him. So Enzo leads us inside, chats with us a little, talks about how the much of the food in his house comes from his projects and then, naturally, we start making dinner together.

No, really.


Photo by Sean Casey

Photo by Sean Casey

A few nights prior, I had watched Munich, directed by Steven Speilberg and one of the few DVDs at the house where I’m staying. There is a scene where the main character, an Israeli intelligence officer trying to track down terrorists, is invited to the home of a secretive Frenchman who has been passing on information. Thinking that he broke a rule about how he used the information and is about to be punished, the officer is instead asked to cook with the Frenchman for his family. It’s a strange scene, but one that does well to emphasize the relative importance of work or « business » in relation to friends and family (and food).

Sean and I realize that Enzo wants to know us better through cooking rather than pore over the details and numbers of our project, and it makes us appreciate him a lot more. Cooking with him is perhaps his way of evaluating us and seeing if we can work together. It’s definitely novel and interesting, and I think we do all right.

If admitting that opening cans is the extent of his ability, then Sean passes that test brilliantly. And if peeling miniature garlic with a butter knife is my test, then I think I do pretty well. Garlic, I learn, is sacred in the Italian pantry, and must be prepared with reverence. I’ve never been that good with knives in the ktichen (nor outside) so this is a real test of my patience and dexterity. It isn’t everyday that it dawns on me that the success of my work might hinge on my garlic-peeling ability, but I’m glad it does. Burundi is such a funny place.


catch up

I’m a bit behind in my posts because I was in the Congo for a work-trip (“field trip”) this week. I will have much to write about that but for now, I’ve posted some entries from last week below. Here are some photos that my colleague, Sean, took of me playing soccer on Sunday, the 20th.




a tale of two cities

Wednesday, July 16, 2008.

I want to point out something about Bujumbura – the one in the news and the one I live in. When the headline says, « Rebels launch mortars into Bujumbura, » those missiles will almost certainly not touch me, because that Bujumbura is over there, 10 minutes by car up the main road, in one of the neighborhoods like Ngagara, or Bwiza , or, of course, Kamenge. It would certainly not be where I am (three-minute walk to the U.S. Ambassador’s home) or where I will be (six-minute walk to the U.S. Ambassador’s). The Bujumbura I live in is one I have no qualms about being out in after dark. Though I’m not so cocky anymore to lie about the phone number in the back of a U.S. passport to call in a squad of Marines, I will gladly load up the mobile office, laptop and all, and walk the mile-and-a-half back to the house at seven or eight at night.

That other Bujumbura is one I’m starting to interact with more. On Saturday (July 12), I spent most of the afternoon in Kamenge. Kamenge is probably one of Bujumbura’s most notorious neighborhoods and one of its poorest. In the long history of ethnic violence dating back to the 60’s, Kamenge and its mostly Hutu population has always been a flashpoint. The police crack down there the hardest, arresting and sometimes killing residents suspected of ties to armed groups. Prior to and during the war, parts of Kamenge were entirely destroyed. The ‘Kamenge Riots’ of 1962 presage the massacres that were to come in 1972. Now the neighborhood is finally rebuilding and even diversifying, but its reputation remains.

When I am in Kamenge, people’s curiosity toward me is more aggressive, the stares a little more intense, the demographic more male. If I sometimes get irritated when people jeer at me in the city-center or cry out some variant of « China! », in Kamenge, I don’t have that luxury. To respond even emotionally to each person would take too much effort and time; to respond externally could lead to ‘misunderstandings’.

Kamenge during the day time is bustling and intense, but not threatening. In many ways, its activity is quite festive. When I interviewed some female ex-soldiers in the back of a bar on Saturday, only one person had to be chased away because he was a bit too curious. The bar’s name is the Good Wind, becaue the owner claims a special breeze blows out in front of the bar. And sure enough, there are only tables and patrons in front of his property. We talked about verifying whether there really was only a breeze on that spot, so I walked down the street, waving and yelling out to him that yes, there was wind here, too, and that maybe he should expand his operation. I was less interested in whether people were laughing at me or laughing because they understood what we were doing – to me, they were laughing and that was enough.

I returned to Kamenge a few days later, at night. It was around 7 p.m. when we (colleagues Joseph and Jean-Baptiste and I) turned off the main road and searched by moonlight for the home of one of the women I had met a few days prior. Pedestrians that appeared out of the dark night air, barely missing being hit, would rap their fists sharply against the car, signaling their displeasure. It sounded like small stones hitting us. In that narrow space, our tiny coupe felt awfully fragile. We found our host’s home when we rolled by it, and she ran after us and rapped her knuckles against the back of the car. When I opened the car door to step out, someone quickly led me by the arm over the inky moat in front of the house. Little kids in little or no clothing were running around near the remnants of a cooking fire. Our host lead us into the house with a candle that became the room’s lamp.

For about two hours, we talked about the women who have been left out or exploited by the demobilization and reintegration process. Our host told us stories of men who would « marry » ex-combatants to force them to receive their demobilization benefits only to steal the money and then abandon the women. Even with couples who were both ex-combattants, only the man had control over the money that husband and wife would both receive. The injustice was pretty clear, but our host cut through all of the morality, saying that yes, these problems were difficult, but if we could just have some work, we would be okay, because we have so much energy and we can do so much. We just need a chance to be useful. The conversation passed from me in English to Joseph who would translate into Kirundi. Each one of us took turns staring into the candlelight as we spoke.


As we drove away from Kamenge, I asked Joseph what would happen if I just got out and walked. « You would have nothing, » he announced, and I knew he wasn’t using the French meaning, which would be that I would have no troubles. At that moment, our car hit a rut and bounced violently. I asked Joseph what would happen to us if the car broke down. He said, « We would have many mechanics, and many people who would want to help. » Not so bad, I think, that’s very kind of them. Joseph continues, « They would help us and then help themselves to some parts. When they are finished, the broken part would not be our problem anymore. »


Book (P)review

I recently finished reading René LeMarchand’s Burundi: Ethnic Conflict and Genocide. Obviously, the title suggests depressing reading. But it was still surprising to me the sadness that I found from reading a book on the verge of events it cannot comprehend. The book was first completed at the close of 1993, and LeMarchand includes an epilogue that applauds the election of Burundi’s first Hutu leader in October of that year. But within months, he is forced to amend the preface with a passage that begins, « As this book goes to press, Burundi is again lurching into a grim spiral of ethnic violence on a scale reminiscent of the 1972 carnage. A month after the October 1993 coup by the military brought to a close the hundred-day grace period of hte democratically elected government of  President Melchior Ndadaye, as many as 100,000 may have died in an ethnic butchery in which Hutu and Tutsi seem to have reached equal status. »

I don’t think LeMarchand’s disinterested tone and sterile phrasings accurately convey his disillusionment but when compared to more exuberant passages, I can’t help feeling sad for him. He closes the book (pre-amended preface) with a naive near-utopian euphoria: « Yet there is no question that both the charter and the newly adopted constitution are important straws in the wind, if not yet beacons of hope. Perhaps the most hopeful sign on the horizon is the pervasive feeling among both Hutu and Tutsi that the horrendous slaughters of 1972 and 1988 cannot be allowed ever again to enter the realm of the possible. The bloodshed of the past has at least served one major purpose : however traumatic the learning experience, it is a permanent reminder that there is simply no alternative to peaceful coexistence. »

Explaining the implications of Melchior Ndadaye’s election, LeMarchand calls it a « seismic metamorphosis » for Burundi and an event heralding « one of Africa’s most remarkable democratic transitions. » But Ndadaye’s assassination, not his election, now stands as the critical moment that is remembered as a « seismic metamorphosis » for very different reasons.

Fifteen years later, at the end of a long civil war, it is somewhat difficult to read someone’s thoughts of what would happen next, knowing what did happen.

LeMarchand’s book is also prescient in another eerie way. He writes, « Like the previous ones, the 1993 crisis [in Burundi] is bound to have a catastrophic impact on Hutu-Tutsi relations in Rwanda…In the early 1960s, the demonstration effect of the Hutu revolution in Rwanda caused many Tutsi in Burundi to distrust Hutu elements; in 1993, the rape of Burundi’s fledgling democracy conveyed a similar message to the Hutu of Rwanda: The Tutsi simply cannot be trusted. »


ministry, pt. 2

Friday, July 11, 2008.

I’m leaning back in my chair, one arm draped over the back, a slight smile tugging at my lips. I’m hoping I don’t look too smug or too amused. Conseiller Félix is in full-form. In a long-sleeve tan shirt buttoned all the way up the collar, he is all arms-a-flailing, a thousand words a minute. The man is giddy about the progress of my organization’s registration.

I had not planned on having this meeting so soon. The day before, I was speaking to an ex-combattant who is the head of a local ex-com association. I mentioned that I am still trying to register my organization and that I had been talking to a guy named Félix at the Ministry of Foreign Relations. My friend said, « Oh him, I know him. Let’s go see him tomorrow. » And so we do.

Does everyone really know everyone here, or just the people I happen to know?

If that were the extent of the coincidence, I might not ask so many questions, but as I am walking to the Ministry this morning, I pass a small white car parked on a sidestreet that I had never taken before but had just decided to try this time. As I am past the car, I hear, « Jeff! » I instinctively look up to the sky, and think, Oh man, this is it. I keep staring. Bright blue…nothing. I finally make the connection with the car and walk back to look inside. In the driver’s seat is Joseph, the man who works in the office across from my temporary site, and in the passenger seat is Prosper, the pineapple vendor.

Joseph is a classic ‘intellectual’. He is slight with glasses that rest low on his nose so he is often peering down. What that means is that he knows and I know that he wouldn’t be here if he weren’t out of the country during any number of ethnic slaughters that targeted potential rivals like teachers and journalists, basically anyone that looked smart. Joseph certainly does more than look smart, and he just may be one of the sweetest human beings I know. I can’t say enough about him and yet I can’t really describe him. He is passionate about his work and totally non-political. He’s analytical and diplomatic, enthusiastic and subtly hilarious. I especially like that he briefly opens his eyes wide when he gets excited in mid-conversation.

Joseph and I talk a bit about my imminent meeting. I know I will be a few minutes late, but I also know the trade-off would be good. I lay out the meeting’s context and explain that I want to negotiate with Félix to make the registration process more efficient. Joseph’s advice is reasonable and precise: Do not work with more than one Ministry; they will never agree on anything.

I get to the Ministry and my friend is there in a suit. I look sullenly at my dusty shoes.

Before I go into Félix’s office, there is something I need to do first. I walk over to the reception office. Inside are three women and two men having a very spirited discussion about why nothing is getting done. The woman from before is not there. Two of the five are looking at the printer. Clearly, that is what they are talking about – I didn’t need my rudimentary Kirundi to understand that. I walk in, holding the replacement cable aloft. Barack Obama bearing the Olympic torch wouldn’t have gotten such a cheer. It’s amazing – the mood becomes practically joyous. As soon as I hand over the cable and say, « I hope this fixes the problem, » all responsibility and recriminations are forgotten. They say that it was just an « accident, » that it was « no one’s fault, » or, at worst, a « shared fault. » Uh huh. So does that mean you’ll share the cable’s cost with me? One of the men says, « We were wondering if you were going to come back. We didn’t know what to do without the printer. » I say, « Of course, I would be back. I’m here to help your country, not destroy it. »

Back in Félix’s office, I run through the checklist of things he asked me to do and tell him briefly about each task. He nods so energetically, I find myself wanting to nod with him. Yay! Good job, Jeff! He says we’re in great shape, that the file should move right along now because I did what the instructions said. Then suddenly, Félix turns serious. He shuffles through the layers of documents on his desk and lifts up the wreckage of a file for a Swiss organization like it’s a piece of rotting garbage. Peeling it open, he pulls out this and that sheet of paper while rapidly explaining that this is what happens. This is what happens if you don’t listen, if you don’t do things the right way – you have to always followfollowfollow instructions. You have to follow-up, too. This file, he says, has been on his desk since April. I realize I am shaking my head.

But I did do things the right way, so now there was only one other thing I needed to do: Joseph’s advice.

« Félix, » I say, « I know you asked me to stop at all the Ministries that might be involved, but I think I don’t need to do that. I don’t think the Ministry of Public Health needs to be involved. »

Félix says, « But your project might provide healthcare, right? See, I wrote that down the last time. So the Ministry of Public Health should be involved. And absolutely, the Ministry of National Solidarity and Development for Human Rights and Gender, they must be there. »

I feel betrayed by a stupider four-day younger version of myself. I concede on the Ministry of Solidarity, but I know I have to get rid of the other Ministry or the project would never work. I’m speechless, Félix is waiting, and my friend seems nervous. How do you just make an entire government ministry disappear?

And then something comes back to me. In my head, I see the border crossing to enter Burundi. I see a border guard giving me a hard time and I see Oscar, the Rwandan pastor. I summon all my faith about what I have learned the past few weeks. I brace myself and say to Félix, « You know, we actually do want to provide some health services, but not too many, so you see, we don’t really need to involve the Ministry of Public Health. » I don’t say any more. I wonder if this is not too brazen for me to request, too ridiculous a suggestion. Félix is leaning forward, arms wide like he wants to wrestle. He stares at me for a few moments, mouth half-open. Then he slaps the table, breaks out laughing, and swiftly crosses the Ministry of Public Health from his notes. « Less work for me! » he yells. I don’t even notice I am nodding again.

Jeff: 1, the Ministry of Public Health: Dis. Missed.


By the way, Oscar sent me an email from Kigali the other day. Here it is, in full:

kabera oscar                                                               to me Jul 8

 I love Jesus



I really didn’t know how to respond adequately, so I wrote back: 

« I know. »



Check out the blog-link to ‘Off Stage Left’, fellow-Chicagoan Sara Gmitter’s blog about her time in Burundi. She arrived about a week after I did, and I openly admit that her Kirundi is better than mine. Her most recent post explores the Chicago-Bujumbura connection and gives me hope that I, too, will find a ‘Bears: 2007 Super Bowl Champions!’ t-shirt.


“ndashobora gukina?”

Sunday, July 6, 2008 (backtracking a bit, this is the ‘Church’ post)

I’m walking to the football fields, which is at the end of a long road leading eastward toward Lake Tanganyika (directions: « turn at the intersection near the radio tower »). As I walk on, I notice the other side of the street is getting more crowded. A few more minutes and the crowd is loud and dense with people in white t-shirts. Everyone is staring at me. I ask the man walking next to me about the crowds: it’s a rally for the CNDD-FDD, the incumbent political party. A muddy old bus rolls by, full of boys sticking their heads out the window, slapping the side of the bus. They’re staring at me, too, and yelling things I can’t understand. I have no desire to get mixed up in politics. Maybe I didn’t understand the directions? Maybe I was supposed to turn at another radio tower? I think about how big a radio tower has to be before someone uses it as a landmark for directions. Maybe I wasn’t thinking big enough.

I do get to the field eventually and approach a guy who is about my height and kicking a ball. In the background, another bus of raucous teens pulls up and drumming begins. I ask, « Ndashobora gukina? » « Can I play? » These are magical words. And hearing (and understanding) the response is just as great: « Urashaka gukina? Urashobora. » « You want to play? You can. » We walk over to the group of players warming up as, slowly, a cluster of little kids gathers around us. Some are poking at my legs and giggling. Others just stare. The drumming picks up.

The field is mostly dry dirt with patches of dead grass. A breeze blows continously off the lake, which I heartily welcome until I realize it causes mini-duststorms that leave me half-blind and parched. On the south end of the field is a terrace and bar, and on the other end is a gutter that players bathe in. It looks like the water runs down from the nearby gas station where there is also a carwash. On the west side is another field. To the east – well, it’s hard to explain. The grass slopes up and on the street-level, there is a tree under which there are some benches that spectators sit on. Around this tree, women are cooking and grubby kids in tattered clothing wander around playing with whatever is on the ground. Sometimes, it’s a dried fruit rind, sometimes, it’s an empty bottle. Plastic bags are either tied or nailed to the tree and from some branches hang mosquito nets. This is someone’s home.

Across the street from the cooking is the United Nations High Commissioner on Refugees (UNHCR) compound. It looks like a prison with the usual motifs: heavy steel doors and long coils of razor wire punctuated by guard turrets. There’s a small cell in front; ‘For Visitors’, a sign reads.

At 9 :30, someone says to me we are ready to start. (After the game, the referee says to me, « Come back next week. We play every Sunday. We start at nine and we play for 60 minutes, no stops. » So, I think, even if we start a bit late, it couldn’t be past 11. I check the time: it’s 11:40. What? How?) So we play 11 against 11, shirts against skins; my team is skins. I toss my shirt down with the others and a pile grows right on the center half line. I think, someone will move the whole pile (as someone always does) to the side because surely, we can’t play with a little hill of clothes, bags and shoes on the field. Then when the whistle blows and the pile is still there, I realize it isn’t going anywhere. In fact, it’s deliberate: anti-theft measure.

My team sticks me right in the middle of the field: play everywhere. I’m not bulky enough for defense and I’m not so pudgy that I can only play offense, so the all-important midfield it is. Self-selection by default.

The game doesn’t go that well for my team.

Not twenty minutes in, someone on the sideline takes off his shirt and jumps in on our side. He plays for about five minutes before someone notices and then a thunderous argument ensues, with the referee being the most pissed. He’s spinning left and right, yelling at everyone near him, and the players on both sides just get angrier. They close in on him.

I’ve seen bad sports arguments before but this is almost violent. Some players sit on the ground and wait it out. I’m kind of chuckling except I’m also surprised at how incensed some of the players are. And then, just as quickly as it started, it ends. Sort of. These scuffles play out like they always do: with someone getting a yellow card for dissent. And per usual, it goes to some undeserving player who then explodes in disgust at the referee, starting the whole cycle again.

It’s rough going. Only one player has shinguards but no one pulls back. The players are all big and strong (to me); some play for club teams and practice every day. About three quarters of the way through, a teammate taps me on the shoulder and points to my right hip. I’m bleeding from a series of gashes. I don’t remember how it happened and I don’t feel anything, but as soon as he points it out, the cuts start to hurt. Ouch.

We end up losing 4-1. By the end, our defense is bickering at each other. The other team, of course, is in good spirits, especially their forward, who scored three goals. Each time he scored a goal, he thumped his chest a few times and ran to the sideline with a finger over his mouth like he’s shhhh-ing the non-existent crowd for cheering against him. The women under the tree are totally indifferent to his antics. A couple of the little kids run after him each time, cheering and rolling on the ground in his wake.


Sunday, July 13, 2008

Much better. One to one, a draw. After the game, a guy, who I can only describe as massive in red shorts that are not massive enough, leans in close to me. He drips big beads of sweat over my forearm, apologizes, then smears it all over my arm – all gone! He whispers to me, “We go to Chicago, me and you.”


Re: previous post – igitoke may in fact be plantains.


Upcoming: Ministry, pt. 2, and gender issues, especially relating to ex-combattants.


burundi in the news

A couple commodity issues are constantly in the news, making this an appropriate time for me to sketch out several aspects of life in Burundi.



First, I’ll talk about what I know: bananas. There are two words for bananas. There is igitoke, which are large green bananas that are used as a savory dish; they are delicious grilled and usually served with meat-on-sticks. Then there are imihwi, which are the yellow bananas that you and I know (but cannot survive on alone, apparently). There is the longer kind but also mini-bananas (‘lady-fingers’ or akamaramasenge) that I’m starting to like more. I’m not sure yet if igitoke ripens into imihwi, but that’s a safe bet.

Sugar is cherished here because Burundians drink their coffee and tea very sweet. My guards won’t drink tea without. The price of sugar has been rising ruthlessly and is now at around $1.50 USD for a kilogram. This has been a major blow to the national psyche.

Each week, one of the French-language newspapers here publishes a chart of the food prices, comparing the current prices with the previous week’s. There’s a listing for « Rice 1 ($1 USD/kg), » « Rice 2 ($0.84 USD/kg), » and « Rice 3 ($0.75 USD/kg). » There’s also something called « Viking Oil, » which you will be happy to know is holding steady at 3000 Bfr (about $2.50 USD) to the liter. Underneath the chart is a « Commentary » section that puts into words what the numbers already say. Translated roughly, it says, « Everything is more expensive. »

If I go to a food store instead of the central market, I can find some Western products like Kellogg’s Corn Flakes. One box costs about $20 USD. If I really want Peanut M & M’s, there are those, too, at $2 USD for a fun-size bag. Because of a quirk in the universe, I’m being paid a Burundian national’s salary, so I think I’ll stick with less opulent items. The real kicker is that if the stores are still selling the corn flakes, it’s because someone is actually buying it.

It does bring up an interesting question about what money means to me right now. With grad school and massive debt being a possibility in the next couple years, whether and how I spend my money doesn’t seem that important – there’s no way I can save enough, so why not use it? At the same time, I find myself needing fewer and fewer things, so I’m at a loss for what to spend money on, even if I wanted or had some to spend. I would welcome any suggestions.

Michaela Wrong, writing about the Congolese in In the Footsteps of Mr. Kurtz, references a George Orwell passage about the poor spending frivolously in order to feel more valuable, to transcend their misery. That makes a lot of sense to me – many of my expenditures are probably unnecessary, but I know intimately that feeling of wanting to « reward » myself with little things for working a lot.



Right before I saw the two articles linked below, I had a conversation with a Burundian friend and a taxi driver about gas prices in the U.S. It was shocking to them how little Americans pay for gas. Anyway, the articles are worth a look. Just for comparison, gas is around $4 a gallon in the U.S., and in Burundi, which is either last or second to last in 2007 GDP/PPP lists ($400 GDP per capita), gas will hit $8 a gallon soon.

It would be so tragic if Burundi falls apart because of commodity prices it has no control over just as it might finally be emerging from this long war through a peace process that was brokered by African nations.


Thursday, July 10, 2008.

It’s too hot today, and too bright. Something feels wrong. Too many speeding trucks loaded with soldiers gripping their guns too tightly. Why is the mounted machine gun manned? The trucks are moving forward and the gunner is facing the other way. They seem too ready.

Rumors: There is a rumor that the rebels are planning new attacks, supported by a radio announcement that they are in desperate need of food and will take to the hillsides to get it. A rumor that the peace process is breaking down (again) – supported by the rebels’ suspension of troop cantonment for demobilisation. The government rejects the rebel demand to transition into a political party. Ostensibly, a name thing*: the Hutu-led government rejects any mention of ethnicity, and the last rebel group’s name is PALIPEHUTU-FNL (that’s an abbreviation**). Neither side is yielding. What is the point of this manuevering? The rebels have few options left, and the government doesn’t want to take any risks, especially with elections in two years.

I walk home at around 7:30. It’s dark but usually there are more people on the streets. Vehicles are moving fast tonight. It’s too hot.

(Update 7/12/08: I hear that next week, things will move forward, one way or another.)


But this is too cool:

I’m going to plug a USB device for my laptop that I just purchased for $100 USD. While that is steep in Burundi, I can now access the internet whereever there is a cellphone signal. I can bypass the whole fixed-line installation issue and work anywhere. This brilliant little silver gadget made by a Chinese company called HuaWei lets me dial into the mobile network (admittedly shakey) and use the internet for only 1.6 cents a minute. The download speed is pretty good, too. Becuase I’m using a Mac, I don’t have the software loaded, but if I did, I would also have SMS and phone capabilities through the computer (like Skype). I asked if I could use it in other countries but was told that it’s configured for Burundi only (meaning it could be reconfigured?).


 * – This name issue shows up again with a popular journalist who is trying to register himself as an opposition political party. The government rejects his application because he includes the word « Securité » in the party’s name, which the government claims is solely their domain.

** – short for ‘Parti pour la Libération du Peuple Hutu-Forces Nationales pour la Libération’


All troubles aside, there is also progress: 

« U.S. Intelligence: Burundi May Be Developing Telephone »


home, church, and ministry


I have a detail of four guards at the house. They’re very nice and have been with the house for several years. Mostly they hang out in the paillote (the straw hut, which has electricity and a concrete floor), read the Bible in Kirundi, do their laundry and come up with money-making schemes with the other house staff. The last one, a moto-taxi, was a winner until the ‘moto’ part was taken away at gunpoint. I think the next one involves micro-lending.

Sometimes the guards study French, sometimes they teach math and the French alphabet to Prosper, the 14-year-old pineapple vendor. He’ll get his own post later on.

I check out the guards’ equipment, presumably the tools they have to ensure my safety. There is a Motorola walkie-talkie that they turn down when they’re conducting business. Occasionally, the person on the other end plays music through the handset. There is also a billy-club, which I picked up to inspect one day; the handle was loose, probably wouldn’t withstand a strong breeze. I looked for other items but there were none. I stopped bothering to lock the door at night.

I’ve also stopped using my alarm to wake up. At about six every morning, LP the cat hops up into bed and walks all over me, purring/rumbling like a ’57 Chevy. Sometimes, I wake up to find him already there and I have to wake him instead. Apparently, the mosquito net is occasionally mosquito-proof, but never cat-proof. I had a dream one night that I produced a TV show along the lines of « When Animals Attack! » called « When Mosquito Nets Fail! » I woke up and was very relieved to realize it was just a dream as I scratched the new bumps on my cheeks.

A typical day goes like this: I wake up at 6:45ish and feed the cats. Then I boil water for the guards’ tea while going over what I have to do in my head. I lay out a schedule: 

By 7:45-8ish – Eat breakfast, leave instructions for the house staff (if needed), and go to the office.
By 8:30 –Arrive, check email, read news.
At 9 :00-9 :30 –  Confirm appointments for the day and check on finances/bank matters.

The rest of the day is a mix of meetings and reading up on project-related materials.

Here’s what actually happens: 

7 :45 – Ready to go.
7 :46 – Guard asks if I want tea. I want tea.
9 :12 – Talk to gardener, discuss seed choices and possible projects.
9 :29 – Leave for work.
9 :41 – Arrive at office gate, speak to security guards.
9 :47 – Get into office, clear ants* off desk.
9 :48 – Clear ants off computer.
9 :49 – Read news, check email.
9 :54 – Find out appointments are either in the afternoon or rescheduled to later in the week.
10 :12 – Go to café to have croissant and coffee and to talk to Gabriel, the baker. This is a strategic decision.
10 :14 – While at the café, meet some dude from the World Bank/government/UN. Conduct « business. »
10 :28 – Finish croissant.

Then the meetings and errands, maybe. So far, Bujumbura has not met my enthusiasm for this project with comparable diligence. I also haven’t adjusted to the rhythm of work here yet, meaning, I’m totally flummoxed by the midday two-hour break when everything is closed and nothing gets done. Most places open at 9 a.m. and close between noon and 2 or 2 :30 p.m. Then they’re open for another two or three hours. I can’t stand the disappointment (and frustration) of going to some office or to the bank just to see the door close for several hours, so I often tell myself, I better wait.


Waiting sucks.


* – the ants here, they don’t really gather so much as circle, and they’re circling now.


Here’s one of the cats:

Here’s LP doing what LP does best:


Day 17. Sunday, July 6, 2008.


It’s 9 :30 a.m. and I have just found my Sunday morning activity. I’m on the soccer (football!) field, the same one from a couple weeks ago. The other team is lining up against my team – boy, everyone looks big. The referee blows the whistle to start the game. I’ll have to write a separate post about this.


Day 19. Tuesday, July 8, 2008


The first official step toward implementing a new project is to get my organization registered with the Ministry of Foreign Relations. It’s a critical step; without approval, I can’t partner (legally) with any local organizations. The registration process involves submitting a set of documents including a statement about the organization, the project outline and its objectives, the proposal budget and so on. After I did that, I realized I would never see my nice plastic folder again. That was about a week ago.

I went back yesterday to check on the file. I was told that « Conseiller Félix » was now in charge of my dossier and that I should call him later. So I did and I set up an appointment for this morning at 10 :30.

I show up right on time, which is rare for me and kind of pointless in Burundi. I speak to the woman from the day before and ask if I could see Félix. She says, « You can’t see him until you fix our printer. »


So I think back to yesterday, and, slowly, it comes to me. Yes, I did step on some mass of cables that was on the floor, and the printer seemed to gurgle and choke for a second, but I waited, gently patted it and made sure nothing was on fire. Everything looked okay.

The woman points lazily at the USB cable port, from which protrudes a jagged metal stump. The cable connector had snapped off. Did I really do that? I think about the stories I’d heard of people in China throwing a chicken underneath someone’s car as he or she is backing out, then demanding the driver pay compensation. But, I don’t think that is what’s happening here. The woman tells me, « Without our printer, we can’t do any work. » What a pathetic start to my attempt to get registered. I can’t believe it. With one mighty stomp, I had put the Ministry of Foreign Relations out of commission.

Luckily, I was prepared for this kind of thing. « This kind of thing. » The phrase enters my head and I think about it wryly before reaching into my bag, sliding my hand past the majestic wad of Burundian francs I had just exchanged, and pulling out my Swiss Army knife. With the pliers, I yank out the remaining nub of the cable. I’m seeing Félix today, I think to myself. No sense of triumph or accomplishment – I would have to find a replacement cable, which probably means overpaying someone for a cable and then making another trip back. While I pick up the dead cable and pocket the broken connector, I ask, « Where is Félix’s office ? »

Conseiller Félix is probably in his early-forties. He wears round spectacles and an ochre short-sleeve shirt that makes me want to call him Comrade Félix. He’s looking over my file when he starts talking about how things work around here, how it’s necessary to do things right by applying the proper « lubricant. » I vaguely imagine to myself that we are talking about fixing cars. With a smile, I hand him all the documents (papers only!) that he had requested over the phone, and he cuts his speech short. He smiles broadly and says that yes, this was what he wanted to see. He looks over the program description and asks me a bunch of questions. With each answer, he nods with his eyes down and says, « Yes, then you will need to talk to the Ministry of such-and-such. » Even though I talk my way out of seeing the Ministry of Defense, I keep thinking, No! What’s the point of registering with you if I have to see everyone else? We must be having a problem with the gearbox: we’re in reverse.

« Come back with more copies of these documents and try to see the other Ministries, and the process should move along. »

I see tires spinning in a sandbank. I have no ideas; I ask for directions to the other Ministries. So ends round one of a process that Félix assures me will go quickly. In my head, I start making a list of automotive vocabulary words.

As I gather up my stuff to leave, Félix spots the dismembered cable. He asks me, « Oh, do you have a computer problem? »

No, I think, but you do.



independence days

Day 9. June 29, 2008

Generally, I find the game of pointing out English misapproprisms and misconstructions in foreign countries hackneyed and dull, but when I did my laundry this morning, I couldn’t help laughing hard at the brandname of my detergent.



« Hi, my name is Jeff. I wash my clothes with Barf. »

Then there are examples of English usage that are not only correct but far superior to anything I might casually encounter in the U.S., for example, « Bujumbura Friendship Force: English Training Center. »

I think I find accidental and unironic misuses of language more interesting (and funny). In Kigali, I stumbled upon the ‘Commission Nationale des Recettes’,  which might be the National Commission of Receipts, but I would rather have a National Commission of Recipes. A few streets down, I found the ‘Ministère de la Parole Authentique’:  The Ministry of the Authentic Word.


Day 10. June 30, 2008

Conundrum of the last five days: a dearth of francs equals a loss in pounds.


Day 11. July 1, 2008. Independence Day (Burundi)

Today is my first official day of work. It’s also Burundi’s Independence Day. First day on the job, first day off.

I walk down to the parade where the President is inspecting the troops. First the army, then the Presidential Guard, then the police. The procession is endless. It’s hot and I can’t see over the crowd. I manuever myself closer to the front and hit a wall of people. What’s strange about this mass of bodies is that it’s incredibly dense but also constantly moving – people are turning, nudging, some are leaving, others edging forward, yet I still couldn’t find an opening. At one point, I move to another area and find myself in front with a clear view of the parade, but within minutes, the crowd has swallowed me up and I find myself near the back row again.



Midway through the parade, I look at the guy next to me. Poor guy, he looks so uncomfortable to be standing next to me. He is also wearing a red winter hat in the midday sun. The hat mushrooms out a bit, suggesting he is hiding a lot of hair underneath. I look at the hat’s faded logo – Arsenal F.C. (football club). I point at my Arsenal jersey and as I look from my shirt to his, I see he is wearing a Chicago Blackhawks jersey. I’m shocked. I beam at him and excitedly explain to the people around us that this is the Chicago hockey team’s jersey. Blank stares, half-smiles: why is this important? Because I’m from Chicago. More stares: crazy foreigner. And what is hockey? Hockey is a sport played on ice. Now he’s just lying. On ice?

As I’m leaving the parade grounds, I spot one of the guards who works at the house where I’m staying. He’s lining up to march in the parade. We greet each other with big grins and hearty handshakes. Seeing him in the parade makes me feel kind of proud, like a parent seeing his or her kid on stage. I feel toally ridiculous for feeling that way. The next day we can’t stop laughing about seeing each other.

A few people tell me that last year there were paratroopers who joined the parade from the sky. This year though they cut out the paratroopers because the government is spending less on the military now that the war is winding down. People seem disappointed. I say, « That’s the problem with peace, »  and everyone nods somberly.

After the parade, I’m on the side of the road listening to a couple of security guards list off all the fruits they have in Burundi when a man in a smart black jogging suit and a neat mustache (walking, of course) joins us. He hears us talking in French and asks me if I speak English. « Ego. » It just slips out. « Yes. » He says «Ah! (haha) Vous parlez Kirundi! Murakomeye ? » I say « Ndakomeye, ego. » He laughs, then says something I don’t understand. I ask one of the guards what the man said. « He said, you speak Kirundi well. » Oh. Thanks.

(Not surprisingly, he’s a captain in the military. He says he’s going to check up on me. Great.)

I know where I am with the language. A few verbs and phrases; basic conjugation of present, past and future tenses; counting to a billion: I’m halfway through Kirundi 101.

I’m not working with much though. I haven’t been able to locate any texts on grammar. Taxi drivers, security guards and hotel workers are pressed into service as my teachers and interlocutors.

I am trying to reverse engineer a language, taking apart the words and sentences I pick up to identify some kind of logic or pattern. It’s hard to describe the process and the hopelessness of the task. Imagine being given a hamburger patty and being asked to fit it back on the cow. I figured out that the prefix si- turns verbs negative, as in sindabizi : « I don’t know. » But is that just for the first person present? (Is that even the right question?) What is the inifinitive of that verb? And why is it that when I try to conjugate a verb that has a ‘u’ in it, sometimes a ‘w’ randomly appears and sometimes not? Sindabizi.


Day 12. July 2, 2008

I’m twenty pages into the chapter of Ishmael Beah’s memoir about his rehabilitation from being a child soldier when I finally realize that I’m trying to implement the same sort of scheme. The reason it takes me so long to make that connection is because in those twenty fascinating pages, the now ex-child soldiers are busy pillaging the rehabilitaton center, beating up staff and even fighting each other with such brutality that several of the boys were killed and adult soldiers had to be called in to break up the fighting. Beah himself hid a grenade in his shorts’ pocket and threw it during the brawl (he is very vague about whether anyone died from the explosion). I couldn’t stop reading, alternately feeling shocked at the kids’ violence and at the NGOs’ complete lack of common sense in their approach (e.g., putting child soldiers from opposing factions in the same room).


Day 13. July 3, 2008

Went to the Ambassador’s residence this evening for a reception for the Fourth. Was probably one of the youngest attendees. Mostly spent my time hanging out with an Embassy interpreter as he pointed out dignitaries to me. « That’s the leader of the opposition party. That’s the Minister of Defense, holding the Coke. The President? I’m not sure if he was invited. Over there is an ex-president who was ousted in a military coup. » I thought, the coup must have been really half-hearted if the putcshists let the guy get away and now he’s making friends with Americans.

The Ambassador gave a speech that was long on addressing the guests and short on everything else. Four Marines did their little stomp-stomp huff-huff thing with glistening guns and billowing flags. I spent some time talking to the Ambassador’s husband, after the Ambassador told me to find him because he was interested in child-soldier issues. I tracked Gil down and it turned out he did have some very useful information. Later on, an older man chatted me up, told me he was from Russia. What he really meant was he’s the Russian Ambassador to Burundi. It was that kind of night. High point was definitely eating cookies and brownies and cookies and brownies. And one more brownie.

Realizing that I’m the sole representative of my organization reveals a sad truth: I’m going to need nicer shoes. Black ones, shiny. Maybe even a suit (also shiny?). I thought I was done with having « work » and « non-work » clothes; I was excited just to have ‘clothes’ again. So much for my dream of rolling into work in sandals everyday.


Upcoming: Jeff actually works!

Click below to receive an email notification when I post a new entry.

Join 36 other followers

July 2008