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!

1 Response to “independence days”

  1. 1 Electra Allenton
    July 14, 2008 at 3:34 am

    Dear Mr. Mok,

    I am also a Grinnell alumni. I came to your blog via the Geek Buffet (via Dana W. of course). Right now I am an ALT in Sapporo. Reading about your planned work in Burundi was a pleasant coincidence for me because our high school 3rd year English Club members just did a 10 minute presentation about their research about the conditions of impoverished children influenced by the war(s) in Cambodia and the child-soldiers in Bolivia. I would like to tell them about your blog.
    Would you be okay with receiving random comments or other contact from Japanese high school girls about your work?

    ~Electra Allenton ( .alt (at) gmail.com )

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