25
Jul
08

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

bbc

 

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

« I know. »

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