Archive for August, 2008

19
Aug
08

an accident

This post describes a road accident that I witnessed. I have tried to keep this post as neutral as possible but its details are graphic. Please consider that before continuing on. 

I think I needed to write this post more than I need it to be read. I do hope you will read it though. I don’t mention my role in these events because I did a lot (I didn’t), but because I just happened to be there. Other people did so much more: Leanne, who was completely composed and decisive throughout; Joseph, who knew what to do, as always; the woman who applied the splint to the awful injury; the soldier who took an active role in organizing the accident scene.

 

August 12, 2008.

I have been wondering for a while about the trade-offs people make here, especially the one that exchanges safety for transportation. I think about this most often when I see young men side-saddling bikes, hanging onto slow-moving semis to ascend the mountain slopes.

Just after 2 p.m., about 10km south of the site at Bugarama (pictured in the ‘Enzo’ post), my friend, Leanne, her driver, Morisho, and I are driving down the mountain road, returning from a visit to the ‘Interior’. Leanne directs a U.S.-based contractor to help ex-combattants and she was kind enough to invite me to visit some of their vocational skills training facilities up-country.

Coming around one of the thousands of bends, we watch as a bicycle loaded up with two young men and a boy wedged between gets caught in the ditch next to the road. The bike is going almost as fast as the cars and probably has weak or no brakes. An old man is walking in the ditch. He never sees the bike coming. In an instant, bike, passengers and man collide. Bodies bounce down the slope, the bike flies off. A huge dust cloud rises up, trails after the limp forms rolling off with tremendous momentum, and swallows them up.

We’re about 20 meters back at that moment and by the time the dust starts to settle, we are at the bottom of the accident site. We stop the car and get out. Already a crowd has gathered around the young men and the boy.

I say, “I’m going to look at the other one.”

Leanne says, “The old man? He’s dead.” She doesn’t follow me. She had a wider view from the passenger seat; she saw more than I did – do I want to see what she saw?

“He’s dead.”

I stride up the hill toward the old man, who is flat on his stomach, motionless, his left leg draped over his right, like he had half-rolled over. I have a vague sensation that something doesn’t look right. As I get within a few meters of him, I see his right arm stir and slowly, it tries to push the rest of the body off the ground.

That is not what dead people do.

As I reach him, a woman in bright traditional dress and a head-scarf runs up and kneels down by his legs. She tries to uncross them, and then I see what seemed off before. His left foot is turned completely inward, pointing in the wrong direction. She slides a hand underneath and turns the foot back, too easily, I think, but there is no way we can untangle the legs. By now, the man is moaning weakly.

“woooh, oh-wooooh.”

Instead of moving his legs, we slowly turn his upper body over, but his legs stay crossed. I look at the man’s face. His eyes are clear – good, he looks alert. Blood is streaming down his head, bright red beads catching in his eyelashes. Turning over like he did, the man is now partially on the road. People seem content with leaving him as he is, but the Land Cruisers and semis shooting past are just feet away from running him over.

I motion that we have to get the man off the road. That’s the first thing. The second thing – the wound – I don’t even have a chance to think about yet. I don’t even know how bad it is. A soldier with a red undershirt peeking out from his uniform runs over to help – Superman.

The solider kneels down by the man’s head, resting his AK-47 against his own thigh. The rifle keeps sliding off, and he tries to reposition it each time. The gun barrel darts around, like it’s deciding between my head, my chest and my stomach. It’s scaring away other people, too, the people I need to help me move the injured man off the road. My eyes keep circling back to the barrel, which has been stuffed up with dirt, presumably to keep out other more menacing dirt. It’s amazingly clear; I notice the little cracks in the dry dirt, bits flecked over the muzzle. The soldier gets up and walks away for a moment, leaving his gun. I pick it up and move it to a clearing five meters away. We don’t need that right now. I don’t think about his reaction or the other soldiers’ reactions. It just sort of happens. As soon as I put the gun down, other people fly over to help the old man. The soldier is there, too, without his gun, using both arms to lift the man gently. I’m on one side supporting his waist, another man is holding up his thighs. The woman is trying to take hold of his feet, but when she touches his lower left leg, the man cries out, “Woooooh!” I look down and see a large part of the bone protruding from his shin.

We get him away from the side of the road.

With one hand supporting the man’s head and neck, the soldier reaches for a thin bamboo branch and hands it to the woman. In one motion, she grabs it and snaps it in half against the ground. She places one half against the inside of his leg. The man shrinks back in pain, tries to pull his legs toward his torso. When he does that, the left foot does not lift with rest of the leg. Now that I’m at his side, I can see the wound clearly: the bone is sheared off completely from the foot. The only things keeping the foot attached to the rest of his body are ligaments and skin. There is a lot of blood coming from both his leg and his foot, and it is not dripping out. I feel all my the muscles in my body pull toward my stomach. It tenses but holds.

The soldier disappears and leaves the man on his back with his legs pulled up. His contracted position exposes a lot of bone. I have no idea what to do with this; I just want to straighten out his legs, let the woman finish splinting it and maybe get a tourniquet on him. I try to communicate this, but it takes a minute to get through. The soldier is back again and so is his gun. The woman clasps the other bamboo half to the leg and puts the parts together as best she can. It’s all we can do.

I walk back toward the Land Cruiser to see what Leanne is doing. As I get near, she calls out to me, “It’s good what you’re doing, but be careful. You shouldn’t get their blood on you. I know it’s insensitive, but….”

But she’s right. And I have it all over me. Even though Burundi has a relatively low HIV-infection rate – about 3-6% depending on the estimate – and even though I have no open wounds, I grab my water bottle and duck behind the vehicle. I pour water over the  splatters on my clothes and try to wash my hands off.

By the time I’m doused in water, Leanne has a plan. She tells Morisho to tell the soldier that we are going to drive back up the road to the nearby medical clinic to look for a doctor and a taxi, which we will send down to take the injured to the clinic.

We get back up to the clinic, about 5 kilometers away, and there is a large crowd of young men hanging out in front. They don’t do anything, they are just there. We pull up and ask for the doctor – is he in? There has been an accident and we need his help.

The men say, yes, but he is just a clinic doctor. He cannot help. We ask for a taxi. There are none. We drive further up the mountain to Bugarama, where I might be working in a few months time. There is only one taxi in town and it’s already been taken. We think of different ways to rework the definition of ‘taxi’. Maybe we can just hire out a private car or a van.

No luck. If there is a taxi or car around, it’s because someone hired it to get here, not because it’s just cruising around in the mountains looking for a fare. We drive back down.

When we get back to the accident site, there are more soldiers and more people tending to the wounded. The scene is astonishingly organized. The soldiers have blocked off the side of the road and are keeping the crowd back. The soldier with the red shirt is trying to flag down a truck. The man’s leg has been wrapped in a piece of cloth. We get out again to see how the injured are. The other two look bad, all bloodied, but nothing as obvious as the old man’s leg. Finally, the soldier stops a massive truck. We decide we have to drive the 30 km into Bujumbura with the injured if we are going to find a doctor so we ask the soldier to instruct the driver of the truck to follow us to a public hospital. The truck loads up the two wounded young men and we put the old man in our Land Cruiser. Instead of following, the truck just takes off. We assume he knows where the hospital is. 

On the way down, I’m sitting in a seat that’s been folded down, back to back with the old man. Not sure what to talk about. Leanne tries to call her doctor, but he isn’t there. I want to apprise the others of the old man’s condition so I say quite possibly the worst thing I could in that context: “He’ll probably lose his leg.”
Leanne replies quickly: “I don’t want to hear details.”

Get close, but not too close. Maybe that’s what makes it possible to help.

On the main road into town, only about one kilometer from the hospital, the truck stops. We pass it but have no idea what the driver is doing. We can only hope he will follow us down the road to the hospital. Strangely, the truck sits on the side of the road for ten minutes before driving up to the hospital. We feel uneasy about the driver.

We pull into the area marked ‘Services d’Urgences’.

There is no doctor. In fact, there isn’t even space at the hospital and they won’t take the three injured men. We’re totally baffled – can they even refuse? Leanne calls Joseph (cf. ‘ministry pt. 2’ post). He says he will arrive in 10 minutes. The hospital staff seem restless (maybe because they won’t do anything to help?). The truck driver gets out and says his boss called to tell him to leave.

The old man is whimpering softly, doing the only thing I can expect him to do: bleeding. A lot. An acquaintance of his that we asked to accompany the old man is cradling the the man’s head. I’m surprised he’s held together this long. I’m so grateful he’s not yelling out in pain.

As I walk back toward the truck, I see something that makes me break into a run: the driver is ordering his workers in the truck-bed to roll out the injured. One of the workers yanks off the bloody sheet that was covering one of the men. They’re not… I yell out in Kirundi, “Ngarara! Ngarara!” Stop! It’s  a tricky word for me sometimes but this time I pronounce it cleanly. This time, no one laughs when I speak Kirundi. The men stop pushing at the injured men and stare down at me. I grab Morisho, our driver, who is just standing there watching. I say to him, “Tell them to wait two more minutes. Tell them not to move the men in the truck.”

Joseph does arrive in the next two minutes, and after some tense negotiating, we get the truck to follow our convoy to another public hospital. Joseph and I are in his car; Leanne and Morisho with the old man in the Land Cruiser. As we near the hospital, the truck pulls into a gas station. Again, total disbelief. We split up – Joseph and I turn around to find the truck, the others continue to the hospital.

When we find him, the truck driver refuses to go on. Not until he gets gas at this specific station. We press and press but it’s no use – his boss said so. Joseph gets the boss on the phone only to get yelled at. We convince the driver to promise to come to to the hospital after he gets gas.

At the hospital, the Land Cruiser is idle and no one is around it to help the old man. Leanne is waiting to talk to a doctor who is chatting with a couple. It’s hard to tell if they’re just bantering or if he really is dispensing medical advice. The doctor (I assume) is in a pristine white coat, a stethoscope wrapped around the back of his neck like a towel after a workout. 

Leanne tries to explain the situation, asks him to see the old man’s injury.
The doctor, says, “We cannot help. We have no places. The hospital is full. There is a line and we have to help the other people first.”

This goes on for a bit. Leanne gives one more try.
“But there has to be a triage system. How do you prioritize the patients?”
Same response.
She turns to me and says, “What are we supposed to do? Just put him on the ground and leave him to die?”

This far into my stay in Burundi, I have not seen the need to get angry. Things are already so ridiculous and difficult, it hardly seems worth it to be genuinely mad about something. Frustrated – for sure, but not angry. Until today.

After Leanne stalks away, angrier than I have ever seen her, I approach the doctor and invite him just to see the man, telling him I wasn’t asking for anything more than that. Instead of responding to my words, the doctor spins toward me and asks hotly “Why did she get angry?”

I think there must be some misunderstanding so I try again: “This is not about her. You and I, we are having a conversation. There is a man that needs your help.”

The doctor replies, “No, why did she get angry like that? That is not right.”

I don’t believe it. All that matters to him is a personal dispute that he really has no right to be upset about – he’s the one not doing his job. I wanted to punch him right on his shiny nose and then whip the stethoscope he has pretentiously draped over his shoulders around his neck to drag him over to see the old man. It takes a lot to suppress my rage. I turn away without another word and leave. We still need to find a hospital. As I walk away, I hear the doctor say, “You can leave him on the ground there and we will look at him later. There is a system to these things…”

The Land Cruiser goes ahead. As Joseph and I are pulling out of the lot, the truck arrives. Keep going, we tell the driver. To a third hospital.

When Joseph and I arrive at the next hospital, the Land Cruiser’s back door is open. Leanne and Morisho are standing nearby and a large crowd is watching. Two ex-pat doctors, a bald man with blue eyes and a mustached fellow, are giving directions. Leanne smiles as we walk up: “They will take them. They have no places either, but after seeing the injury, they said they would take them. We’ll see what happens.”

We mill around for a while. It’s already past 5 p.m. and even at a hospital, people expect to leave work. The doctor says, if we operate on him now, we can save the leg. If tomorrow, we amputate.

There is some hesitation amongst the hospital staff about treating peasants who probably cannot pay. Leanne takes out what money she has on her, and the bald doctor (Théo, from Germany) lectures the administrative staff on the expectation that anyone in Burundi would casually carry on their person 300,000 Burundian francs, the amount for the deposit. Finally, the doctor gets to work. 

I’m glad to learn everyone will recover to an extent. The other two looked worse than they were; I don’t know what happened to the boy. I do wonder about the old man though. An injury like that, even if he can walk normally again, would take at least nine months to heal. Food prices are rising, jobs are scarce. If you’re an old peasant man with no income and no mobility, what do you do? What do the people around you do? 

And this kind of accident happens all the time. What happens to the next old man? Who actually gets to use the “public” hospitals? Which organizations’ vehicles will drive past again without stopping? Doctors Without Borders? The Red Cross? (To their credit, the Red Cross funds this last hospital because it actually treats people. It’s the only one they support.)

The next day, Leanne visits the hospital and finds out the old man has to stay for five to six weeks. She has to negotiate with the hospital how to pay for his fees, which she will do out of her pocket. I plan on contributing. We have a conversation that ends like this:

“If this happens again, in a week or two, would you still stop?”
“Yes. You have to. Don’t you?”
“Sure. But nobody else did.”

 

A few other things I want to mention:

Leanne and I would make pathetic doctors. Our diagnoses were way off. That’s why we do aid work instead.

When someone at the hospital asks one of the young men who was steering the bike what happened, he replies that he veered off into the ditch to avoid an oncoming car that was passing another car. That couldn’t be possible because if there was such a car, we would have hit it.

Later on the night of the accident, one of Leanne’s security guards asks, “What happened to the bike?”

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16
Aug
08

ministry, pt. 3

Tuesday, August 5, 2008.

Something has happened to Counselor Félix. The last two times I’ve seen him, he has completely changed. His glasses, while still roundish, are quickly evolving corners. Gone are the earthtones, the whiff of ideology he wore like cologne. Now it’s creaseless white button-downs and understated polka dot ties. At his waist, he has a horizontal hip-holster for his cellphone.

I resist staring and turn to my left to look at…Enzo. Enzo the legend. Enzo the Italian priest-farmer-cook. Enzo who has a meeting later in the day with the First Lady (of Burundi) but wanted to stop by the Ministry of Foreign Relations first to plead his case against a local bishop who closed one of his facilities – motive: greed.

“They can’t just close down my carpentry shop like that! The rule of law!” Enzo proclaims.
“Yes!” shouts Félix.

Or something like that. It’s easy to forget the pettiness of Burundian politics when it doesn’t involve me. Instead, I focus on the conversation and I am almost in tears from holding back the tears that should accompany the laughter I can’t let out. Somehwere along the way, Enzo and the Counselor have decided that animal metaphors are the most sincere and efficient way to communicate. Félix has his hands flapping over his head: a bunny. Enzo chuckles, responds with some chortling that I think is suppose to be a pig or a boar and says something about butter. I am really hoping there is someone next door.

Félix switches it up, puts his flapping hands against his cheeks. A fish. I never see that coming. I’m totally stunned. It’s all brilliant. It goes on and on. Enzo tosses in some Kirundi proverbs that sends Félix’s assistant into hysterics.

Enzo’s friend, Alberto, is sitting in a chair in the back with a funny kid-like expression on his hexagenarian face. Alberto tells sidesplitting stories about working in the Congo and with MSF (Doctors Without Borders), amongst other organizations. Most of the tales end with Alberto replaying some vulgar gesture he made toward the other party, a gesture I can’t helping giggling at everytime.

Finally, Enzo gets up to leave and remembers that I have been sitting next to him for a reason. “Ah yes, you know Jefferson? We are going to work together. He is trying to get his organization registered and he wants to follow-up. Can you help with that?” Enzo says.

Félix: “Jefferson? I know Jefferson! We see each other all the time. He’s like family! He’s one of us already!”

 

The next day

I go back to the Ministry building, alone, but I’m not there to see Félix, at least not the person. I’m here to see his word in action. My file should be working along the Ministry of Solidarity by now. (The Ministry of Foreign Relations is on the sixth floor, the Ministory of Solidarity on the second. There are elevators but they are just for show.) I walk over to the reception and ask if my organization’s file has been sent down from the Ministry of Foreign Relations. The reply is curt:

“We don’t have any file like that here.”
Uh-oh.
“Do you have a receipt for the file being transferred?”
Uh…

This kind of thing has happened to me enough where I don’t even bother to argue. I just leave. The following day, I go directly to the reception of the Ministry of Foreign Relations and ask if my file was ever transferred. Three young women in pastel polos have now firmly entrenched themselves in the spots once occupied by older more serious staff. One of them looks through the giant ledger they use to keep track of each organization that signs in. No one ever remembers my organization’s name (Heartland Alliance), so I stand there and wait a half-hour, staring proudly at the functioning printer cable, a shiny new item amidst all the old discolored plastic. Finally, the woman spots my organization’s name and says, “Oh, there it is, from two weeks ago. That’s why I couldn’t find it. I think we were supposed to send out the file, but we didn’t. We’ll do that now.”

Félix!

10
Aug
08

congo pt. 1 (continued)

Tuesday, July 22, 2008.

(My mom’s birthday. Sorry I didn’t write, Mom – I was in the Congo.)

This is a work trip, so in two days, we crash around Bukavu – just me, Sean, and the humongous drum that he bought in Burundi, boucing around in the covered bed of a truck where the seats are two benches that face each other; I get out feeling kind of battered every time. In all, we meet with about ten different agencies and their practitioners to get a sense of what’s going on in the region and how we might help out. I don’t need to reiterate the details of those meetings, except to say that not everyone’s stories line up, but I will mention one place in particular.

Panzi Hospital (please visit http://www.panzihospitalbukavu.org/) is located a few kilometers into the hills of Bukavu. The road there is so dusty all the leaves on the plants lining the road are completely coated. It’s like the whole scene has been spray-painted sienna except for the female pedestrians wrapped in a splash of vivid colors. From what I hear, Panzi is one of the best-equipped hospitals in the Great Lakes region. Unfortunately, its favorable condition correlates to the need for such a facility.

Walking into Panzi, the first few patients we see would belong in most general hospitals. A few people on crutches, bandages on various parts of the body for others. I do notice though that they are very young. As I have started to learn more about eastern Congo, I start to ask myself what caused the injuries that I’m seeing. That boy on crutches? Probably not a skateboarding accident. Would I want to know the answer?

Sean and I meet with the deputy Director because the real Director is at a conference in Germany. The deputy Director leads us around the facility.

Panzi responds directly to a need in the region: treatment for victims of sexual violence. The term « systematic rape » is sometimes used to describe what is happening in eastern Congo. Women are the principal victims in a conflict that includes armed groups from several countries, groups that operate with relative impunity. No matter how I try to add up the motives of these groups, I cannot see what would lead to the brutal suffering they inflict on women. Some stories I wish I had not heard.

As the tour moves on, and I feel more awkward and sad, we enter wards full of recuperating women. All are rape victims, our guide confirms. We visit the operating rooms, where shiny metal stirrups are already set up. The sterile tiled rooms, the equipment – it all feels cold and menacing.

Toward the end of the tour, we come up to the side of a large shed, almost like a hangar. When we get around to the front and look inside, I am startled by a massive congregation of women and children seated at bench-tables, a few with baskets and other crafts in front of them. Up to the moment when we look into the hangar, I did not hear any sound that would suggest so many people were just around the corner. It’s kind of eerie. Later on, Sean says he thinks there were over a thousand women and children there. Sean and I end up buying a few of the crafts. Big laughs when I flip one of the baskets over and put it on my head. Sean says, « You knew that was going to happen. » Sure, but if you know me, you know I would put something on my head every chance I get (even bike helmets, on occasion).

On the way out, a chubby kid with the puffiest shiniest cheeks I have ever seen just grabs my hand and starts walking with me. Two fat little moons – they are so perfectly round, I don’t even want to pinch them, lest I disturb them. The boy walks with us all the way to the car and then waves us goodbye.

 

It’s been about two-and-a-half weeks since the visit now, and I have formulated two project proposals to pass on to HQ to see which one might be more workable. Here they are:

Congo Plan One:

Congo Plan Two:

 

07
Aug
08

congo, pt. 1 – bukavu, south kivu province

Monday, July 21 to Wednesday, July 23, 2008.

We’re getting near the border between Rwanda and the Congo (DRC). Below us stretches Lake Kivu, and I can’t believe what I’m seeing.

Everyone told us to stay at the Orchid and this is why:

It’s so hard to process what I read and hear about this region from seeing the lake. We had been expecting the worst. Early on during the ride, Sean and I joked about being taken hostage by some Congolese rebels. Who would try to escape? Who would get away? I smiled as I looked down: running shoes.

Congo is chaos, a place where paying bribes is slightly more justifiable because no one is paid their salaries. It doesn’t mean there is nothing good there or that nothing works or that productive work isn’t being done – it just means it’s all quite messy.

A useful contrast: the Rwandan checkpoint and the Congolese one. On the Rwandan side, everyone lines up, there is a window through which an immigration officer asks somewhat relevant questions, exchanges a few pleasant words, stamps our passports and then off we go. The minute we get off our bus on the Congolese side, a man in civilian clothes catches one of us by the arm and says, “Come with me, you have to get your vaccines.” He’s quite insistent and we’re kind of annoyed. We push him away and head right for the visa office.

Inside the office are three desks arranged in an ‘L’ with border police and would-be travelers buzzing around. There is a lot of pointing and page-turning. No one seems very happy. An officer sees us and motions us into a separate office where two officers are calmly doing nothing: the foreigner’s line. We are surprised when we get our passports back with visa stamps and signatures and have only paid the visa fees. I secretly feel like an asshole for that.

As soon as we step out of the visa office, the same man in civilian clothing accosts us and tells us to go to the vaccination booth. We refuse, but then a health ‘official’ (guy in a lab-coat) says we must go to show our vaccination cards. We are bowled over by the legitimacy of his white lab-coat. We decide to get this over with.

So we trudge down to a little tent where three lab-coated men are inside: one is standing and rubbing soapy hands together; another is seated behind a small table; the third is standing next to the second. The two men by the table record our names into a ledger and ask for our vaccination cards. Sean’s is a computer printout and relatively easy to decipher. Mine is the yellow booklet that folds out like an elaborate pop-up book. The inspecter never quite figures it out and I notice he never gets to the middle sections where my past vaccinations are actually recorded. We get our cards back and are about to leave when the man standing next to the table calls us back, extends his right hand, and says, “Please, a little present?” As we step out of the tent, I wonder if the tent and all that build up is just an ornate pretense to ask the question: “Do you have some money for us?”

Once we get out of the vaccination booth, we head back toward the bus. A Congolese policewoman sitting near the booth spots us. She watches me approach, smirks, and turns her head away as I walk past.

« Chinois! » she hisses.

We are in the Congo.

 

The other night:

My future roommate/fellow home renovator, Julie, and I are sharing anecdotes about the bathroom cockroaches (well, she was talking about « beetles ») before dinner and wondering why people naturally flinch at insects. We are surprised at the disproportionate reactions people have over such small creatures, although we agree that the geckos darting wildly all over the walls are rather cute. Julie put forth a very brave argument about overcoming those involuntary reactions by rationally concluding the harmlessness of the insect (in most cases). Is she right? Does rationality have any place in this equation? Is there something wrong with being scared?

There is sometimes a fascination with being tough around here. On occasion, I, too, have to project that personality – strictly for work, of course. But who are we kidding? Let’s get over ourselves and calm our romanticized notions of roughing it or being « cowboys. » Africa could use some more honesty from its guests (and in general?). Sometimes, I wonder if ‘Africa’ would get half the attention that it does (which is already pitifully little) from development workers if it weren’t such a beautiful and spellbinding place where our playground fantasies can be played out.

On one of my first days in Bujumbura, I was walking down a dirt path when I came across a man laying on his back on the ground, his limbs in a contorted position; he was clearly unconscious. I wondered if was dead.

I had almost stepped on him.

His was not a resting pose. He was covered in the red dust of the street, which was why I didn’t see him until the last moment. I felt a shock at seeing him like that and just missing planting my foot on his head. I guess I would be surprised if I almost stepped on any person, conscious or not, but I found myself asking why I was startled. I even chided myself for it. Now I look back and can’t understand that question or that reaction. Why would I ever want to be unflinching at the sight of something like that?

 

 

 

03
Aug
08

congoing

Note:

I am somewhat sensitive to the risk that a personal and anecdotal blog like this one may be viewed as a legitimate source of information based on its access to the situation « on the ground. » I have avoided a more rigorous treatment of the subjects I am here to engage, like the issue of child soldiers, female combattants and soon, the fiasco that is the Congo. Some topics I don’t treat because of personal or professional reasons. I don’t think I am very knowledgeable about the above topics yet, nor am I equipped to properly analyze them. If at some later date, I do acquire those skills, then maybe I will have a blog that isn’t named after me. For now, I am content to have the wide-eyed wonder of an amateur with seats that are almost too close. After all, I came to traumatized Burundi so I wouldn’t have to go to (possibly) traumatizing grad school yet.

 

Monday, July 21, 2008.

Exactly one month after my arrival in Burundi, I am on a bus out of the country. I am on a work trip to Bukavu in South Kivu province of the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) with my colleague Sean, who is visiting from Chicago.

Before I leave for Bukavu, I stop by the cafe where Gabriel, the Greek baker, dispenses sound advice and good coffee. I mention my trip to him and while he grabs me a croissant, he gives me a number to call if I want to hire a car and driver. He also tells me I should stay at the Orchid hotel in Bukavu (everyone tells me this).

He says, « When you are at the hotel, it’s so beautiful and calm. »

But I say, « But what’s behind, away from the lake, is so terrible. »

He says, « When you are looking out on the lake, you forget everything else. There you are at the edge of Paradise and Hell, » and I know we aren’t talking about religion.

At first, I try to rent a car so Sean and I can drive to Bukavu. The trip is about four to five hours if we pass through Rwanda. Estimates for passing through Uvira on the Congo side range from six hours to “Eternity,” and always given with this warning: « Don’t go that way. »  I ask around for quotes for a car and driver and get prices of $150-200 USD per day. Contrast that with the cost of renting the same set-up in Burundi, which is about $35 USD a day. People say the high prices are because of this or that fee but what they really mean is, « You have to give me a hell of a lot of money before I drive there. » Our budget for the trip is only several hundred dollars. I ask about renting a car and driving ourselves but we won’t get one, people say, because no one would be willing to let a car go to the Congo without supervision. Once we find a bus company in town that goes through Rwanda, we get two tickets for a total of $10 USD each.

Our bus passes through the Hutu-stronghold province of Cibitoke, which is northwest of Bujumbura. The landscape is startingly flat. Even more stunning is the number of passengers on the bus. Usually, in Burundi and many parts of Africa, the bus simply would not leave town until it was crammed with five or six people to a row. On this bus, some rows only have three people. When there are empty « seats » like this, the driver sometimes cruises around town, honking wildly and slapping the side of the vehicle to attract passengers. In this case, we just take off. I think that’s the first time I’ve been on a van/bus (matatu) where we don’t even hit the displayed seating capacity, much less the inflated one. By the time we get to the border of Burundi and Rwanda, there are only four passengers left, and we still continue on. The meaning is pretty clear: no one wants to go to the Congo.

We arrive at the border around noonish. It’s sunny, it’s warm, the landscape is gorgeous. Sean and I get out and go to the border patrol office to get our Burundi exit-stamps. Sean gets his and crosses over to the Rwandan side with the van. I step up to the window and hand over my passport, which I have opened to the page with my entry-stamp. Instead of looking at the stamp, the officer, a blue-clad policeman with a raw cut under his right eye, flips through to the other pages, looking for something. Did he not see that I had generously done half the work for him by opening to the relevant page? But he keeps flipping, turning the passport this way and that. The cut under his eye smiles and frowns as he concentrates and narrows his eyes. He stops flipping. The cut is frowning. He says, « Where is your visa? »

I try again and turn back to the page with the entry-stamp. He shakes his head. « No, that is not the right visa. That is only for three days. It is expired. Your stay in Burundi is illegal so you cannot leave. »

It takes me a second to realize what is going on. A country that won’t let a person leave because of an expired visa? As if I need another reminder that I am not in the U.S. I try to reason with the officer, try to invoke the infalliability of the empirical evidence before us: this is a stamp that I received upon entry for which I paid the fee of $20 USD, hence I have a visa, right?

« No. »

« Ok, » I say. « So what form do I fill out to get the visa? Who do I need to see? Is it this office here? » I ask, pointing to the chair next to him.

« No, you have to go back to Bujumbura. »

Here, I might say that my blood ran cold at his answer but that is strictly a Northern Hemisphere thing, where the rules are rigid and the weather cold enough to give the expression meaning. But in Burundi, it’s just too hot for blood to ‘feel’ cold and rules…what rules?

So I try to appeal to a higher authority. « Where is your commander? » I say.

« No. »

Right. I look all around. The scenery again: bright, green, beautiful…and totally empty. There doesn’t seem to any suggestion that another person will pass by today. I turn back to the officer.

« I cannot go back today. I have to go to the Congo. » I don’t believe I’m saying those words. I say, « You really don’t want me here, talking to you all day. » He has no idea the danger he is in. In fact, it turns out, he really just has no idea.

I say, « Ok, so tell me what I need to get the visa. This is a border crossing. »

« Go back to Bujumbura. »

I look around again. Not a person in sight.

« No, tell me how we can solve this here. » Ok, I am officially trying to pay you off.

« You need a visa and you don’t have one. »

« Yes, I know that. You don’t want me here and I don’t want to be here, but I’m not going back to Bujumbura, so let’s find a ‘solution’. » Is he for real? Is he this dense?

He sits back, looks up at me. He looks confused. Then, « Oh, oh, ok, come into my office and we will discuss. »  The cut under his eye is beaming.

I wonder briefly what he saw inscribed in my expression that made him understand. Was it desperation? A propensity for conspiracy? Or did he just need a few moments to get it?

I enter the office from the side door and walk over to the officer’s right but he doesn’t look up at me. He extends his open left hand across his body, still looking out. He is insisting on secrecy. I feel a little ridiculous. I am hoping Sean can’t see me. I look out the window, expecting to see an army truck pull up to arrest the corrupt foreigner. No luck – still no one, except Sean (looking toward the office) and the van.

« Ok, no problem. Give me something to get a few beers. A little present. »

 I love this – he still feels the need to dress up the bribe, as if I care what he spends it on. I wish he had said that he was going to pay his kids’ school fees instead – that’s what everyone in the Congo says. I already know I only have a 10,000 franc bill in my wallet – about $8 USD. That’s going to buy a lot of beers. Sadly, I’m going to be party to both corruption and alcoholism.

We drive on to Bukavu.

 

(I find out later from a friend that he knows the commander of that border post. When he hears my story, he tells me I should have called him because he could have gotten me through. Turns out the commander is an old friend of his. The lesson is clear: next time I find myself about to bribe someone, I should call everyone listed in my cellphone first.)

In the next few days, I will write a post about the trip to eastern Congo. Hopefully.
I’ve been super-busy and kind of run-down recently, but this blog is a good space to gain perspective so I’ll  try to keep it going. Thanks for reading.