Archive for September, 2008


housing crisis

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

A little while ago, I got my garden going (pumpkin leaves are really interesting, by the by). A collective decision was made to add a roof for the seedlings, so we built one. Here it is before the roof and after a week with.


Here it is after I came home today:



Now I’ve dug out a third plot for herbs. We built a roof for that one, too, out of bamboo. With the rainy season picking up, the roof probably has a two-week lifespan. That might be considered average here.


no motorcycles

Monday, September 22, 2008

I got my driver’s license! It’s such a beautiful piece of paper.
I don’t know why, but people laugh at my picture a lot.

Unfortunately, I forgot to ask for permission to drive motorcycles. Someday, I will try to expound on the differences between riding a motorcycle in Rwanda, Burundi and the DRC.


driving permitted

When I took Drivers Ed. (Driver’s Ed.?), there was a lesson on the ‘driver’s checklist’, a series of quick equipment-checks before starting up the car. I apply that list to the bug:

  • Hand brake: does not work.
  • Seat belt: too short on the driver’s side, too long on the passenger side.
  • Gas: maybe?
  • Head-lights: ornamental.
  • High beam lights: a bit tired.
  • Dashboard: non-existent.
  • Rear view mirror: there is one.
  • Large back-cushion so my legs reach the pedals: CHECK!

I love this car, because even if it’s efficacy is questionable, it’s concept is sublime. There is not a feature in the car that does not contribute toward displacement. The absence of a few key features (Power-steering? What?) only means it’s got “potential.”

It can be a little frightening on the road alongside all the SUVs, Land Cruisers and military vehicles. More than once, a military truck has pulled alongside and the driver stared down hard at me. I keep expecting to be pulled over, partly because the license plate is so worn, you can’t make out the numbers. I keep wondering what they want, but maybe they just want to look. The sense of vulnerability and fragility keeps me alert. I reassure myself often by thinking that if I run into a pedestrian, the car will just bounce off without harm to man or machine.


Thursday, September 18, 2008

I pull up into the parking lot of the police station for motorist issues and park the car in front of a bench-full of Burundians (it’s never clear if people are waiting for entry or exit). Policemen in two-piece cobalt blue uniforms and frumpy felt berets lugging AK-47s mill around a wide gate. I lock the cardoor and walk away; I’m here to get a Burundian driver’s license.

(A I’m typing, my iTunes just randomly pulled up The Cure’s “Mint Car.”)

When I walk through the gate, the first thing I see is rows and rows of rusty crumpled old cars and motorcycles. Some must have been there for years because they have sunk into the ground, probably from repeated rainy seasons. In the back row, I spot a red VW bug. A few cars over, there is a white one. I’m not sure why there are so many cars sitting around but I make a mental note to come back. Bujumbura is like a massive garage sale sometimes.

Beyond the cars, the space opens up into a large courtyard with a three-story tower in the middle, ringed by two-story concrete blocks of offices. The offices have numbers on them, but other than that, there is no indication of where to go or what to do. But it’s too late. The minute I walked in, all eyes turned on me. I can’t break stride now. I just have to…what? Where?

The office blocks are elevated from the courtyard so as I walk past, dozens of police officers are staring down at me, some smirking, some are not – at all. I spot two who are greeting each other on the stairway up to the office level. As they’re shaking hands, I walk up, work through some Kirundi greetings and hold my hand out. “I’m Jeff.”

I imagine the combination of curiosity, amusement and authority must be quite pleasant because so far, this approach works pretty well. After the giggling simmers down, I ease in some French and explain “Ndashaka un permis de conduire. Ngiye hehe?” (‘I want a driver’s permit. Where do I go’?) The two officers confer and try to decide between themselves whether I need to go through the whole application process or if I have an international license. I tell them I have an Illinois license. Then I explain about Chicago and the connection to Obama. Big smiles, thumbs up. Thanks, I know. One of the officers, says, “Okay,” and he motions me to the office in front of us. I step in and there is an old man on a chair in front of a desk and a robust officer sitting across. Upon seeing me enter, the old man gets up to offer me the chair. I try to explain to him that he can stay a bit longer and I’ll just stand, but he’s already up and the officer isn’t stopping him. He seems almost apologetic for having sat in the chair I am about to occupy. It’s weird, always makes me a bit uncomfortable. Once the old man leaves, I sit down and see that set against the wall is a single bed, a thin foam mattress over a fatigued metal frame. I just hope the guards use it only for naps.

After chatting with me for a while and making me think he’s the guy, he’s the one who’s going to process my application (is there one?), he gets up and says that we have to go upstairs. I wonder why we talked for so long then.

Upstairs, he guides me to Office No. 1, the Commandant’s office. He tells me I need to get the Commandant’s approval first before I can apply for the permit. “Approval.” Sure. Unfortunately, the Commandant’s door is locked so I stand around waiting for a good hour. As I’m waiting around, I fall into conversation with the officer next to me, who is also waiting for the Commandant. While we’re both turned away from the office doors, looking out onto the courtyard, he whispers to me, “Can you get me a job?”

I ask him what’s wrong with being a police officer. He tells me he doesn’t like it, that he doesn’t make enough to support his family of four. I ask how much he makes, and he says police make about 50,000 to 70,000 Burundian francs a month (about 40-60 USD). Soldiers get about the same. That’s about 500 to 700 USD a year, not too far above the 400 USD per capita GDP average for Burundi. With rising food prices…sometimes, I find it hard to blame these guys if they want to make a quick buck off a trumped-up traffic violation. It’s a shitty thing to say, but there aren’t really sides to this. There’s very poor and too poor. I’m not so quick to assign right and wrong in these kinds of situations anymore. Understanding is pretty hard sometimes.

At noon, someone emerges from next door, Office No. 2, to tell me to come back in two hours, after lunch. I ask that they transmit my request so the Commandant can sort out the “approval” before we meet. They promise me they will.

When I return, I head right back to Office No. 1 and am told that the Commandant will get in at 3 p.m., another hour.

On the doorway to Office No. 2, there is a sign that reads, “Everyone must pass through the door. All foreigners must pass through the window.” I find this too funny, so I point it out to the nearest police officer. It doesn’t seem like he gets it (it’s a subtle French gaffe) so I walk over to the window and start to step through the opening. Everyone freezes in mid-task and looks at me, mouths half-open. “I’m a foreigner. I’m supposed to pass through the window. That’s what the sign says.” One of the non-officers pulls the sign off the door and reads, “…foreigners must pass through the window.” She says, “That’s what the sign says. Is he supposed to go through the window?”

It’s a ridiculous ploy, but the situation is no less bizarre. I’m in a large government complex surrounded by hundreds of policemen with little structure and a very arbitrary sense of justice. One mistake and I’ll never get what I want. The only thing to do is to diffuse the situation, no matter how asinine the tactic. Getting a smile is all I ask, all I need and maybe, all I can hope for. It may not be all I want, but without it, I’ll never get anywhere. If I willfully reduce the interaction to a joke, I sacrifice complexity but gain something much more valuable: a clear goal, a chance for a concrete result. I make a small mental apology to intelligence and dignity and jump through the window.

Laughter and head-shaking ensue. If I act like a clueless moron/foreigner, I have a better chance of succeeding – that’s so messed up. After making sure that I’m supposed to talk to the Commandant, that someone notified him of my request, I walk back out through the door.

For the next hour, I lean over the railing, watching the activity in the courtyard. I watch cars roll in and out. Curiously, I see two fire engines pull up and park. There are no fire-fighting trappings on the trucks. (The complex used to be a fire station. The tower in the middle of the yard is where they hang the firehoses, which are still there.) I can’t think of any reason why the police would drive around in those elephantine clunkers but it’s amusing to see.

At three, a sedan pulls in. The driver is in a light-blue short-sleeve shirt. I’m sure it’s the Commandant. But then he parks the car across the yard from me and a soldier emerges from the back. After about three minutes of me just watching the car and who else might be get out, the driver starts honking. He doesn’t stop. People start to look around. What does he want? I look at the people around me, but they’re just as puzzled. For some reason, I know he’s honking at me, so I point at myself. A hand reaches out of the car and waves me over.

As I’m walking across the yard, I wonder how I’m supposed to request approval. When I reach the car, I confirm that he is indeed the Commandant. He says yes and then asks me for a piece of paper. On it he scribbles something I can’t make out. “Is that all I need? I can get a Burundian license now?”

“Yes.” Approval granted.

This story would have an amazing ending befitting its drama if I had actually received the license the same day. Getting something so complicated accomplished would have been a major victory. As it turns out, once I get my approval, the Commandant drives away. When I go to Office No. 4 to have my application processed, they tell me the Commandant needs to sign other parts of the permit, so I’ll have to wait a few days. Fine. Just a few more days. That’s still pretty good.

I leave the compound feeling confident that I’ll have a license soon. Under the watchful eyes of the police and the benchful of people still waiting for something, I pop open the door to my car and drive home.

(Tomorrow’s the day.)


learning on the bug

Monday, September 9, 2008

I have to avoid talking about work right now. It’s almost the three-month marker, which means the end of the first quarter of the project and the end of the “assessment phase.” But there are many reasons why work isn’t a fruitful topic right now. For one, it’s a huge reason (a good one, of course) why I haven’t updated in a while. Work is also so full of intrigue, betrayal, menace and infantile posturing that I have to be very careful about what I say. So I’m not going to talk about it. Instead, I’m going to talk about my car. (It may be that the more whimsical these posts get, the more intense the (hidden) work situation is. Let’s hope not.)

The Wiki article has a list of the different appellations for the car. In some parts of the world, it’s a ‘bug’ or a ‘beetle’. In this part of the world, it’s a frog, a very appropriate name given that the car croaks more than it purrs. My roommate, Julie, calls it a grasshopper. I’m not sure about that one. I won’t say anything though because she’s come a long way from calling a cockroach a ‘beetle’; now she calls them “Fred.”

I think it’s the roundness of the car that makes me swoon. I just want to give it a big fat hug every time I see it. There’s a certain ring to the way the metal reverberates when I open a door or the hood or trunk that says 1970’s. I think that’s what people call “class.”

Some Burundians stare a little bit when I drive by but I think they are more curious about me than the car. Ex-pats however do double-takes and have huge grins when I drive by. I love it.  It’s probably a response to the hearty smile I have on my face as I rattle by. You and they and I all know this is the sweetest car in Bujumbura, and I’m driving it.

The first thing I think of when I squeeze open the chrome cardoor handle is, “This is awesome.” It’s not ‘awesome’ like, “Whoa, I found five bucks in my other pocket!” It’s awesome like I am inside the Chartres Cathedral or the Sears Tower for the first time and for all their philosophical and architectural flaws, it’s still pretty darn swell. And grand. And well, awesome.

The first thing any passenger notices once seated in the car is that it smells like a gas tank. There’s really not much more to say about that; the less the better. It might explain why I keep running out of gas though.

Running out of gas is inevitable in this car – there is no fuel guage. It most likely has terrible mileage, too. So far, I have run out of gas four times, the last time this evening when I had just entered the gate to my house. While this phenomenon may seem catastrophic and contrary to the purpose of a car (‘Pt. A to Pt. B’), it reveals a neat fact of Burundi (and probably many parts of Africa). If a car breaks down, people will gravitate toward it. While this can be a little intimidating given the circumstances, a decisive gesture of the thumb toward the back of the vehicle sets in motion a host of ready and willing pushers. It’s like the trust-building exercise where you expect people to catch you as you fall back. In Burundi, I trust that if my car breaks down or runs out of gas, four sets of hands will catch the back of the car before it rolls off a cliff and slowly guide it toward a gas station.

These experiences teach new valuable skills: the skill of negotiating with gas station attendants to fill the empty water bottles I store in the car for this purpose; the skill of refueling with water bottles; most importantly, the skill of explaining how I keep running out of gas. It’s not that hard to understand, really. If it doesn’t damage my newfound resolve to be on time (in the face of all logic), generally, I find it a worthwhile experience.

When I broke down as I was driving up to the house tonight, my security guards jumped into action. I find out that Dieudonné, my guard who was advising me on gardening, is also a mechanic.

“Do you know how to fix cars?”
“Really? Are you a mechanic?”
“You’re so talented! Why are you my security guard?”

Back when I first started driving this car, I couldn’t figure out how to shift into reverse. I know – that sounds blatantly ridiculous. It’s true though – I just could not shift into reverse. I learned this because I kept moving forward as I was looking backward. It was like the worst car insurance commercial over and over again. Turns out, to shift into reverse, instead of moving the gear to the right and down, I have to push down on the stick and shift to the left and down. Now who would have ever thought of that? Well, I didn’t, but I did think to ask my house team to give me a push. Being pushed backward to turn around is terribly awkward. I have to sit in the driver’s seat and steer but every time I look forward, I see three contorted faces, straining from the task of getting me oriented in the right direction, lunging toward me with each effort. When I finally accelerate away with a stupid bashful smile on my face, I look in the mirror and see my house staff waving to me, smiling brightly. They must be so happy to see me leaving.


Next: A report on how the car drives.


the magnificent bug

Tuesday, September 2, 2008.

This is the car I drive now. If I’m going to stick out, I might as well do it in style.

Oh my goodness!


a house, at last.

Saturday, August 30, 2008

What have Burundi and I been up to lately?

Let’s see.
I was in eastern Congo again a week and a half ago, and I made friends with the border guards. The official threat level in Uvira was ‘Orange’, according to the U.N.
There was a BBC report of a plot against the leader of the National Liberation Front (FNL), the last armed rebel group in Burundi. Whether the threat is credible or just a negotiating ploy is unclear.
Tensions are building ahead of the elections (here, not in the U.S.). The International Crisis Group released this report on Burundi: 

I’m wondering if what I’m seeing is a country falling apart again, unable to resolve petty political differences, and resurrecting the specter of ethnic strife (a sneaky census has been making news for its focus on ethnic identity) for personal gain. I wonder about all that and realize I’ll be gone in mid-2009, before the real developments occur. Is this just an interlude?

I had an ice cream cone (with ice cream inside!), and that was magnificent.
Oscar, the Rwandan pastor, was in town and we had lunch.
HQ and I have opted for Congo Plan #2 (no, really), so I am now car shopping. I think it’s a pretty safe bet to say whatever car I end up with will be the largest vehicle I have ever driven.
I ended up in a religious procession in a rural province about an hour north of Bujumbura, which then landed me on television.
A monkey walked alongside me on the road the other day. Figuring out which species now.
The police chief lost my passport. (I’m sure it’ll turn up soon…in Dubai.)
But most important of all…

I live in a house now.

I moved in about three weeks ago. I haven’t lived in a house since 2002, which is not that unusual, I suppose. In that time, I’ve rented or subletted nine apartments, which, unusual or not, is kind of exhausting. Along with the house, I have a house staff that I inherited from an American woman who just went back to the U.S. ‘Inherited’ isn’t the right word – I just wanted to make sure no one was going to become homeless just because I wasn’t anymore. I think paying their salaries is one of the better uses of my paychecks here. I did inherit all of her kitchen’s goodies: Zanzibari spices and herbs, a box of quinoa, Vietnamese sauces, mango tea (which is great crushed up in banana bread), coffee presses, and several kinds of vinegar. It’s like winning at Supermarket Sweep every time an expat leaves. 

My roommate, Julie, and I have been busy making improvements to the house. We’re going for 60’s suburban chic.

Some of the renovations were necessary: the frayed cables on the electric stove were making my cook nervous, the magenta paint just had to go – we picked orange, and Julie and Leanne (Leanne runs an NGO and Julie is interning there) decided to build a hut for our security guards. 

For the design, which I learn of later, they imagined something like the one at Leanne’s house. They ended up hiring Leanne’s painter to build the hut. I’m still a bit unclear why though. They asked for roundness, set back from the walls in a small clearing, an open space we can all hang out in. This is what we got:

It’s so cramped, the guards prefer to squat just outside the opening against the wall. Sometimes, I come home late at night, and there is a guard huddled against the wall next to the hut with a blanket drapped over his shoulders. It’s what we get when we ask a painter to build a structure. Of course he would say, “Yes,” he could do it. It’s always, “Yes.”

The consequences self-propogate: I come home one day and see that the painter is building the hut. Not knowing what it is supposed to be, I think, Great, he can help me construct my garden, too. I draw a diagram. He draws the same diagram – it’s the best confirmation I can get. And really, it couldn’t be simpler. Four wooden planks to form an enclosure that I can place soil in so I don’t have to dig up the grass. When I get home in the afternoon, I walk directly to the backyard. I’m totally confused: all I see is a skeletal frame of an enclosure made out of lengthy boughs, each one staked into the ground. I thought we drew about this. I thought we were on the same picture. If you take our drawings and did everything the opposite of what the concept suggests, that’s what I am seeing.

The next day, I come home and see a small trench has been dug up at one end of the beds. I find my gardener, Emmanuel, and try to explain to him that we will put dirt over the grass so he doesn’t (shouldn’t) have to dig anymore. He nods and says, “Yes.”

I wake up the following morning to the thup-thup of a hoe hitting the ground. It’s Emmanuel. He’s digging and digging. Thup-thup-thup. I walk out to him and watch. He’s turned over half of one bed already. After a few minutes, he spots me and stops. I walk over to him. Without a word, I take the hoe from him and start digging, too.


My first strokes lack the combination of precision and force of Emmanuel’s. In fact, I’m rather glad no one is dead from an errant swing. I don’t pull back very far so as to ensure (more like ‘improve’) accuracy. Dieudonné, one of our guards, abandons his post to supervise. “Watch out for your foot,” he says. Emmanuel takes over for a row, and I’m happy to watch and learn. I think Dieudonné is also happy I’m watching. Emmanuel pulls the hoe all the way over his head, lets it hang for a second and then comes down blindly, launching into a series of frenzied strokes. Dirt chunks fly around as he hews and hacks but he never misses. It goes quickly. My turn again. They readjust my stance and suddenly, it all comes together. I bring the hoe higher and higher. The strong morning sun feels good. Pieces of dirt dance around my feet.

A freakish storm hits the same day Emmanuel and I dig out the vegetable plots. There has been too much rain during the dry season and my roof leaks already. Everyone is very puzzled (beside the rain, Julie and I don’t quite know where the roof leaks are located). When lightning strikes, a burst of cool air sweeps through the house. It’s kind of terrifying, kind of neat. Thunderstorms do two things to the fauna at the house. One, it sweeps away all the neighborhood cats, who howl with the intensity of hungry babies at night. Two, it brings out the strangest animal sounds from the yard in the morning: rhythmic whistles, rolling clucks and clattering gutturals capped with a whoop. Unfortunately, I’ve never sighted the animals that produce the sounds but I’m betting I’ll see a blue horned-bullfrog the size of a unicorn hanging out by my window one day.

As for the flora, that may be one of the best things about this house. The yard is immense. If we chopped down all the trees, we could put five or six volleyball courts up comfortably; we could have a tournament. But I would never want to chop these trees down because they are promising me fruit. There are two mango trees, one with serious-looking fruits already. There are also two avocado trees. I say they’re avocado trees now, but there was much debate about one of them. You can see the fruit in question here, along with some fantastic bugs:

At first, I thought the fruits might be some kind of melon(?) or quince. Whenever someone (meaning everyone) said the fruit is an avocado, I would pull them over to the adjacent tree to show them a “real” avocado. At some point though, I just have to admit that I’m wrong and that I have two kinds of avocados. Two kinds. Sweet.

A couple photos of the yard:

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September 2008