01
Sep
08

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:

http://www.crisisgroup.org/library/documents/africa/central_africa/b53_burundi___renouer_le_dialogue_politique.pdf 

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.

thup-thup-thwap.

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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