Archive for February, 2009


rules of the road – burundi (hahahahaha), pt. 1

February 25, 2009

Léon is my Logistician. Before I came to Burundi, I would have had no clue what that title would entail, but now I have a decent idea. An example: not long ago, I received a text message from Léon at around 6 p.m. that read, “Please don’t forget the reception at the Ambassador’s at 6:30 p.m.” And you know what? I had forgotten. But what really gets me is that I had never mentioned the reception (for the now-State-side and much-missed Caren – hello, Caren!) to Léon. But because he seems to know just about everyone in town, he knew that 1. There was a reception; 2. I had been invited; and 3. I had forgotten I had been invited. This is very clearly a complicated operation and only someone with a mind for logistics could anticipate all those steps. Without Léon, I would probably be doing something dumb like jumping through windows at a police station. More likely, I would probably be quietly weeping in the bathtub right now, wondering how to get out of it.

Léon does have one weak spot: he doesn’t know how to drive. This is actually an astounding deficiency for a Logistician – he can do everything but he can’t go anywhere. What is even more surprising is that Léon has a Burundian driver’s license. Right. He can’t drive but he’s allowed to. Welcome to Burundi!

(Photo by my House Chief, Léonidas)


So, today, I am giving Léon his first driving lesson. After a quick demonstration and an explanation of all the relevant buttons and levers, I let him take the wheel. We creep back and forth in the driveway, moving in an adequately straight line. Léon does fairly well except he’s a bit nervous about turning the steering wheel, in that he doesn’t. In fact, he’s terrified. Death-gripping the wheel would be fine if the car is perfectly aligned to go straight, but it’s not. One of our passes leaves the car leaning to the left. For every action, there is a note of apology.

“Dear Emmanuel (my gardener),

I am sorry.


You know that moment when you hope a car would slow down, stop, turn away? When the inevitable impact just seems so improbable? If you’ve ever (unintentionally) hit anything with a car at slow speeds, you might know what I’m talking about. And at the last moment, I think about flailing my arms, trying to say stop, brake, freine! I even imagine stomping on the passenger-side brake that car instructors usually have. But I do none of those things. I think, well, surely Léon sees what I’m seeing. Surely he isn’t going to plow into those pretty leaves.

Emmanuel, I am so sorry.



mount teza

February 15, 2009

Burundi doesn’t have many touristic activities:

“Have you seen the hippos yet?”
“Let’s go eat Indian food.”
“I ate there last night but ok.” 

Sometimes we have to really seek out our own fun. One option is to go for a hike, except all the nearby areas are still in rebel-held territories, even if they’ve promised to put down their guns. We did some intrepid organizing and notified the guerillas that we would be hiking around, so please don’t shoot us.

We decide to climb Mount Teza, which I had thought was the tallest mountain in Burundi. Turns out it’s the second tallest. And we actually don’t end up hiking Teza, we hike the peak next to it. The mountain next to the second highest peak in Burundi.

It’s a truly glorious day, and we haven’t had many recently. But today is perfect – big chunky clouds and glowing tea plantations lining the valleys. I’m not hoping to see many animals – the war was brutal on them, too – but we did sight a few fascinating birds and some giant earthworms, which were described as “muscular” (I later picked one up – ‘muscular’ is the correct word). And while not animals, we also saw a few broken clay pots, probably indicating old rebel campsites. Pretty neat stuff.




Walter helpfully points out the spot where your correspondent will slip and plunge an unhappy foot into that clean clean spring water.


Brandon: “This is where we’re going.”




Amy – wily henchman, photographer (did you or I take those shots up top?), navigator and soon to be taco-conspirator.


Not-Mt. Teza.




My friend Katherine sent me this link for photos of Usumbura (the colonial name for Bujumbura) from the 1950’s:

Some of the scenes in the photos are impressively similar to the city today. Many of the buildings shown still exist.

This post is maybe a stunning glimpse into Burundi’s colonial past, maybe another, less stunning, evasion on my part of considering my current surroundings.


masters of the moustache

January 27 – 31, 2009

I traveled to Addis Ababa at the end of January partly for work, partly because I wanted to see Addis (and eat Italian food). A quick story about a taxi ride will give a good idea about most of my trip, excluding sleeping on the roof of the Taitu hotel, oldest in Ethiopia. I quickly learned that its age is not a virtue. Room door won’t shut? Is there a problem?


Hotel rooftop view:


In pursuit of the great Bug:


Most taxis in Addis start relatively high with prices but the toothy old man garbed in a dusty old blazer doesn’t even try to bring up my price. He just ponders it for a second and says, “Let’s go.” Actually, I’m not sure he said that, but I imagine he did because I’m in the car and he starts it up to get us moving. He ignites the car by reaching under the steering wheel where there is a port for the key dangling from a few wiry whiskers. I notice and wonder about the little plastic purple switch also hanging near the wheel. We’re not two minutes into the ride when he somehow does not see an oncoming car and tries to turn left. I’m starting to realize I stay pretty calm in situations when I’m sure I’m about to die; I don’t even blink. Well, the car doesn’t hit us, we miraculously escape, blah blah blah, but then the driver starts apologizing profusely to me and to the other driver. He bows his head low with each apology, but he is still trying to drive! I put my head in my hands – crash position – I’m going to be ready next time.

There might have been a next time if we didn’t start moving uphill because he stops us on the incline. I look over at him and he’s already getting out. “Sorry,” he vaguely gestures, “sorry.” He pops open the hood and runs into a house on the right. He comes back out with a jugful of water, presumably with permission, and starts pouring it all over the engine block. Hissing steam rises up. He then pries open a valve and it explodes in a geyser of brown scalding water. He gives a shriek that is equal parts delight and terror and waits until the spring gives out. Then he pours in the water from the jug, waits, pours again. When he is out of water, he leans in, puts his mouth to the valve and starts blowing. Over and over again, he gives CPR to the car. This goes on for about fives minutes before water starts gushing out at another place under the hood.

I somehow manage to pull my eyes away from this fascinating scene long enough to notice that another taxi has pulled to a stop in front of us. I do not notice the box on top until a group of wailing women run out from a nearby house and surround the car. They take turns lunging forward to reach the box while several men untie its ropes and carry it down. I then realize it’s a short narrow coffin. The women throw themselves at the car, to the ground, and shriek impossibly loud. I don’t think I know very much about grief but I hadn’t seen anything like this. One woman though was slumped on her knees next to the car, hardly moving while the rest followed the box into the house. I could tell from the way the others did not look at her that she was the one closest to the deceased, perhaps the mother or the spouse.

I try not to stare at any point during the moving of the coffin and it is while turning to my right that I see a young man in a little shack with a large pile of branches with bright green leaves on them. The branches are all rolled up in bundles and I ask him to come over to the taxi to show them to me. He looks around, leans in and makes a chewing expression. Of course! Khat! Or ‘qat’, which is one of the 24 or so ‘Q’ without ‘U’ words allowed in Scrabble. I’m thinking of buying some when the driver hops back in, grin all a-toothy. He sees the vendor, asks a question, then grimaces and says “No no no…” I take it to mean he disapproves of the mild stimulant so I give up the idea of buying any. I’m rewarded by the driver reaching under for the purple plastic switch, which I now realize is a doorbell button. He presses it and the car gives out a triumphant whimper. Eekeek! Look out, we are going to make it to the top of this hill!

As we continue on, he starts telling me about khat, how to prepare it, what to drink while chewing it, and it’s then that I realize he was making faces at the vendor not because he had moral misgivings about khat but because the price was too high. He wanted me to pay $2.30 for a bunch instead of $2.50. I really like that he hardly cared what I paid for the fare but twenty cents more for khat? No deal. No way.


The University has added-significance for me because I have heard a lot about it from my previous job: working with asylum seekers fleeing persecution. Student becomes activist becomes asylum seeker. Evolution.


so so wrong...

so so wrong...


I was thrilled by the paintings in the Gondarine style. I didn’t take photos of the paintings but this sign breaks down the innovations within the style and the various schools that emerged.


“Masters of Sagging Cheeks.”


Next: Burundi – An update about the place I actually live in.


bujumbura + 17 hours = stockholm

Not having updated in exactly two months, I’m going to move quickly to catch up. If some of these posts bring up more questions than they answer, you will just have to ask me when you see me.

First, I was in Sweden (Stockholm and Kiruna) for New Year’s. Dog sledding, lingonberry anything, blueberry pie, cloudberry jam – I crashed a snowmobile (and was almost abandoned), ate soft-serve mashed potatoes, saw some of the most amazing scenery this planet can offer, learned that toughness has something to do with cold climates, stayed in a prison, looked at an old boat, slept in a hotel made of ice and bought a funny hat.





That really doesn’t cover it at all but this self-portrait will have to do for now:


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February 2009