Archive for September, 2011

11
Sep
11

imagine burundi – how it all started

September 11, 2011

I haven’t posted in a long time. I feel awful and rusty, so this post may wander a bit because many things have happened since my last post. I hopped on the Trans-Siberian train and rode from Moscow to Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia. I flew up in a hot air balloon in Cappadocia in Turkey. I left my post as Regional Director for Heartland Alliance in Burundi. And throughout that whole time, I have been producing a radio program called Imagine Burundi (Learn more about the show at www.imagineburundi.com)

It’s kind of an unbelievable statement to say I have a radio show in Burundi. Let’s take this by stages to see how Imagine Burundi happened.

Something like this usually starts out with a tepid declaration over a few drinks:

“I love radio?” (Questioning glance around the table.)

Then, in response, another’s expression of outrageous disbelief:

“No way! Me, too!”

Followed by emboldened stupidity:

“Really?! Let’s get a radio show!”

And that’s pretty much it. If that transcript of a conversation between my friend Seth Chase and me is not verbatim, it’s essentially accurate. This was back in September 2010.

But there were a few problems. Neither of us knew what to do to produce a show. I had done some broadcasting and journalism work and we both had dabbled in college radio, but if anything, that last one should have counted against me and served as a template of things to avoid. I was feeling quite bold because I had just bought a new MacBook and had the tools for the project. I figured I could just learn as I go. Probably not since discovering girls in junior high have we mixed so much ignorance with such unwarranted enthusiasm.

I was able to cling to one segment idea. For one show. But it was the kind of idea that fit so neatly for so many reasons that it just had to happen. The ideas for that one show laid out the ideal foundation for many of the episodes that followed. The idea was I would interview a taxi driver whom I had met randomly one day on the streets of Bujubura when I got in his cab. During the ride, the driver, Ilunga, seemed completely baffled when I tried to communicate with him in French. This gap was reasonable and somewhat common – some drivers lacked formal education and spoke mostly Kirundi or Swahili. But it was also frustrating given that I needed to point out my destination. So I sort of threw up my hands and sat in the passenger seat quietly. All of a sudden, Ilunga breaks out in English – really really solid English – and asks me where I’m going. So it’s my turn to be baffled. We end up talking the whole ride about how long he has studied English (20 years), if he studied it at school (no) and what he’s been doing since. That meeting happened in 2009 but I never forgot Ilunga so when I finally got approval for my show, there was no doubt I needed to speak to him first.

There were a host of reasons why Ilunga personified the show’s objectives. He was a self-taught English speaker. He was fearless. He had great stories and ideas. He was a taxi driver, meaning he was amongst the most informed, most connected people in the city – in other words, someone anyone might run into. And all of these qualities matched up with Imagine Burundi’s aims. We wanted to highlight motivated people, strong speakers of English, people who were interesting just by going about their lives (which is a lot of people) and someone you might call “working class” in a different context.

I am tired of the notion that most Burundians are poor suffering folks, victims. Yes, around 80 percent of the population is hovering at the poverty line and really struggling to make it under an ineffective government, but portraying the majority of Burundians as small/powerless victims hardly empowers them; in fact, it’s very debilitating. Because Burundians, even the farmers and laborers, are working people, people who are trying to make it, people running households, hosting parties, living lives – they’re trying to build something and framing them as victims seems like a defeat already. The ubiquitous imagery of suffering that we often see hardly expresses the everyday richness of Burundian life. (In my more cynical moments, it even feels like those portrayals are marketing tools for the aid industry.)

Take a young doctor, for example. He or she might have talent, might hold up in any city hospital in the world, but he or she would not be a priority for donors from a development framework that prioritizes victims and certain health issues. Yet, we are talking about a young doctor in Burundi, and that makes a huge difference. That means he or she may end up working at a under-supplied under-funded government clinic, making 300-400 USD a month. He or she might wonder why funding for HIV/AIDS prevention and treatment keeps getting precedence over basic medicines and supplies and trainings when the national HIV infection rate hovered around 4%. While he or she could end up relatively well off, these salaries would not be sufficient to send kids abroad for an education. So this show is for people like that as well – people with the talent and creativity and motivation but maybe not the outlet for that energy. Potential elites, maybe, but elite because of merit. This show is for the men and women and boys and girls making an effort, trying to change things, workers and intellectuals and civil servants and athletes and artists. This show is about recognizing achievement and highlighting inspired individuals. I think after three years of focusing on Burundi’s past, it has been an important evolution for me to view development as Burundians want to view it, as a movement toward a different more dynamic Burundi.

So Imagine Burundi tries to introduce listeners to Burundians, to their thoughts and dreams and ideas rather than their misery and tales of woe. I realized I’m not here to save anyone; I would rather inspire or motivate people. We may want to hear that story of suffering because it makes us feel compassion, even confirms our antiquated notions of “Africa” but it can be a self-serving and incomplete story. Imagine Burundi’s decision to broadcast entirely in English is also a statement about the country’s future direction: Burundi is now working hard to integrate into the regional community its Anglophone neighbors have constructed to increase its economic and political influence. Burundians have responded to this shift by learning English in droves. I am hoping the show will help in some small way to raising that standard as well.

Learning radio from scratch has been so rewarding and maintaining the discipline of a weekly broadcast may be one of the most refreshing parts. The show remains forever in a precarious balance of catering to different levels of English, raising intellectual standards, increasing participation and accommodating diverse audiences. Sometimes, to ensure a segment is communicated effectively, we simplify the diction or we script material or we re-use those scripts so that listeners have a chance to really absorb the message. It started as a side-project while all of us were either working full-time jobs or larger projects. So in the beginning, we gave it what time we could, streamlined production, recorded at ridiculous hours and worked right up to our broadcast time.

In some of the segments from the first few months, you can actually hear our tiredness. Our voices sound deflated, our sentences barely adhere to the subject-verb-object structure, our logic sometimes not fulfilling the requirement of being comprehensible. But we never missed a broadcast. Each and every week, we put out an hour-long show– 60 minutes of ideas and advice and stories and restaurant commentary, each of which took 20-30 hours to assemble and refine. We’ve loved every second of it.

Sometimes people ask me why Imagine Burundi sounds like This American Life (TAL). About the only time I am not asked that question is when my interlocutor has never heard of TAL. One main reason is TAL impresses us with the genius of its clarity and directness. It’s light on music and effects; it frames speakers’ voices in just the right mood with minimal fuss. But maybe the most salient (read: honest) reason is we just don’t know how to do anything else. TAL works because it’s simple. We sound like TAL because we’re simpletons. We’re still learning the basics of production elements like managing audio quality, using the right microphones, editing tape. If we’ve achieved even a tiny measure of comparison to TAL, then we’re already immensely proud. And relieved. Because even after overcoming all the challenges of getting a timeslot in the station’s schedule, there was the small matter of putting out a product people would actually listen to. It’s starting to feel like we’re on our way.