Archive for the 'Bujumbura' Category


Occupy Bujumbura

From 2008 to 2012, I resided in Bujumbura, Burundi, working as an aid worker for the first three years and then as a radio host and producer of Imagine Burundi ( Throughout that time, I became more and more dejected over the divisions that existed along cultural, economic, racial and ethnic lines. My presence as a relatively wealthy individual working in an industry that purported to accomplish humanitarian and charitable objectives made me question our collective motivations. How do we reconcile those competing objectives? Or are we digging deeper lines, between haves and have-nots, between citizens and civil servants, between aid workers and “beneficiaries”. Ultimately, the doubts and criticisms creeping around my consciousness coalesced into a form of protest. This short series of photos is meant to highlight these contradictions, in a place far away – in so many regards – from the a country like the U.S. It is meant as a critique of the international development framework and my presence within that model but ultimately, I hope to illustrate the massive impact that inequality, in any form, has on notions of community and democracy.

You could also say that this entire exercise was an excuse to get photos of my dog online without really blogging about my dog – but that would be kind of insane.

(Special thanks to Seth Chase, Leah Hazard, Dedo Baranshamaje and Chauncey Dog for taking some of the photos, running interference with the police and protesting in spirit.)


1. “In Burundi, in East Africa, I am in the 1%. “


2. “In Burundi, the other 99% face extreme inequalities, a paralyzed government, brutal competition, and total despair about any change.”


3. “Burundi has a democratic political system, but what is a democracy without democratic values?”


4. “I’ve occupied Bujumbura for almost four years. Little has improved in that time.”


5. “The status quo here is pessimism, distrust, and stagnation. When we only see inequalities rising, we feel this situation can happen anywhere.”


6. ‘Foreigners in Burundi like to say, “Life is good.” Yes, it is – for us.’


7. “Outside Burundi, I might be in the 99% but I believe in values like merit and opportunity.”


8. “There is a fight out there, to change the rules, to set things right.”


9. “That is why I am leaving Burundi; I want to join this fight.”


10. “My ultimate protest is to leave. I cannot support this framework anymore. It’s strange to be in the 1%.”


11. “It is time to Occupy somewhere else.”



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

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.


border crossing series, pt. 389

13 January, 2011, Burundi/DRC Border at Kamivira

This region plays tricks on my concept of time. Increments of fifteen and thirty minutes feel qualitatively the same. I am continuously calculating how much time I need to accomplish a task and then reducing those calculations little by little while still telling myself that the task can be accomplished. It’s like I believe infinitely in the possible, in being able to meet deadlines, reach a destination, mediate an argument, no matter the reality of my circumstances. Often, this thinking is endlessly optimistic, even more often it is abetted by a lack of structure that makes those gaps exploitable; everything is negotiable. At the highest levels, you might call it corruption, but it’s a spectrum; at the lowest levels, it’s called being resourceful or “getting shit done.”

So on my colleague, Molly’s last visit to Uvira on the other side of the border with Burundi on Lake Tanganyika, we had planned to head back to Burundi at 5:30 p.m. Goodbyes, handshakes, hugs and photo-taking mean we actually left at 5:46. And suddenly, even by my calculations, it strikes me that it was a ridiculous amount of time to drive back out of the NGO quarter, weave our way through town, connect to the road that leads to the border, get our passports stamped and cross no-man’s land back to the Burundi side – this was 14 minutes after all, not 15; the whole process usually takes about an hour. Any one of those parts could take at least 20 minutes. And even though there were several announcements during the year with much fanfare about the relaxing of border regulations and longer opening times, we checked and found out the border still closes at 6 p.m. There might be no negotiating on that point, I think, which then might lead to serious “negotiatin’.” Belt, ignition, lights, gas!

The drive is a blur – a rambling, muddy, splashy “pole pole!” blur. I’m one hand on the horn the whole time, the other all a-flickin’ the brights, spinning the wheel, eyes scanning for every possible danger. Bicycles, motorcycles, carts, policemen, UN vehicles, trucks, buses – who knew there would be rush hour in Uvira!

It is exactly 14 minutes when we crossed the first gate into the Congolese immigration section. Beyond the second gate is no-man’s land, the strip of fertile emptiness that divides Burundi and the Congo in our little corner of the world, and beyond that, the gate back to Burundi. Home. We are still in our car and it looks like we have just entered the parking lot from Hell. The last herd of vehicles crossing back after a day of commerce in Burundi has spilled over from the other side. The cars  and buses are so solidly arrayed, there’s only enough room for humans to wriggle by. I find a narrow path for the car but there’s no room to park the car to the side and walk to the row of immigration offices on our right. At the same time, I am scheming, thinking of things to say to shorten the immigration process. I’m amazed I even think this is possible, and I feel a bit guilty but I couldn’t worry about that then; this is the context in which I live and work.

I haven’t rolled up ten meters when all of a sudden I hear, “Jefferson, traverse directement le frontier!” This is like “Advance to Go” in Monopoly, but better. Skip everything and just go. At an international border. I turn my head in time to see my old friend and immigration officer, Fazuli, both arms stretched out toward Burundi, pointing frantically, face full of concern. He’s hatless, has no time for another word and runs off somewhere. It’s just chaos. I do what he says and drive right up to the second gate. An incoming car gets the gate up and just as I’m about to blow through to the other side, a sharp woman’s voice yells at me to stop. I step on the brakes. Another immigration officer. The game is up; she scolds me and demands our documents. Surely, she is going to take them to the immigration office to log by hand and then stamp. “Immigration Procedures – Lose 15 Minutes. Go back three spaces and spend the night in Uvira.” This would be a disastrous result because Molly leaves Burundi for good the next day and there is a ton of wrap-up she needs to do. The loss of an evening and morning would derail the entire process. So it is pure honey-colored joy when the officer glances at our passports, doesn’t even try with my inch-thick document and hands them back to us with a smile. I shake her hand at the same time I step on the gas. We’re off! Home!

Home. But they locked the door. Figuratively. More accurately, they tied the string. When they tie a string across an opening, like a bridge, that’s the warning – the way is closed. In this case, some random non-uniformed person unties it for us to pass. We get on the short narrow metal bridge and travel the 20 meters across only to be halted by a real gate. The officer manning the gate is in a blue beret and matching poncho and he is doing his best to nonchalantly ignore us. He would turn away, stare briefly past our car and then look at the ground again. Another officer, a big fella, in light blue shirt sleeves has come out of the immigration office to watch. I haven’t been in a situation quite like this one. Sort of a half-hearted farce coupled with willful inactivity. Something needed to give. I hop out of the car, and ask Molly to move to the driver’s side, just in case.

Poncho quickly moves toward me and gives me a firm “The border is closed, you can’t cross, etc. etc.” I don’t really hear him because I can quickly see he’s not the problem. Poncho takes his orders from the Big Guy. I ignore Poncho, swing my legs over the gate and head straight toward Mr. Big.

I start walking toward the large officer with all the deliberateness of someone approaching a hibernating bear. In a steady straight line, concentrating. Except, he’s not hibernating – he’s in full-blooded anger mode, yelling at me to turn the car back before I’m even within 10 meters of him. I get closer. For some reason, I believe if I can get near enough to this raging hulk, I can explain to him exactly why we have to cross and he would listen. At this point, I have to believe in something, I tell myself. Now in front of the still blustering officer, I imagine myself standing in front of a roaring lion, fangs bared – probably not open to reasoned dialogue. I wonder if he is going to eat me.


But it’s all a show right? A show of authority, a show of power, a show. So I can show no weakness, no uncertainty, no grammatical errors, and to an extent, no emotion: no sarcasm, no indignation, no fear.

I direct a string of soothing declarations at him. “We are aid workers. We were told to cross the border. My colleague needs to catch a flight (tomorrow). I understand we are a minute late. That is why I got out of the car to speak with you. I don’t understand your anger.”

The point is not content – like so many things in this region, it’s about style, appearance. By this point, his objections were verging on the bizarre.


What? Why I left has nothing to do with me coming back. It’s not a ‘why’ issue. I say, “You are right – I should have never crossed the border!” It’s turning into a farce, and it would have, except at that moment as the conversation was descending into nonsense, we both catch a surreal sight in our peripheral vision. Slowly, as if it were the most normal and cordial thing, Poncho gently lifts the gate and Molly guides the vehicle at a slow soft roll in front of the immigration office.

We’re both gawking with our eyes, Mr. Big and me, but our mouths are still churning out bullshit. I think it’s at that moment that he realizes he has lost. Somehow, he loses his communication authority over Poncho who, perhaps in a moment of civility or weakness, decides to let Molly just enter. I thought they had worked this scheme out, but whatever, we are back and there is no point in delaying the inevitable. Mr. Big thinks the same, grabs our passports and stalks off into the immigration office. I join him after a few moments and find Mr. Big at his desk in the now very dark office. (Electricity at an international border post? Nope!). He is holding his cell phone up as a light to the passport registry to fill it out. “Take,” he says and I hold up the light. I’m amazed to see my hand trembling a little. No one likes getting yelled at, no matter how calm you try to be. I close my eyes and tell my hand to stop. I reopen my eyes and the hand isn’t shaking anymore – I think – it’s too dark to tell. When the officer is done recording our info, he folds up the passports and hands them to me with a faint smile. We shake hands. The joining of hands – symbolic applause. The show is over.

I take our passports back and move back to the car. I love their weight in my hand.
In the last three years, I have added pages to my passport three times, the last time incurring a stern warning that I would have to get a brand new passport next time. My passport has graduated from being a pass’port’ to being a pass’book’. “Is that your passport in your pocket or are you just happy to see me?” Well, both.

I am still moved by the “Welcome Home” the U.S. immigration officer inevitably offers before spending several moments locating a spot to stamp my passport. I still want to respond with a robust “Thanks!” but now I feel guilty, like I can see the doubt in their eyes. Welcome home, they say (pause, looks at all the stamps), but what the heck were you doing abroad?

It’s a somewhat cliché device, but after all the trips to the Congo, each one memorable and recorded with a stamp, the one I’ll never forget is the one I didn’t get.

A part of me is still there.



clap, duck and drum

Some hand-clapping photos, all taken by Agnes, one of the counselors based at Dukanure Center. This is from the same visit in July that I blogged about below.

Ben missed the beat early and got thrown in hand-clapping jail.




project dukanure for the rehabilitation of female former child soldiers

Project Dukanure

The Marjorie Kovler Center for the Treatment of Torture Survivors in Chicago has been providing mental health care to refugees and asylum seekers for over twenty years. One of its former directors, Mary Fabri, had been working on a project in Rwanda in 2004 to provide trauma counseling to victims of the 1994 genocide who were infected with HIV/AIDS. One of our colleagues, Scott Portman, travelled to neighboring Burundi (“the country just south of Rwanda”) in 2006 to do research and speak with local aid organizations to see if the service model in Rwanda could be adapted to the Burundian context. Scott submitted a proposal to the U.S. State Department’s Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights & Labor in 2007, and received a grant in 2008 to assist female former child soldiers. Right around that time, I was wrapping up two years at the National Immigrant Justice Center, another Heartland Alliance program. When I heard they wanted to send a French-speaking expat, I jumped at the opportunity.

My transition to Heartland’s International Programs is rather easy to explain. It was a natural fit: my parents were both executives in a clock-making company and my brother is an investment banker, so *of course* I would end up in central Africa managing humanitarian assistance projects. I’ve probably got a lot of ground to make up.

There were also some interesting convergences. That Spring, I had been accepted to the Fletcher School near Boston to study international relations, but I wanted to defer my attendance until I gained some field experience; the direct switch from office to classroom didn’t appeal to me. Ultimately, I was pulled in by that reliable trinity of wanting to put something off, wanting to see something new and…speaking French. Those three combined almost certainly lands a person in Francophone Africa doing development work.

As it turns out, one of the faculty at Fletcher, Academic Dean Peter Uvin, had just been in Burundi in 2007, and he had produced a report for the World Bank on the post-demobilization economic circumstances of former child soldiers. One of the most striking features of the report for me was the disparity between girls and boys. In all, Prof. Uvin spoke to 63 former child soldiers, but only two were female. The problem is linked to perceptions of what constitutes a ‘child soldier’. In popular portrayals of child soldiers such as the movie, “Blood Diamond” and Ishmael Beah’s account of being a child soldier, one gets the impression that child soldiers are all gun-toting boys jacked up on drugs. But as set forth in the Cape Town Principles, child soldiers can also be cooks, porters, spies, cleaners, just as in any army. Girls face an added dimension of sexual abuse, sometimes coerced to be soldiers’ “wives” or sex slaves. And while the Cape Town Principles do not consider whether a child joined voluntarily or not as the basis of criminality in deploying child soldiers, there *are* many instances of children joining voluntarily. In some cases, children view military groups as a political or ethnic cause or a means to wealth or power. Others join a certain group to gain revenge against that groups’ enemies, who may have harmed the child’s relations. Ironically, some children join because they have nowhere left to go once a military group has slaughtered all of their relatives.

For me, this is another major strength of Heartland Alliance’s strategy toward program development. It’s not simply about helping those in need, but helping those with the greatest need, those who may never have received help at all. There is innovation in the approach and by operating  the program on a small-scale pilot scheme, it invites constant refinement and strives to identify effective practices that will be adaptable to other contexts. To my knowledge, there is no other residential program that is entirely dedicated to female child soldiers’ needs in the region (and likely on the continent). Yet, girls and young women require very specific types of services relating to very specific experiences that are often incompatible with services for boys or young men. Already male child soldiers struggle through demobilization processes that are targeted toward men; girls then barely register as an afterthought. In this region, demobilization processes do not account for the presence of girls in armed groups, so many end up going home on their own with no reintegration assistance.

Numbers are difficult to come by in such a context, but given the broad scope of the Cape Town Principles, there are certainly more female former child soldiers (FFCS) than the 50 that UNICEF identified and demobilized from 2006 to 2008. Fifty over a 15 year period is not a credible figure especially in this mode of conflict where civilians are specifically targeted to gain psychological and logistical advantages. Our rounds of site visits to local communities to identify potential cases confirms this; we had surpassed that figure within the first week of interviews with community members. A large majority of the young women we spoke with are still traumatized by their war experiences but have received almost no attention or assistance for their suffering. Through a case-by-case review, we tried to select cases that seem most dire, that may have suffered grave mental or physical injuries and that now have very little family or community support. Only a few of these cases were  child soldiers who joined voluntarily or carried arms. Some of the people who resisted the project’s launch initially based their objections on the possibility of helping people who may have committed violent acts. But I think it helps to think of the main beneficiaries of our project as girl victims of the war rather than active perpetrators of violence.

Project Dukanure officially launched in October 2009, 15 months after I arrived in Burundi. Many of this blog’s stories relate to my experience of registering Heartland Alliance as a legal non-governmental organization (NGO) in Burundi. My favorite posts usually involve a guy named Felix. Fifteen months. Sometimes, I wonder if I can sue the government to give that time back to me but just the thought of going through that nutty bureaucracy again makes me fall to the floor in a daze.

‘Dukanure’ means ‘we are opening our eyes’ and the meaning suggests that the participants are regaining control of their lives. But the meaning also extends to the community and family members who are increasing their knowledge about this topic and learning ways to facilitate the girls’ rehabilitation. Project Dukanure aims to help 200 female former child soldiers by providing mental health counseling, social education and job skills training in a safe setting at a residential facility. Groups of 24 girls stay at the Center for 15-weeks at a time while taking courses and participating in individual and group activities led by Burundian female mental health counselors. At the end of their stays, we provide a kit that builds on their job skills to help them start earning their own income. We also provide follow-up home visits to make sure the reintegration process is proceeding well. To date, we have helped 48 female former child soldiers reintegrate into their communities and are now assisting a third group at the Center.

July 30, 2010

These are photos of a site visit  the day after the Sange trip, which I blogged about earlier. The contrast in mood couldn’t be more evident. Our work in Sange is an emergency response to a catastrophic incident. The entire community is still experiencing collective shock and it shows. Project Dukanure strives to equip young women with the tools to reintegrate socially and to become income earners – massive challenges considering their circumstances. The objective here is to create long-term gains by providing very attentive and supportive care in a safe environment. These services will hopefully help the participants rebuild their lives even as the country transitions out of the ‘post-conflict’ context into a development phase.

As mentioned, this is our third group of participants to stay at Dukanure Center. Unlike the first two groups (which I will write about later), this group came from Cibitoke Province in the northwest of the country. Its close proximity to eastern Congo results in a proportional uptick of lively dancing, music-making and general mischief. The two preceding groups were from central Burundi and I am told that people from that area are much more reserved. They are not kidding.

Usually, there’s some coordinated dance routine to welcome visitors (pretty much just my colleagues and me) and often it’s very structured with rows of dancers moving at square-dance speed. This time, when Ben, Molly and I walk up toward the courtyard, it is louder than any 24 people should be legally loud. The dirt’s kicking up, the girls are in a spinning circle. They have a drum. It’s fantastic.

We really have no choice but to join in. The song the girls are singing is the “Jeff, Ben and Molly – Come Sing and Dance with Us!” song. Plus, it’s another two hours before lunch is ready.

Speaking of lunch, it’s our open secret that we love the lunches that the Center’s cooks conjure up. It’s mostly stews – cabbage stew, stewed bananas that taste like potatoes, stewed greens, stewed beans, plus rice. It’s Burundian food, hearty and simple and equally easy to cook for five or 500. It’s food that’s readily available at most restaurants, but here, it’s different, it’s *better*. I don’t know why, I can’t explain how. Maybe it’s the coarse salt or maybe it’s the fresh chili peppers. I think it’s the comforting experience of eating in a dining hall. It never gets old.

A snap of the Center and the plots where the girls have been growing vegetables through their agronomy class. These cabbages will be used to supplement the girls’ diets during their stay. Subsequent groups of participants will also benefit from the ongoing gardening projects. Around 90% of Burundi’s population is engaged in subsistence farming.

For the better part of the visit, we join the girls in a raucous game of…go-around-the-circle-high-fiving? It’s kind of hard to explain – but it’s really funny to look at! (Photos of that soon.)

After the game, Molly works with the counselors for a bit on data collection methods. Then I meet with them and explain a photography project that we want to try out with the participants. I show them how to operate the digital cameras that we will be distributing over the next week to pairs of participants so that they could document each other’s activities at Dukanure Center. I can’t wait to see what they produce and I’m sure there will be wonderful shots that I can post here soon.

Christine (with badge), our Project Coordinator for Dukanure, getting the farewell treatment:


radio chicago

July 21, 2010

Just passed the two year mark in Burund and spent the last two weeks in Chicago. That’s about as optimal a time for reflection as any. It certainly gets me thinking in comparative terms, and actually Chicago and Bujumbura have striking similarities: they both border a Great Lake and have inviting sandy beaches; they both have tasty pizza; they both have police that employ dubious tactics; you can hear sporadic gunfire in the night in both places; and they both have wildly entertaining politics. About the only substantive difference for me is that I’ve been attacked on the streets in only one of the two. I’ll let you all guess which one. (Stay safe, friends, Chicago is a black-and-blue kind of town.)

The above basically highlights something I’ve been thinking a lot about – my perspective is so messed up! Wow. So messed up. It’s a topic other aid workers and I talk about all the time – that distortion of our conceptual framework, how life takes on an unhealthy rhythm, how our standards for what is good or normal or safe slowly slip away from us. In Chicago, I was surprised I would get shocked looks while talking nonchalantly about grenade explosions in the night, see panicked faces of drivers when I would shoot out into a busy street on foot or get horrified stares when I explained that our internet connection speed is about the same as a dial-up modem. Maybe my life would be structured and paced a lot differently if Bujumbura actually got some traffic lights.

I’m always trying to diminish that estrangement but maybe my methods need work. I ate out almost the entire time in Chicago and I really tried to put down the quantity of food restaurants considered a normal portion. I tried, I really did, but I just wasn’t used to consuming a days’ worth of food in one go. I also thought I could gain some street cred as “an aid worker in Africa” with my incessant cough (ask me about it!), but it turns out people on the streets really dislike someone coughing continuously around them. Especially on buses. And trains. And elevators. Who knew? We don’t have elevators in Bujumbura…

One event stands out in driving home the differences for me. While I was in Chicago, I was really honored to be invited onto WBEZ’s Worldview program to be interviewed on their Global Activism series. One day, I got a message on my phone from Steve Bynum, a Senior Producer for WBEZ. He said he would like to have me on the show because he heard I was “in town”. Um, exactly who was talking about me being in town?! Throughout the interview, I had to refrain from blurting out to Jerome McDonnell that I considered this moment the pinnacle of my professional career. Chicago Public Radio!

So between being a bit nervous and being 30 minutes late (Steve said East 848 Grand Ave., *not* West Grand, which doesn’t exist…), I’m actually not sure how it all went. It seems kind of like a haze now. Jerome clearly knew the politics and the history of Rwanda and Burundi (“that country south of Rwanda”) so it was a balancing act between keeping up with him and also not making assumptions about the audience’s knowledge of the region. We talked a lot about the political context and the sensitive topic of ethnicity, which I wasn’t quite expecting, but that *is* the prevailing discourse about those countries in academic circles and externally. I freely admit I am no expert in this realm but the conversation also made realize how afraid we are to discuss these topics candidly in Burundi and even more so in Rwanda. It’s just not talked about. The words are whispered in the back of rooms, behind closed doors, communicated with a quick glance. In fact, it’s against the law to talk about ethnicity and to use the terms ‘Hutu’ and ‘Tutsi’ in Rwanda. It’s a way of sweeping them under the national rug and sticking with the label ‘Rwandan’. It’s about as genuine and practical as saying there are no blacks or whites, there are only South Africans. It actually made me feel a little uncomfortable. I wonder if I’ll still be allowed back into Rwanda after this…

The interview may be posted at some point on WBEZ’s website, so I’ll link to it when if it goes up. I propose a drinking or eating game: one shot/bite of a Chicago deep dish pizza for each speaking gaffe that I make. There should be enough of them to make the night quite festive!

This morning, my former supervisor, general superstar and now mother of two, Lisa, pointed out to me that going on safari and seeing wild game is actually something worth talking about and sharing on my blog because these things don’t happen (often) in Chicago. And that’s what I did a couple weeks ago, along with attending some World Cup (yes, that one) games in South Africa, so that’s what I’ll blog about next.


georges kanuma

My dear friend Georges Kanuma passed away on April 14, 2010, at age 38. These words still seem foreign and incongruous to me. Georges? Passed away? I cannot grasp that yet.

Please read a  few tributes to him here:

I first encountered Georges in 2008 when my boss sent me an email with a link to a Time Magazine piece, “Helping the Hidden Community of HIV”
My boss wrote me something like, “Know this guy? Find him.” And I did.

Georges was the elder of the Burundian LGBT community, its “grandmere”, one of the few in their mid-30’s. It’s a young and dynamic community that I’ve come to know and value working with through Georges. In many ways, he was the activist we could all agree on. The first to really step forward with clear ideas, a will to organize and plain boldness. Others will do and have done a better job of talking about Georges, the gay activist. I’ll just share a few bubbles of what Georges the person was to me.

The first time I visited Georges in a hospital was months ago when he got malaria. I brought him a pizza one night and it’s one of the highlights of my time in Burundi to deliver a pizza to a hospital and share it with Georges. It had seemed like such a clumsy joke that he was in the hospital at all. It was a grand time. When I heard that Georges was in the hospital again for malaria, I kind of grinned and thought back fondly to my last visit. But it seemed more serious this time. He recovered, but the malaria had severely weakened him, I learned. When I checked in a few days later, he was still in the hospital.

Georges died of kidney failure. ‘Failure’ is an apt word. The medication failed Georges. We failed Georges. The medical care system in Burundi failed Georges. Burundi as a whole failed Georges. A gay man in central Africa fighting for human rights, in a country where a law had just passed outlawing homosexual acts. The odds were always against him. When we considered our options to find better care for him, we were not considering which hospital to send him to, we were thinking which country. Kenya, South Africa, Rwanda…

Georges always complained about my driving – 40km down a side street was enough to shock him – four elegant fingers pressed to his chest, pinkie raised slightly, chin tucked in, “Jeff!” A hint of a BBC accent, no less. But I can’t help thinking that maybe if I were there the day he died, it might have been my driving that could have saved him. When it became clear than an air evacuation was not possible, the road option remained for a short while. Maybe it would have been enough.

One of my favorite memories of Georges was when we went shopping for winter clothes at the central market so he could attend a conference Heartland Alliance was organizing in Chicago. He was terrified of the mid-March cold. So one morning he shows up at my house in a white tee and (I swear) swishy lilac track pants. I couldn’t help but stare at their catastrophic awesomeness. “What? These look great!”

It had rained that morning and as we picked our way through the mud and craters, I saw Georges hiking up his precious pants. I joked to him that he didn’t belong in Burundi. “I know!” he says and I couldn’t tell if he was kidding or not.

In the market, Georges made some truly astonishing finds. A pink scarf (more like a boa), green mittens and my favorite, a black beanie with a huge marijuana leaf stitched on. I could already see our president’s face. I could see the email I already expected: “Jeff, why is Georges wearing a hat that promotes drug use?” and I might respond with Georges’ own answer: “But it’s so pretty and green!”

In the end we settled for something less controversial but no less awkward: a Christmas green sweater with a reindeer on it and a navy hat with a bunny stitched on. I also lent him the coat that I wore in Sweden and he managed to find some long underwear (who thought it would be a good idea to sell longjohns in central Africa?? Actually, well done!) He promised not to smoke while wearing my coat. So about a week after he left, I got a surprise phone call one evening, and it was Georges calling to say hello and to tell me that it was so warm today, he was out on the fire escape smoking and he wasn’t wearing my coat. I asked him how that was possible, mid-March and all, and he replied, actually he was freezing but he didn’t want to get my coat dirty. (My coat still returned smelling like an ashtray after an all-nighter, but now I’m sure it was other people smoking.)

It’s actually a rather mundane memory. And for that same reason, I don’t really have many photos of Georges (and none with me here in Sri Lanka). We weren’t at many official functions or conferences together. We just did normal things and no one occasion needed to be specially documented. That’s how I could tell he was an especially good friend. I just assumed he would be around and there was no urgent need to capture our mutual presence. Now that I think about it, most of the people I have been very close to are people I don’t have many photos of. I don’t know if there’s regret in that observation, but in this case, I wish I did have more images because my memories are dominated by a bed-ridden Georges in his last days as his body failed him.

I was on my way to Sri Lanka so I found out about George’s passing over the phone, at a moment when I had expected to hear he had been evacuated to Nairobi. There is a void in me from that shock that still waits for a bridge between disbelief and reality. It’s impossible to know, with certainty, that the end is coming – that’s what hope does, I think, but the goodbye, that small acknowledgement that an ending (and a beginning) is happening, that is so fundamental to my deracinement and my wandermust, and that is what I might be missing now. It is how I mark changes in my lives (sic), document those unexpected turns and find pause to articulate meaning, to seek peace. There’s a song lyric I just came across this week that sums it up well: “Ending of everything, the ending is everything.”

I still see Georges, a few weeks ago when we went dancing, more than a year ago when we first met for lunch (he had fish baked in tin foil). I still feel his hand when I grasped it the night before he passed, that blue clamminess of someone who’s been in the hospital a while – unmistakable, rubbery, cold. His stare when speech no longer obeyed him. Just a few sensations left. They keep coming back but they’ll dissolve soon enough – what’s next? I’m not sure there is anything after. I missed Georges’ funeral today. Another missed chance to say goodbye. I wonder how the next chance will arrive and what to say then. I wonder if I’ll miss it again. I wonder how to say goodbye to a friend who should have never left.

Thank you, Georges. Sorry, Georges. Let’s go dancing, Georges.

(And thank you, Felicia, for being there at the end.)

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