Archive for the 'Chicago' Category

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.

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21
Jul
10

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.

16
Jul
08

chicago-in-bujumbura

Check out the blog-link to ‘Off Stage Left’, fellow-Chicagoan Sara Gmitter’s blog about her time in Burundi. She arrived about a week after I did, and I openly admit that her Kirundi is better than mine. Her most recent post explores the Chicago-Bujumbura connection and gives me hope that I, too, will find a ‘Bears: 2007 Super Bowl Champions!’ t-shirt.

25
May
08

a morel dilemma.

Schiller Woods, Illinois


Our fourth morel hunt, our best haul yet. We started early, broke for lunch at Mitsuwa Marketplace, a Japanese mall, where we almost blew our entire tax rebates on cuddly-cute animal-shaped crackers. Over lunch, we checked our map and decided on the area marked “good.” That sounded promising.

 

After about an hour of traipsing around with little success, I stumbled upon a goldmine that had clearly been plundered by our deer-friends just a few days prior. We plucked a couple of half-chewed stemsWyatt Gaswick, team mycologist and fellow hunter. and split up mumbling about what could have been when it happened.

We were wrapping up, and I was poking around one more time, when scanning across some branches, I saw a flash of orange. It was so large that I thought it was either an awesome snake or the hugest morel EVER. I looked closer. Eyes. Ears. Fur.

 

 

 

This is what I saw:

I looked all around for the mother, expecting a good hoofing at any second, but there was not a deer within 100 yards. After a few minutes of staring and trying to communicate with the little one, I looked right into her eyes and thought, “Well, what’s it gonna be?” The fawn stood up on very wobbly legs, ambled over and started licking my knee. I crouched down, and she responded by getting all bitey:

 

 

 

Yea, it was pretty adorable. But here’s the dilemma: what was I going to do with her? (And how to explain to her that I had no milk?) What would you have done?

 

 

 


Here’s what Wyatt and I came up with: we tried herding some grazing deer to pick up their little one (maybe?). Wyatt led the fawn closer while I ran through the woods and flanked the adults. Then I slowly guided the larger deer toward the fawn. It worked for a time.

 

The plan called for Wyatt to back away from her so that the adults would come closer but she kept following him whenever he moved away, chirping or bleeting or whatever it is deers do. For a moment, the adults looked toward the sounds, but they did not move closer. We grew discouraged. There was nothing left to do. We made a joke about venison and morels. I am still wondering, what was the right thing to do?

In the end, we sheperded the fawn to a more central location on a deer path and left. We hoped that once it got dark and all the people were gone, the mother would pick her up. But, if anyone ever wants to see a pathetically sad video of a fawn receding into the distance, just come find me.




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