Archive for the 'Pyrrhic Victory' Category


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.


Seth’s post about Novotel

A few of us have had some harrowing experiences lately, but when my friend Seth told me his story, I was stunned. I have asked him to write it up to post on my blog because we’re not 100% sure he should post it on his, for security reasons. Here is his post:

Friday the 13th of February 2009 started like any other day. Coffee, and a scoop of NIDO. I didn’t even think about it being Friday the thirteenth. I’m a videographer in Burundi, and I have been staying in the Capital city of Burundi. I was going to take my photographer friend to the roof of a hotel in town to get some city shots. This was going to be my fourth time on the roof of this hotel. Novotel, in Bujumbura Burundi. I may never go there again.

But the first three times I went to the roof of Novotel, Bujumbura I didn’t bring a tripod so my shots were a bit shaky. I brought my tripod this time, and my friend and I approached the reception desk. I just told them what I was doing: “I’ve been on your roof three times now, I’m going up again with my friend to take some shots, and I’ll come back down in about 20 minutes.” The staff seemed to have a spontaneous meeting due to my comment, and after a minute they said the person who has the authority to allow us up on the roof is in a meeting. I said, “No problem, send him up to meet me on the roof… that’s where I’ll be.” One of the male staff members was pissed at my cockiness I think, and he told us not to go up there. So I ignored him, and went up on the roof with my friend. So the reception desk saw us take the elevator, and I’m sure they called this angry staff guy. We were on the roof for a minute, and the guy showed up, super angry. I told him, to calm down, and come on over, and to make sure to remember to have the manager meet me here, and I’ll wait for him. My friend took off, as he didn’t want any part in this. The guy said he’s going to call the police and have me arrested, and I told him, “No problem… call the police. I can see one right down on the road in front of the hotel from where we are standing, I can yell for him if you like.” The guy got on his phone and made a fake phone call to the police, which we both knew would do nothing, and seeing that his bluff didn’t work… he quickly grabbed my tripod, and took off.

Admittedly, I wasn’t being very humble with this Novotel staff guy, because I get so tired of people on power trips, especially when I’ve had no previous problems shooting video from the roof. And so I waited on the roof. I didn’t shoot any video because I didn’t have my tripod, and I would just get more shaky footage, so I just sat there, and tried to figure out how I would get my tripod back. After about 15 minutes the guy comes back up, with my tripod in his left hand, and an AK47 in his right hand. I told him to give me back my tripod, and he told me if I don’t get off the roof he’s going to shoot me. We were both nervous and angry, so I just started loudly saying: “oh, so you’re going to kill me! You’re… going to kill… me!” I didn’t really know what else to say because I was nervous. All I knew was that I really wanted to smack him and tell him he’s a complete idiot, and he should be locked up, and that even though we have a difference of opinion on whether I should be on the roof, to just up and threaten to kill me is absolutely asinine. I felt an extreme anger towards him in the immediacy of the moment. He threw my tripod at me because I wasn’t moving, and he needed to load his clip before he could properly shoot me. Also, he needed two hands to aim even though he was about a meter and a half away. I picked up my tripod and looked it over, furious that he would throw it and damage it. Sure enough a knob broke and I was pissed. I put the broken knob in my bag, and started to collapse the tripod, while the angry Novotel staff guy pushed his gun into my chest and told me if I don’t leave he’s going to kill me. I noticed he was shaking pretty bad with nerves and I thought he’s going to shoot me by accident. I said once more, “I can’t believe you’re aiming that gun at me and actually threatening to kill me!” Well, I decided I didn’t want to die that Friday, but I did want that guy fired. So I went down to reception, and asked for his name. They wouldn’t give me his name. I said I want to speak to the manager. They said I couldn’t. They told me to write a message for him, so I did, and I left my number. I knew they would just throw it in the trash. I waited one hour for the manager who was supposedly in a 15 minute meeting. Realizing that the entire hotel staff was against me, I left, and the AK47 guy followed me to my car, and wrote down my plate number, and said he would kill me.

I don’t think I’ve ever been that angry in my life. I dwelt on it for days, and I went on every travel website I could find, to leave a negative review of Novotel Burundi. I contacted human resources, and the hotel branch managers, and only one person has returned my email, saying that they would look into the situation. Which of course I knew they wouldn’t do. I told them to pass along my report of the situation and stated I would like a meeting with the manager… Nothing. I will simply end by saying, I really don’t recommend Novotel Bujumbura as a place to stay. Not only because their rooms smell bad, their pool is often dirty, everything is over priced, the food isn’t any good, their TV’s get bad reception, their dinning tables are tipsy, and their chairs uncomfortable. I predominantly refuse to recommend the Novotel as a place to stay and spend money, because there is this guy there, and if he disagrees with you over some issue, he’ll get an AK47, and he’ll shoot you if he’s so inclined. And hotels with people like that working at them, should be avoided at all cost. Novotel Bujumbura is one such hotel. If you’ve had a bad or even a good experience at Novotel, Bujumbura, I’d like to hear about it. Please go ahead and leave a comment.

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