Posts Tagged ‘Africa


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.


jeffrey gettleman’s article about conflict in africa

Jeffrey Gettleman, the East Africa bureau chief for the New York Times, wrote this article in the March/April issue of ‘Foreign Policy’ (,0) about the trajectory of conflict in Africa.

I have so many problems with this article, least of all because it is irresponsible to portray Africa as an endless and lawless battlefield. The article seems to rest on a primary assumption about the connection between soldiers and statesmen that renders it immediately untenable. Gettleman seems to be saying that because today’s soldiers are no longer interested in becoming presidents and ministers, conflict will continue, as long as the rebels do not formulate longer-term military and political objectives. Is it really possible to stretch a link from field-based military objectives (or lack of) to ideas about post-conflict governance? Meaning rebels of our nostalgic yesteryears with more “class” are supposedly better administrators because they were fighting for clear ideas, like independence?  The Zimbabwean independence movement sounded pretty classy, but how did that work out? The Zimbabwe situation may not involve “forever” conflict, but it has been a pretty long history of oppression and suffering.

The examples Gettleman cites to support his claims don’t add up for me. The photo at the top of the article, for all I know, could be of rebels from eastern Chad. In the last five years, they have made at least two attempts in jeeps to cross the width of Chad to sack the capital. Burundi, where I am based, just saw the last rebel group come into the fold after negotiating for ministry slots and a place in this summer’s upcoming elections. What the heck is Gettelman talking about? And what does he mean by “un-war”?? Wouldn’t that be peace? He may be better off defining ‘war’ first before he un-does anything.

I liked that he mentioned the “well-educated” John Garang though. Garang attended Grinnell College for a while before returning to South Sudan. It’s enriching to know my alma mater produces clear-headed charismatic rebel leaders with ideas!

Let’s take an example closer to Gettleman’s purview. He covered the Nkunda story personally. I thought his articles highlighted Nkunda’s well-structured political vision of governance, the CNDP’s attempts to win over the populace in order to consolidate their control over vast swathes of territory. Isn’t that a clear sign of a political agenda? At the least, it’s a first step to destabilizing a national government that sits on the other coast. Who knows where Nkunda was headed? So is Gettleman really saying that rebel leaders are not politically-motivated or not politically ambitious?

One other Congo-related point – is he equating Mobutu with a functional state? Does Mobutu fall into his category of “classy” leaders who knew how to govern?

The golden era of Congolese statehood that Gettleman alludes to never existed. Mobutu’s ascension was framed by the U.N.’s first peacekeeping mission in the Congo (50+ years!), a secession of an entire province, the murder of a legitimately elected leader and international actors playing out a proxy war with boatloads of foreign currencies.

This article is just not very well reasoned and each case example is underpinned by Gettleman’s own intervention, whether meeting Nkunda or olive oil merchants in Somalia. I take especial issue with his thought that conflict in Africa is moving toward the intractable fighting we see in Somalia. All over Africa, regional alliances are being created that increase cross-border investment in both the politics and the economics of neighboring countries. It is in this context that Burundi was able to achieve a peace accord with support (and pressure) from its east African neighbors. Somalia only has neighbors that aggravate the situation and little political will from within. It appears to be an isolated case, on several levels, rather than a harbinger of Africa’s future.

I think what Gettleman dances around but can’t outright say is that while creating a state is a legitimate goal, there are some really awful governments out there right now that were created by more structured independence movements. State institutions and the structures for good governance are not yet strong enough in the countries he’s named, and war is one of those things that would be somewhat regulated by a functional state. How the U.S. prosecutes its wars in Iraq or in Afghanistan and how it deals with their consequences in being able to demand accountability is an indication of its government’s institutional health.

It is not that this generation of rebels (god, I feel like I’m talking about disaffected ruffian youths of the newest generation of whatever era – very paternalistic) is aimless or moribund or not goal-driven – it’s that they probably recognize that existing state structures are not worth their effort. The decision to not control all the functions of government but only those nodes of power that distribute resources and benefits – that seems like a very calculated political move to me. The groups named may not be rebelling against current governments, but they are rebelling against the establishment with the caveat that in this case, the establishment can’t even provide clean water, reliable electricity or basic medical services. Who would want to take over something like that? The best rebellion in this case would be to stay out of the mess. Government is not considered a “necessary evil” here but an unnecessary good in the pursuit of happiness.

This article reads like another desperate effort of someone who’s been too close up to the violence to make sense in the face of a rationality that is not based on Western traditions or assumptions. Gettleman is the New York Times bureau chief for 12 countries. Are there any 12 countries in any region of the world where one can reliably extrapolate overall trends about political motivations, demographics, resource management, etc etc?

Perhaps Gettleman’s own coverage that is heavy on sensation and anecdotes gives greater impetus to these rebel leaders to grab the spotlight. Maybe his hypermedia coverage narrows his vision and he doesn’t see that political objectives take years, even decades to formulate, modify and achieve. Just because he didn’t understand each groups’ motivations in a couple weeks for what they might want to do with a territory as large as the Congo doesn’t mean clear objectives don’t exist. I don’t mean to berate Gettleman’s efforts to provide informative coverage of Africa, especially in the Great Lakes region where I am based. He is at least doing his part to learn more and to be informative. Having been here for a speck of two years, I can certainly appreciate the challenge of obtaining reliable data and constructing straightforward political narratives. This blog avoids more in-depth discussions for that very reason – the information would not be reliable or theoretically sound (and I’m strongly considering journalism school!). But this article does not really address endless conflict in Africa, it only follows an endless line of irresponsible journalism about “Africa”, not African nations.


taco night

Tuesday, March  3, 2009

What’s more astonishing than all the traveling we do? The things we bring back:

  • Taco spices from Stockholm
  • Taco shells from London
  • Black beans from New York
  • Cheese from somewhere in Burundi
  • Chocolate chips from Singapore
  • Brandon from Canada-ish
Left to right: Brandon, Katie, Amy, Katherine, Seth, Trina and Felicia (dark hair)

Left to right: Brandon, Katie, Amy, Katherine, Seth, Trina and Felicia (dark hair)


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.


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.



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.


an accident

This post describes a road accident that I witnessed. I have tried to keep this post as neutral as possible but its details are graphic. Please consider that before continuing on. 

I think I needed to write this post more than I need it to be read. I do hope you will read it though. I don’t mention my role in these events because I did a lot (I didn’t), but because I just happened to be there. Other people did so much more: Leanne, who was completely composed and decisive throughout; Joseph, who knew what to do, as always; the woman who applied the splint to the awful injury; the soldier who took an active role in organizing the accident scene.


August 12, 2008.

I have been wondering for a while about the trade-offs people make here, especially the one that exchanges safety for transportation. I think about this most often when I see young men side-saddling bikes, hanging onto slow-moving semis to ascend the mountain slopes.

Just after 2 p.m., about 10km south of the site at Bugarama (pictured in the ‘Enzo’ post), my friend, Leanne, her driver, Morisho, and I are driving down the mountain road, returning from a visit to the ‘Interior’. Leanne directs a U.S.-based contractor to help ex-combattants and she was kind enough to invite me to visit some of their vocational skills training facilities up-country.

Coming around one of the thousands of bends, we watch as a bicycle loaded up with two young men and a boy wedged between gets caught in the ditch next to the road. The bike is going almost as fast as the cars and probably has weak or no brakes. An old man is walking in the ditch. He never sees the bike coming. In an instant, bike, passengers and man collide. Bodies bounce down the slope, the bike flies off. A huge dust cloud rises up, trails after the limp forms rolling off with tremendous momentum, and swallows them up.

We’re about 20 meters back at that moment and by the time the dust starts to settle, we are at the bottom of the accident site. We stop the car and get out. Already a crowd has gathered around the young men and the boy.

I say, “I’m going to look at the other one.”

Leanne says, “The old man? He’s dead.” She doesn’t follow me. She had a wider view from the passenger seat; she saw more than I did – do I want to see what she saw?

“He’s dead.”

I stride up the hill toward the old man, who is flat on his stomach, motionless, his left leg draped over his right, like he had half-rolled over. I have a vague sensation that something doesn’t look right. As I get within a few meters of him, I see his right arm stir and slowly, it tries to push the rest of the body off the ground.

That is not what dead people do.

As I reach him, a woman in bright traditional dress and a head-scarf runs up and kneels down by his legs. She tries to uncross them, and then I see what seemed off before. His left foot is turned completely inward, pointing in the wrong direction. She slides a hand underneath and turns the foot back, too easily, I think, but there is no way we can untangle the legs. By now, the man is moaning weakly.

“woooh, oh-wooooh.”

Instead of moving his legs, we slowly turn his upper body over, but his legs stay crossed. I look at the man’s face. His eyes are clear – good, he looks alert. Blood is streaming down his head, bright red beads catching in his eyelashes. Turning over like he did, the man is now partially on the road. People seem content with leaving him as he is, but the Land Cruisers and semis shooting past are just feet away from running him over.

I motion that we have to get the man off the road. That’s the first thing. The second thing – the wound – I don’t even have a chance to think about yet. I don’t even know how bad it is. A soldier with a red undershirt peeking out from his uniform runs over to help – Superman.

The solider kneels down by the man’s head, resting his AK-47 against his own thigh. The rifle keeps sliding off, and he tries to reposition it each time. The gun barrel darts around, like it’s deciding between my head, my chest and my stomach. It’s scaring away other people, too, the people I need to help me move the injured man off the road. My eyes keep circling back to the barrel, which has been stuffed up with dirt, presumably to keep out other more menacing dirt. It’s amazingly clear; I notice the little cracks in the dry dirt, bits flecked over the muzzle. The soldier gets up and walks away for a moment, leaving his gun. I pick it up and move it to a clearing five meters away. We don’t need that right now. I don’t think about his reaction or the other soldiers’ reactions. It just sort of happens. As soon as I put the gun down, other people fly over to help the old man. The soldier is there, too, without his gun, using both arms to lift the man gently. I’m on one side supporting his waist, another man is holding up his thighs. The woman is trying to take hold of his feet, but when she touches his lower left leg, the man cries out, “Woooooh!” I look down and see a large part of the bone protruding from his shin.

We get him away from the side of the road.

With one hand supporting the man’s head and neck, the soldier reaches for a thin bamboo branch and hands it to the woman. In one motion, she grabs it and snaps it in half against the ground. She places one half against the inside of his leg. The man shrinks back in pain, tries to pull his legs toward his torso. When he does that, the left foot does not lift with rest of the leg. Now that I’m at his side, I can see the wound clearly: the bone is sheared off completely from the foot. The only things keeping the foot attached to the rest of his body are ligaments and skin. There is a lot of blood coming from both his leg and his foot, and it is not dripping out. I feel all my the muscles in my body pull toward my stomach. It tenses but holds.

The soldier disappears and leaves the man on his back with his legs pulled up. His contracted position exposes a lot of bone. I have no idea what to do with this; I just want to straighten out his legs, let the woman finish splinting it and maybe get a tourniquet on him. I try to communicate this, but it takes a minute to get through. The soldier is back again and so is his gun. The woman clasps the other bamboo half to the leg and puts the parts together as best she can. It’s all we can do.

I walk back toward the Land Cruiser to see what Leanne is doing. As I get near, she calls out to me, “It’s good what you’re doing, but be careful. You shouldn’t get their blood on you. I know it’s insensitive, but….”

But she’s right. And I have it all over me. Even though Burundi has a relatively low HIV-infection rate – about 3-6% depending on the estimate – and even though I have no open wounds, I grab my water bottle and duck behind the vehicle. I pour water over the  splatters on my clothes and try to wash my hands off.

By the time I’m doused in water, Leanne has a plan. She tells Morisho to tell the soldier that we are going to drive back up the road to the nearby medical clinic to look for a doctor and a taxi, which we will send down to take the injured to the clinic.

We get back up to the clinic, about 5 kilometers away, and there is a large crowd of young men hanging out in front. They don’t do anything, they are just there. We pull up and ask for the doctor – is he in? There has been an accident and we need his help.

The men say, yes, but he is just a clinic doctor. He cannot help. We ask for a taxi. There are none. We drive further up the mountain to Bugarama, where I might be working in a few months time. There is only one taxi in town and it’s already been taken. We think of different ways to rework the definition of ‘taxi’. Maybe we can just hire out a private car or a van.

No luck. If there is a taxi or car around, it’s because someone hired it to get here, not because it’s just cruising around in the mountains looking for a fare. We drive back down.

When we get back to the accident site, there are more soldiers and more people tending to the wounded. The scene is astonishingly organized. The soldiers have blocked off the side of the road and are keeping the crowd back. The soldier with the red shirt is trying to flag down a truck. The man’s leg has been wrapped in a piece of cloth. We get out again to see how the injured are. The other two look bad, all bloodied, but nothing as obvious as the old man’s leg. Finally, the soldier stops a massive truck. We decide we have to drive the 30 km into Bujumbura with the injured if we are going to find a doctor so we ask the soldier to instruct the driver of the truck to follow us to a public hospital. The truck loads up the two wounded young men and we put the old man in our Land Cruiser. Instead of following, the truck just takes off. We assume he knows where the hospital is. 

On the way down, I’m sitting in a seat that’s been folded down, back to back with the old man. Not sure what to talk about. Leanne tries to call her doctor, but he isn’t there. I want to apprise the others of the old man’s condition so I say quite possibly the worst thing I could in that context: “He’ll probably lose his leg.”
Leanne replies quickly: “I don’t want to hear details.”

Get close, but not too close. Maybe that’s what makes it possible to help.

On the main road into town, only about one kilometer from the hospital, the truck stops. We pass it but have no idea what the driver is doing. We can only hope he will follow us down the road to the hospital. Strangely, the truck sits on the side of the road for ten minutes before driving up to the hospital. We feel uneasy about the driver.

We pull into the area marked ‘Services d’Urgences’.

There is no doctor. In fact, there isn’t even space at the hospital and they won’t take the three injured men. We’re totally baffled – can they even refuse? Leanne calls Joseph (cf. ‘ministry pt. 2’ post). He says he will arrive in 10 minutes. The hospital staff seem restless (maybe because they won’t do anything to help?). The truck driver gets out and says his boss called to tell him to leave.

The old man is whimpering softly, doing the only thing I can expect him to do: bleeding. A lot. An acquaintance of his that we asked to accompany the old man is cradling the the man’s head. I’m surprised he’s held together this long. I’m so grateful he’s not yelling out in pain.

As I walk back toward the truck, I see something that makes me break into a run: the driver is ordering his workers in the truck-bed to roll out the injured. One of the workers yanks off the bloody sheet that was covering one of the men. They’re not… I yell out in Kirundi, “Ngarara! Ngarara!” Stop! It’s  a tricky word for me sometimes but this time I pronounce it cleanly. This time, no one laughs when I speak Kirundi. The men stop pushing at the injured men and stare down at me. I grab Morisho, our driver, who is just standing there watching. I say to him, “Tell them to wait two more minutes. Tell them not to move the men in the truck.”

Joseph does arrive in the next two minutes, and after some tense negotiating, we get the truck to follow our convoy to another public hospital. Joseph and I are in his car; Leanne and Morisho with the old man in the Land Cruiser. As we near the hospital, the truck pulls into a gas station. Again, total disbelief. We split up – Joseph and I turn around to find the truck, the others continue to the hospital.

When we find him, the truck driver refuses to go on. Not until he gets gas at this specific station. We press and press but it’s no use – his boss said so. Joseph gets the boss on the phone only to get yelled at. We convince the driver to promise to come to to the hospital after he gets gas.

At the hospital, the Land Cruiser is idle and no one is around it to help the old man. Leanne is waiting to talk to a doctor who is chatting with a couple. It’s hard to tell if they’re just bantering or if he really is dispensing medical advice. The doctor (I assume) is in a pristine white coat, a stethoscope wrapped around the back of his neck like a towel after a workout. 

Leanne tries to explain the situation, asks him to see the old man’s injury.
The doctor, says, “We cannot help. We have no places. The hospital is full. There is a line and we have to help the other people first.”

This goes on for a bit. Leanne gives one more try.
“But there has to be a triage system. How do you prioritize the patients?”
Same response.
She turns to me and says, “What are we supposed to do? Just put him on the ground and leave him to die?”

This far into my stay in Burundi, I have not seen the need to get angry. Things are already so ridiculous and difficult, it hardly seems worth it to be genuinely mad about something. Frustrated – for sure, but not angry. Until today.

After Leanne stalks away, angrier than I have ever seen her, I approach the doctor and invite him just to see the man, telling him I wasn’t asking for anything more than that. Instead of responding to my words, the doctor spins toward me and asks hotly “Why did she get angry?”

I think there must be some misunderstanding so I try again: “This is not about her. You and I, we are having a conversation. There is a man that needs your help.”

The doctor replies, “No, why did she get angry like that? That is not right.”

I don’t believe it. All that matters to him is a personal dispute that he really has no right to be upset about – he’s the one not doing his job. I wanted to punch him right on his shiny nose and then whip the stethoscope he has pretentiously draped over his shoulders around his neck to drag him over to see the old man. It takes a lot to suppress my rage. I turn away without another word and leave. We still need to find a hospital. As I walk away, I hear the doctor say, “You can leave him on the ground there and we will look at him later. There is a system to these things…”

The Land Cruiser goes ahead. As Joseph and I are pulling out of the lot, the truck arrives. Keep going, we tell the driver. To a third hospital.

When Joseph and I arrive at the next hospital, the Land Cruiser’s back door is open. Leanne and Morisho are standing nearby and a large crowd is watching. Two ex-pat doctors, a bald man with blue eyes and a mustached fellow, are giving directions. Leanne smiles as we walk up: “They will take them. They have no places either, but after seeing the injury, they said they would take them. We’ll see what happens.”

We mill around for a while. It’s already past 5 p.m. and even at a hospital, people expect to leave work. The doctor says, if we operate on him now, we can save the leg. If tomorrow, we amputate.

There is some hesitation amongst the hospital staff about treating peasants who probably cannot pay. Leanne takes out what money she has on her, and the bald doctor (Théo, from Germany) lectures the administrative staff on the expectation that anyone in Burundi would casually carry on their person 300,000 Burundian francs, the amount for the deposit. Finally, the doctor gets to work. 

I’m glad to learn everyone will recover to an extent. The other two looked worse than they were; I don’t know what happened to the boy. I do wonder about the old man though. An injury like that, even if he can walk normally again, would take at least nine months to heal. Food prices are rising, jobs are scarce. If you’re an old peasant man with no income and no mobility, what do you do? What do the people around you do? 

And this kind of accident happens all the time. What happens to the next old man? Who actually gets to use the “public” hospitals? Which organizations’ vehicles will drive past again without stopping? Doctors Without Borders? The Red Cross? (To their credit, the Red Cross funds this last hospital because it actually treats people. It’s the only one they support.)

The next day, Leanne visits the hospital and finds out the old man has to stay for five to six weeks. She has to negotiate with the hospital how to pay for his fees, which she will do out of her pocket. I plan on contributing. We have a conversation that ends like this:

“If this happens again, in a week or two, would you still stop?”
“Yes. You have to. Don’t you?”
“Sure. But nobody else did.”


A few other things I want to mention:

Leanne and I would make pathetic doctors. Our diagnoses were way off. That’s why we do aid work instead.

When someone at the hospital asks one of the young men who was steering the bike what happened, he replies that he veered off into the ditch to avoid an oncoming car that was passing another car. That couldn’t be possible because if there was such a car, we would have hit it.

Later on the night of the accident, one of Leanne’s security guards asks, “What happened to the bike?”


catch up

I’m a bit behind in my posts because I was in the Congo for a work-trip (“field trip”) this week. I will have much to write about that but for now, I’ve posted some entries from last week below. Here are some photos that my colleague, Sean, took of me playing soccer on Sunday, the 20th.




ministry, pt. 2

Friday, July 11, 2008.

I’m leaning back in my chair, one arm draped over the back, a slight smile tugging at my lips. I’m hoping I don’t look too smug or too amused. Conseiller Félix is in full-form. In a long-sleeve tan shirt buttoned all the way up the collar, he is all arms-a-flailing, a thousand words a minute. The man is giddy about the progress of my organization’s registration.

I had not planned on having this meeting so soon. The day before, I was speaking to an ex-combattant who is the head of a local ex-com association. I mentioned that I am still trying to register my organization and that I had been talking to a guy named Félix at the Ministry of Foreign Relations. My friend said, « Oh him, I know him. Let’s go see him tomorrow. » And so we do.

Does everyone really know everyone here, or just the people I happen to know?

If that were the extent of the coincidence, I might not ask so many questions, but as I am walking to the Ministry this morning, I pass a small white car parked on a sidestreet that I had never taken before but had just decided to try this time. As I am past the car, I hear, « Jeff! » I instinctively look up to the sky, and think, Oh man, this is it. I keep staring. Bright blue…nothing. I finally make the connection with the car and walk back to look inside. In the driver’s seat is Joseph, the man who works in the office across from my temporary site, and in the passenger seat is Prosper, the pineapple vendor.

Joseph is a classic ‘intellectual’. He is slight with glasses that rest low on his nose so he is often peering down. What that means is that he knows and I know that he wouldn’t be here if he weren’t out of the country during any number of ethnic slaughters that targeted potential rivals like teachers and journalists, basically anyone that looked smart. Joseph certainly does more than look smart, and he just may be one of the sweetest human beings I know. I can’t say enough about him and yet I can’t really describe him. He is passionate about his work and totally non-political. He’s analytical and diplomatic, enthusiastic and subtly hilarious. I especially like that he briefly opens his eyes wide when he gets excited in mid-conversation.

Joseph and I talk a bit about my imminent meeting. I know I will be a few minutes late, but I also know the trade-off would be good. I lay out the meeting’s context and explain that I want to negotiate with Félix to make the registration process more efficient. Joseph’s advice is reasonable and precise: Do not work with more than one Ministry; they will never agree on anything.

I get to the Ministry and my friend is there in a suit. I look sullenly at my dusty shoes.

Before I go into Félix’s office, there is something I need to do first. I walk over to the reception office. Inside are three women and two men having a very spirited discussion about why nothing is getting done. The woman from before is not there. Two of the five are looking at the printer. Clearly, that is what they are talking about – I didn’t need my rudimentary Kirundi to understand that. I walk in, holding the replacement cable aloft. Barack Obama bearing the Olympic torch wouldn’t have gotten such a cheer. It’s amazing – the mood becomes practically joyous. As soon as I hand over the cable and say, « I hope this fixes the problem, » all responsibility and recriminations are forgotten. They say that it was just an « accident, » that it was « no one’s fault, » or, at worst, a « shared fault. » Uh huh. So does that mean you’ll share the cable’s cost with me? One of the men says, « We were wondering if you were going to come back. We didn’t know what to do without the printer. » I say, « Of course, I would be back. I’m here to help your country, not destroy it. »

Back in Félix’s office, I run through the checklist of things he asked me to do and tell him briefly about each task. He nods so energetically, I find myself wanting to nod with him. Yay! Good job, Jeff! He says we’re in great shape, that the file should move right along now because I did what the instructions said. Then suddenly, Félix turns serious. He shuffles through the layers of documents on his desk and lifts up the wreckage of a file for a Swiss organization like it’s a piece of rotting garbage. Peeling it open, he pulls out this and that sheet of paper while rapidly explaining that this is what happens. This is what happens if you don’t listen, if you don’t do things the right way – you have to always followfollowfollow instructions. You have to follow-up, too. This file, he says, has been on his desk since April. I realize I am shaking my head.

But I did do things the right way, so now there was only one other thing I needed to do: Joseph’s advice.

« Félix, » I say, « I know you asked me to stop at all the Ministries that might be involved, but I think I don’t need to do that. I don’t think the Ministry of Public Health needs to be involved. »

Félix says, « But your project might provide healthcare, right? See, I wrote that down the last time. So the Ministry of Public Health should be involved. And absolutely, the Ministry of National Solidarity and Development for Human Rights and Gender, they must be there. »

I feel betrayed by a stupider four-day younger version of myself. I concede on the Ministry of Solidarity, but I know I have to get rid of the other Ministry or the project would never work. I’m speechless, Félix is waiting, and my friend seems nervous. How do you just make an entire government ministry disappear?

And then something comes back to me. In my head, I see the border crossing to enter Burundi. I see a border guard giving me a hard time and I see Oscar, the Rwandan pastor. I summon all my faith about what I have learned the past few weeks. I brace myself and say to Félix, « You know, we actually do want to provide some health services, but not too many, so you see, we don’t really need to involve the Ministry of Public Health. » I don’t say any more. I wonder if this is not too brazen for me to request, too ridiculous a suggestion. Félix is leaning forward, arms wide like he wants to wrestle. He stares at me for a few moments, mouth half-open. Then he slaps the table, breaks out laughing, and swiftly crosses the Ministry of Public Health from his notes. « Less work for me! » he yells. I don’t even notice I am nodding again.

Jeff: 1, the Ministry of Public Health: Dis. Missed.


By the way, Oscar sent me an email from Kigali the other day. Here it is, in full:

kabera oscar                                                               to me Jul 8

 I love Jesus



I really didn’t know how to respond adequately, so I wrote back: 

« I know. »


burundi in the news

A couple commodity issues are constantly in the news, making this an appropriate time for me to sketch out several aspects of life in Burundi.



First, I’ll talk about what I know: bananas. There are two words for bananas. There is igitoke, which are large green bananas that are used as a savory dish; they are delicious grilled and usually served with meat-on-sticks. Then there are imihwi, which are the yellow bananas that you and I know (but cannot survive on alone, apparently). There is the longer kind but also mini-bananas (‘lady-fingers’ or akamaramasenge) that I’m starting to like more. I’m not sure yet if igitoke ripens into imihwi, but that’s a safe bet.

Sugar is cherished here because Burundians drink their coffee and tea very sweet. My guards won’t drink tea without. The price of sugar has been rising ruthlessly and is now at around $1.50 USD for a kilogram. This has been a major blow to the national psyche.

Each week, one of the French-language newspapers here publishes a chart of the food prices, comparing the current prices with the previous week’s. There’s a listing for « Rice 1 ($1 USD/kg), » « Rice 2 ($0.84 USD/kg), » and « Rice 3 ($0.75 USD/kg). » There’s also something called « Viking Oil, » which you will be happy to know is holding steady at 3000 Bfr (about $2.50 USD) to the liter. Underneath the chart is a « Commentary » section that puts into words what the numbers already say. Translated roughly, it says, « Everything is more expensive. »

If I go to a food store instead of the central market, I can find some Western products like Kellogg’s Corn Flakes. One box costs about $20 USD. If I really want Peanut M & M’s, there are those, too, at $2 USD for a fun-size bag. Because of a quirk in the universe, I’m being paid a Burundian national’s salary, so I think I’ll stick with less opulent items. The real kicker is that if the stores are still selling the corn flakes, it’s because someone is actually buying it.

It does bring up an interesting question about what money means to me right now. With grad school and massive debt being a possibility in the next couple years, whether and how I spend my money doesn’t seem that important – there’s no way I can save enough, so why not use it? At the same time, I find myself needing fewer and fewer things, so I’m at a loss for what to spend money on, even if I wanted or had some to spend. I would welcome any suggestions.

Michaela Wrong, writing about the Congolese in In the Footsteps of Mr. Kurtz, references a George Orwell passage about the poor spending frivolously in order to feel more valuable, to transcend their misery. That makes a lot of sense to me – many of my expenditures are probably unnecessary, but I know intimately that feeling of wanting to « reward » myself with little things for working a lot.



Right before I saw the two articles linked below, I had a conversation with a Burundian friend and a taxi driver about gas prices in the U.S. It was shocking to them how little Americans pay for gas. Anyway, the articles are worth a look. Just for comparison, gas is around $4 a gallon in the U.S., and in Burundi, which is either last or second to last in 2007 GDP/PPP lists ($400 GDP per capita), gas will hit $8 a gallon soon.

It would be so tragic if Burundi falls apart because of commodity prices it has no control over just as it might finally be emerging from this long war through a peace process that was brokered by African nations.


Thursday, July 10, 2008.

It’s too hot today, and too bright. Something feels wrong. Too many speeding trucks loaded with soldiers gripping their guns too tightly. Why is the mounted machine gun manned? The trucks are moving forward and the gunner is facing the other way. They seem too ready.

Rumors: There is a rumor that the rebels are planning new attacks, supported by a radio announcement that they are in desperate need of food and will take to the hillsides to get it. A rumor that the peace process is breaking down (again) – supported by the rebels’ suspension of troop cantonment for demobilisation. The government rejects the rebel demand to transition into a political party. Ostensibly, a name thing*: the Hutu-led government rejects any mention of ethnicity, and the last rebel group’s name is PALIPEHUTU-FNL (that’s an abbreviation**). Neither side is yielding. What is the point of this manuevering? The rebels have few options left, and the government doesn’t want to take any risks, especially with elections in two years.

I walk home at around 7:30. It’s dark but usually there are more people on the streets. Vehicles are moving fast tonight. It’s too hot.

(Update 7/12/08: I hear that next week, things will move forward, one way or another.)


But this is too cool:

I’m going to plug a USB device for my laptop that I just purchased for $100 USD. While that is steep in Burundi, I can now access the internet whereever there is a cellphone signal. I can bypass the whole fixed-line installation issue and work anywhere. This brilliant little silver gadget made by a Chinese company called HuaWei lets me dial into the mobile network (admittedly shakey) and use the internet for only 1.6 cents a minute. The download speed is pretty good, too. Becuase I’m using a Mac, I don’t have the software loaded, but if I did, I would also have SMS and phone capabilities through the computer (like Skype). I asked if I could use it in other countries but was told that it’s configured for Burundi only (meaning it could be reconfigured?).


 * – This name issue shows up again with a popular journalist who is trying to register himself as an opposition political party. The government rejects his application because he includes the word « Securité » in the party’s name, which the government claims is solely their domain.

** – short for ‘Parti pour la Libération du Peuple Hutu-Forces Nationales pour la Libération’


All troubles aside, there is also progress: 

« U.S. Intelligence: Burundi May Be Developing Telephone »

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