Posts Tagged ‘Heartland Alliance


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:


heartland alliance in general and sange in particular

Maybe it was the WBEZ interview and being asked engaging questions about my work that has got me thinking or more likely it was this past week’s events, but I’m going to shift the focus of this blog to some work things. It’s a task I’ve meant to complete for over a year now, but Life has often conspired to prevent me from writing critically about Work. Work does that, too; I do work, I don’t write about it.

So I’m going to load some photos of my World Cup Safari and my two weeks in Chicago on Facebook instead. I figure most of my blog’s readership is probably linked to me on FB already. If not, just search for ‘Jefferson Mok’. Now, you might notice there are two of us – that’s okay; I’m the one in Burundi. (I also want to point out that I have reached out to this other “Jefferson Mok” but he hasn’t reciprocated the kindness. I’m distraught.)

First, Heartland Alliance’s approach to humanitarian assistance. I often find describing Heartland’s approach to programming unwieldy because it’s fairly broad. So while an organization like Doctors Without Borders has a clear mandate based around advanced medical care in emergency contexts, it’s more challenging to pin down Heartland’s philosophy. Part of that has to do with Heartland’s origins. Heartland Alliance grew out of the Hull House in Chicago and Jane Addam’s pioneering work to assist recent immigrants and other populations in need with social services. Since 1888, Heartland has firmly established itself in Chicago and around the Midwest to provide quality human services to populations ranging from housing, medical aid, legal services and mental health counseling. It’s hard to exaggerate that legacy – Addams is to social services in the U.S. what Clara Barton was to the Red Cross. However, Heartland’s versatility also inhibits an easy description of Heartland Alliance’s services.

I used to list off Heartland Alliance’s services and the corresponding list of populations that it reaches, but I’ve maxed out my comma-usage quota through the next century (and it played really poorly as a self-introduction at parties). Now I think I can do a bit better. In very short, we provide human rights-based protection services to highly vulnerable populations. A little longer: we provide critical protection and rehabilitation services principally for victims of human rights abuses or to strengthen the human rights context. In a given country, this package of services can vary by project or by region or by need, but the design process still proceeds from a human rights framework, an agile responsiveness to the context and a focus on high quality care. Very often, the most significant need is mental health care such as trauma counseling for women and children victims of conflict or violence. This happens to be an area in which Heartland Alliance is very strong, based on its extensive work with torture survivors in the Midwest. For me, one of Heartland Alliance’s key attributes is its ability to draw from a vast network of highly trained and experienced professionals from the Chicago-area. Lawyers, doctors, psychologists, researchers – it’s a heady roster that supports a panoply of humanitarian aid activities abroad.

Heartland Alliance’s current portfolio in the African Great Lakes region includes a female former child soldier rehabilitation project, an anti-human trafficking project that covers both Burundi and South Kivu Province in eastern Congo, a transit care shelter for victims of sexual violence in South Kivu and operational support for sexual minority associations. It is not by chance that Human Rights Watch has produced reports about Burundi on child soldiers in 2006 and the LGBTI community in 2009.

This evolution is exciting on a personal level after two years out here. As this blog testifies, I literally just showed up in Burundi one June afternoon in 2008 with a bag and a few well chosen words of encouragement. To see an actual Program(me) take shape over that time is more than satisfying. Heartland has only been involved in international development since 2004 but already, I can tell it is a highly effective operation and its ability to respond quickly to needs and gaps in humanitarian services to the most vulnerable populations is impressive. (I say all this not to just toot my own horn, but to acknowledge the work Heartland is doing in countries like Ethiopia, Iraq, Haiti, Sri Lanka and Nigeria, all of which I am still learning about). The rate of expansion is dizzying; thankfully, the organization’s infrastructure is improving at a similar rate.

July 28, 2010. Sange, South Kivu Province, DRC.

This past Thursday presents a good example of how our model works. On July 2, 2010, there was a devastating explosion in the town of Sange in South Kivu. Sange is an important transit point about 30km north of Uvira, where we have our office. A truck carrying petrol crashed and overturned on the side of the main road, next to a bar filled with people watching the World Cup. A massive commotion followed with many children rushing toward the truck that was now belching out petrol from a broken valve. Even soldiers got in on the act and started filling  tins with the spilled gas and stashing them in their guardhouse a few yards from the truck. What happened next is not entirely clear. I first heard it was a man flicking a cigarette but more reliably, some of the people in the area said it was the fuse of a motorcyclist kick-starting his engine. What is clear is that in the ensuing explosion, a motorcyclist was launched into the air by a mushroom-flame cloud and never came back down. The final death toll is not yet known but it is well over 300 now.

Heartland Alliance’s mental health staff, led by Molly Firkaly, our Mental Health Program Manager, responded three days later, setting up counseling services for burn victims and community members before any other humanitarian aid organizations had arrived. The need was critical; our mandate was vital in meeting that need and recognizing that it was a disaster for the entire community, not just individuals. Heartland Alliance staff were given a list of 285 victims, whose families our counselors visited at their homes. The other organizations that arrived focused on medical and psychological services to direct victims of the fire but for some reason, this coverage did not extend to family members who had suffered loss. At least in this context, they lacked the flexibility to ensure reaching as many people in need as they could have, so I think we filled an important gap there. The politics and motivations behind the situation’s coordination structure could fill a book – not that I’m writing one. And I won’t write one now.

Last Thursday, I visited Sange for the first time since my return from Chicago. We are a team of three: Molly, our Program Manager, Arisitide, our Project Coordinator and me, the Driver. We are there for some meetings with the local hospital’s doctors and administrators. At Sange we encounter disturbing realities about medical care in eastern Congo. If you read the papers, you might think the only thing doctors do in eastern DRC is treat rape victims. That might be partially true, but only because there is no funding for anything else. So the Sange hospital treating the burn victims has to depend on an international organization to provide a vehicle for an ambulance service because the hospital does not have money for fuel for its one vehicle. The ambulance has to first travel to Sange in order to transfer severe burn victims a few hours away to Bukavu or about an hour away to Uvira (during one of our meetings, we learn that of the 33 who had been transferred, 27 had passed away, including two that morning). Doctors have had to be flown in with tons of their own equipment to perform delicate surgeries.

After our meetings, I took some photos of the truck, which is still there, and the surrounding area, which is kind of still there.

I swear, the next post will be more uplifting. It’s really not my fault.


A couple of policemen survey the wreck. All of the rubber has burnt away from the tires, exposing the metal treads.

The ground is scorched far away from the truck. An enormous amount of fuel had spilled out prior to the explosion.

This small guardhouse was gutted because soldiers allegedly stored spilled petrol from the overturned truck in tins here.

Lime traces mark two spots where two soldiers perished (below). At least four were crammed into this space when the explosion occurred. The odors are awful.

Some children tagged the truck with graffiti. Most are directed at the Congolese Armed Forces (FARDC). “Stop.”


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.


congo pt. 1 (continued)

Tuesday, July 22, 2008.

(My mom’s birthday. Sorry I didn’t write, Mom – I was in the Congo.)

This is a work trip, so in two days, we crash around Bukavu – just me, Sean, and the humongous drum that he bought in Burundi, boucing around in the covered bed of a truck where the seats are two benches that face each other; I get out feeling kind of battered every time. In all, we meet with about ten different agencies and their practitioners to get a sense of what’s going on in the region and how we might help out. I don’t need to reiterate the details of those meetings, except to say that not everyone’s stories line up, but I will mention one place in particular.

Panzi Hospital (please visit is located a few kilometers into the hills of Bukavu. The road there is so dusty all the leaves on the plants lining the road are completely coated. It’s like the whole scene has been spray-painted sienna except for the female pedestrians wrapped in a splash of vivid colors. From what I hear, Panzi is one of the best-equipped hospitals in the Great Lakes region. Unfortunately, its favorable condition correlates to the need for such a facility.

Walking into Panzi, the first few patients we see would belong in most general hospitals. A few people on crutches, bandages on various parts of the body for others. I do notice though that they are very young. As I have started to learn more about eastern Congo, I start to ask myself what caused the injuries that I’m seeing. That boy on crutches? Probably not a skateboarding accident. Would I want to know the answer?

Sean and I meet with the deputy Director because the real Director is at a conference in Germany. The deputy Director leads us around the facility.

Panzi responds directly to a need in the region: treatment for victims of sexual violence. The term « systematic rape » is sometimes used to describe what is happening in eastern Congo. Women are the principal victims in a conflict that includes armed groups from several countries, groups that operate with relative impunity. No matter how I try to add up the motives of these groups, I cannot see what would lead to the brutal suffering they inflict on women. Some stories I wish I had not heard.

As the tour moves on, and I feel more awkward and sad, we enter wards full of recuperating women. All are rape victims, our guide confirms. We visit the operating rooms, where shiny metal stirrups are already set up. The sterile tiled rooms, the equipment – it all feels cold and menacing.

Toward the end of the tour, we come up to the side of a large shed, almost like a hangar. When we get around to the front and look inside, I am startled by a massive congregation of women and children seated at bench-tables, a few with baskets and other crafts in front of them. Up to the moment when we look into the hangar, I did not hear any sound that would suggest so many people were just around the corner. It’s kind of eerie. Later on, Sean says he thinks there were over a thousand women and children there. Sean and I end up buying a few of the crafts. Big laughs when I flip one of the baskets over and put it on my head. Sean says, « You knew that was going to happen. » Sure, but if you know me, you know I would put something on my head every chance I get (even bike helmets, on occasion).

On the way out, a chubby kid with the puffiest shiniest cheeks I have ever seen just grabs my hand and starts walking with me. Two fat little moons – they are so perfectly round, I don’t even want to pinch them, lest I disturb them. The boy walks with us all the way to the car and then waves us goodbye.


It’s been about two-and-a-half weeks since the visit now, and I have formulated two project proposals to pass on to HQ to see which one might be more workable. Here they are:

Congo Plan One:

Congo Plan Two:



congo, pt. 1 – bukavu, south kivu province

Monday, July 21 to Wednesday, July 23, 2008.

We’re getting near the border between Rwanda and the Congo (DRC). Below us stretches Lake Kivu, and I can’t believe what I’m seeing.

Everyone told us to stay at the Orchid and this is why:

It’s so hard to process what I read and hear about this region from seeing the lake. We had been expecting the worst. Early on during the ride, Sean and I joked about being taken hostage by some Congolese rebels. Who would try to escape? Who would get away? I smiled as I looked down: running shoes.

Congo is chaos, a place where paying bribes is slightly more justifiable because no one is paid their salaries. It doesn’t mean there is nothing good there or that nothing works or that productive work isn’t being done – it just means it’s all quite messy.

A useful contrast: the Rwandan checkpoint and the Congolese one. On the Rwandan side, everyone lines up, there is a window through which an immigration officer asks somewhat relevant questions, exchanges a few pleasant words, stamps our passports and then off we go. The minute we get off our bus on the Congolese side, a man in civilian clothes catches one of us by the arm and says, “Come with me, you have to get your vaccines.” He’s quite insistent and we’re kind of annoyed. We push him away and head right for the visa office.

Inside the office are three desks arranged in an ‘L’ with border police and would-be travelers buzzing around. There is a lot of pointing and page-turning. No one seems very happy. An officer sees us and motions us into a separate office where two officers are calmly doing nothing: the foreigner’s line. We are surprised when we get our passports back with visa stamps and signatures and have only paid the visa fees. I secretly feel like an asshole for that.

As soon as we step out of the visa office, the same man in civilian clothing accosts us and tells us to go to the vaccination booth. We refuse, but then a health ‘official’ (guy in a lab-coat) says we must go to show our vaccination cards. We are bowled over by the legitimacy of his white lab-coat. We decide to get this over with.

So we trudge down to a little tent where three lab-coated men are inside: one is standing and rubbing soapy hands together; another is seated behind a small table; the third is standing next to the second. The two men by the table record our names into a ledger and ask for our vaccination cards. Sean’s is a computer printout and relatively easy to decipher. Mine is the yellow booklet that folds out like an elaborate pop-up book. The inspecter never quite figures it out and I notice he never gets to the middle sections where my past vaccinations are actually recorded. We get our cards back and are about to leave when the man standing next to the table calls us back, extends his right hand, and says, “Please, a little present?” As we step out of the tent, I wonder if the tent and all that build up is just an ornate pretense to ask the question: “Do you have some money for us?”

Once we get out of the vaccination booth, we head back toward the bus. A Congolese policewoman sitting near the booth spots us. She watches me approach, smirks, and turns her head away as I walk past.

« Chinois! » she hisses.

We are in the Congo.


The other night:

My future roommate/fellow home renovator, Julie, and I are sharing anecdotes about the bathroom cockroaches (well, she was talking about « beetles ») before dinner and wondering why people naturally flinch at insects. We are surprised at the disproportionate reactions people have over such small creatures, although we agree that the geckos darting wildly all over the walls are rather cute. Julie put forth a very brave argument about overcoming those involuntary reactions by rationally concluding the harmlessness of the insect (in most cases). Is she right? Does rationality have any place in this equation? Is there something wrong with being scared?

There is sometimes a fascination with being tough around here. On occasion, I, too, have to project that personality – strictly for work, of course. But who are we kidding? Let’s get over ourselves and calm our romanticized notions of roughing it or being « cowboys. » Africa could use some more honesty from its guests (and in general?). Sometimes, I wonder if ‘Africa’ would get half the attention that it does (which is already pitifully little) from development workers if it weren’t such a beautiful and spellbinding place where our playground fantasies can be played out.

On one of my first days in Bujumbura, I was walking down a dirt path when I came across a man laying on his back on the ground, his limbs in a contorted position; he was clearly unconscious. I wondered if was dead.

I had almost stepped on him.

His was not a resting pose. He was covered in the red dust of the street, which was why I didn’t see him until the last moment. I felt a shock at seeing him like that and just missing planting my foot on his head. I guess I would be surprised if I almost stepped on any person, conscious or not, but I found myself asking why I was startled. I even chided myself for it. Now I look back and can’t understand that question or that reaction. Why would I ever want to be unflinching at the sight of something like that?







I am somewhat sensitive to the risk that a personal and anecdotal blog like this one may be viewed as a legitimate source of information based on its access to the situation « on the ground. » I have avoided a more rigorous treatment of the subjects I am here to engage, like the issue of child soldiers, female combattants and soon, the fiasco that is the Congo. Some topics I don’t treat because of personal or professional reasons. I don’t think I am very knowledgeable about the above topics yet, nor am I equipped to properly analyze them. If at some later date, I do acquire those skills, then maybe I will have a blog that isn’t named after me. For now, I am content to have the wide-eyed wonder of an amateur with seats that are almost too close. After all, I came to traumatized Burundi so I wouldn’t have to go to (possibly) traumatizing grad school yet.


Monday, July 21, 2008.

Exactly one month after my arrival in Burundi, I am on a bus out of the country. I am on a work trip to Bukavu in South Kivu province of the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) with my colleague Sean, who is visiting from Chicago.

Before I leave for Bukavu, I stop by the cafe where Gabriel, the Greek baker, dispenses sound advice and good coffee. I mention my trip to him and while he grabs me a croissant, he gives me a number to call if I want to hire a car and driver. He also tells me I should stay at the Orchid hotel in Bukavu (everyone tells me this).

He says, « When you are at the hotel, it’s so beautiful and calm. »

But I say, « But what’s behind, away from the lake, is so terrible. »

He says, « When you are looking out on the lake, you forget everything else. There you are at the edge of Paradise and Hell, » and I know we aren’t talking about religion.

At first, I try to rent a car so Sean and I can drive to Bukavu. The trip is about four to five hours if we pass through Rwanda. Estimates for passing through Uvira on the Congo side range from six hours to “Eternity,” and always given with this warning: « Don’t go that way. »  I ask around for quotes for a car and driver and get prices of $150-200 USD per day. Contrast that with the cost of renting the same set-up in Burundi, which is about $35 USD a day. People say the high prices are because of this or that fee but what they really mean is, « You have to give me a hell of a lot of money before I drive there. » Our budget for the trip is only several hundred dollars. I ask about renting a car and driving ourselves but we won’t get one, people say, because no one would be willing to let a car go to the Congo without supervision. Once we find a bus company in town that goes through Rwanda, we get two tickets for a total of $10 USD each.

Our bus passes through the Hutu-stronghold province of Cibitoke, which is northwest of Bujumbura. The landscape is startingly flat. Even more stunning is the number of passengers on the bus. Usually, in Burundi and many parts of Africa, the bus simply would not leave town until it was crammed with five or six people to a row. On this bus, some rows only have three people. When there are empty « seats » like this, the driver sometimes cruises around town, honking wildly and slapping the side of the vehicle to attract passengers. In this case, we just take off. I think that’s the first time I’ve been on a van/bus (matatu) where we don’t even hit the displayed seating capacity, much less the inflated one. By the time we get to the border of Burundi and Rwanda, there are only four passengers left, and we still continue on. The meaning is pretty clear: no one wants to go to the Congo.

We arrive at the border around noonish. It’s sunny, it’s warm, the landscape is gorgeous. Sean and I get out and go to the border patrol office to get our Burundi exit-stamps. Sean gets his and crosses over to the Rwandan side with the van. I step up to the window and hand over my passport, which I have opened to the page with my entry-stamp. Instead of looking at the stamp, the officer, a blue-clad policeman with a raw cut under his right eye, flips through to the other pages, looking for something. Did he not see that I had generously done half the work for him by opening to the relevant page? But he keeps flipping, turning the passport this way and that. The cut under his eye smiles and frowns as he concentrates and narrows his eyes. He stops flipping. The cut is frowning. He says, « Where is your visa? »

I try again and turn back to the page with the entry-stamp. He shakes his head. « No, that is not the right visa. That is only for three days. It is expired. Your stay in Burundi is illegal so you cannot leave. »

It takes me a second to realize what is going on. A country that won’t let a person leave because of an expired visa? As if I need another reminder that I am not in the U.S. I try to reason with the officer, try to invoke the infalliability of the empirical evidence before us: this is a stamp that I received upon entry for which I paid the fee of $20 USD, hence I have a visa, right?

« No. »

« Ok, » I say. « So what form do I fill out to get the visa? Who do I need to see? Is it this office here? » I ask, pointing to the chair next to him.

« No, you have to go back to Bujumbura. »

Here, I might say that my blood ran cold at his answer but that is strictly a Northern Hemisphere thing, where the rules are rigid and the weather cold enough to give the expression meaning. But in Burundi, it’s just too hot for blood to ‘feel’ cold and rules…what rules?

So I try to appeal to a higher authority. « Where is your commander? » I say.

« No. »

Right. I look all around. The scenery again: bright, green, beautiful…and totally empty. There doesn’t seem to any suggestion that another person will pass by today. I turn back to the officer.

« I cannot go back today. I have to go to the Congo. » I don’t believe I’m saying those words. I say, « You really don’t want me here, talking to you all day. » He has no idea the danger he is in. In fact, it turns out, he really just has no idea.

I say, « Ok, so tell me what I need to get the visa. This is a border crossing. »

« Go back to Bujumbura. »

I look around again. Not a person in sight.

« No, tell me how we can solve this here. » Ok, I am officially trying to pay you off.

« You need a visa and you don’t have one. »

« Yes, I know that. You don’t want me here and I don’t want to be here, but I’m not going back to Bujumbura, so let’s find a ‘solution’. » Is he for real? Is he this dense?

He sits back, looks up at me. He looks confused. Then, « Oh, oh, ok, come into my office and we will discuss. »  The cut under his eye is beaming.

I wonder briefly what he saw inscribed in my expression that made him understand. Was it desperation? A propensity for conspiracy? Or did he just need a few moments to get it?

I enter the office from the side door and walk over to the officer’s right but he doesn’t look up at me. He extends his open left hand across his body, still looking out. He is insisting on secrecy. I feel a little ridiculous. I am hoping Sean can’t see me. I look out the window, expecting to see an army truck pull up to arrest the corrupt foreigner. No luck – still no one, except Sean (looking toward the office) and the van.

« Ok, no problem. Give me something to get a few beers. A little present. »

 I love this – he still feels the need to dress up the bribe, as if I care what he spends it on. I wish he had said that he was going to pay his kids’ school fees instead – that’s what everyone in the Congo says. I already know I only have a 10,000 franc bill in my wallet – about $8 USD. That’s going to buy a lot of beers. Sadly, I’m going to be party to both corruption and alcoholism.

We drive on to Bukavu.


(I find out later from a friend that he knows the commander of that border post. When he hears my story, he tells me I should have called him because he could have gotten me through. Turns out the commander is an old friend of his. The lesson is clear: next time I find myself about to bribe someone, I should call everyone listed in my cellphone first.)

In the next few days, I will write a post about the trip to eastern Congo. Hopefully.
I’ve been super-busy and kind of run-down recently, but this blog is a good space to gain perspective so I’ll  try to keep it going. Thanks for reading.

Click below to receive an email notification when I post a new entry.

Join 36 other followers

August 2020