(I've changed the name from "Rants" given that I can't really rant about many things that frustrate me here, at least not without getting into some sort of trouble. As such, you'll have to wait for the book.)

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

First Trip to the Field


After a few days of staff meetings, signing billions of documents and house hunting, I escaped for a couple of days to travel to the northern part of the country where we have a field site and loads of interesting activities. The reasons for the trip were to attend some meetings, visit a refugee camp where we will begin working soon and also visit some of the projects that we are working on in the region.

the hills of Burundi
Traveling in Burundi is very different from Tanzania. Given the small size of the country you can get to most anywhere within a half day. An added advantage is that there are good tarmac roads that connect all the major areas. This is very cool since the bumpy roads in rural Tanzania have a habit of bruising all of your internal organs during the long, dusty treks from one place to the next.

Muyinga

So Monday morning we headed out with six people crammed into a Toyota Prado. The late dry season haze blurred the hills that border Bujumbura to the west. Our route would take us up through this rugged terrain which remained hilly all the way to our destination. In fact, Burundi is entirely made up of hills and one of the most beautiful places in Africa – at least from what I've seen. I say this having been told by my Burundian colleagues that I haven't even seen it at its best which is supposedly a clear day during the rainy season. Well, I'm looking forward to it and I'll have my camera ready.

having a look at a new bridge
Speaking of camera, you'll notice in this blog that I appear in some of the photos. This is rare in that I had a guy with me that was shooting pictures of our projects as we moved from one location to the next. Though I had my camera with me, most of the time I didn't pull it out.

life in the camp
We arrived in Muyinga around noon, visited the office, had some lunch and sped off to one of the refugee camps for a "town hall" meeting with refugees. The head table consisted of heads of a handful of organizations that work in the camp as well as the UN and the head of the local government. There were a few speeches and then we broke up into smaller groups to meet with various refugee committees on a variety of topics. Our group focused primarily on the protection of women and girls – a topic of special importance when working with Congolese refugees.

listening to speeches

That evening we had a drink at a local watering hole and then dinner at our guesthouse. The house is an architectural nightmare that adds insult to injury in the form of pink tiles, pink and orange curtains and topped off by my favorite pasty white fluorescent lighting. Having said that, the essentials were there. I had a hot shower (shared with a number of creepy, crawly things) and a comfortable bed (hopefully not shared with the creepy, crawly things).

visiting a new school
The next day we were off to an early meeting with the same organizations as the day before. I was a marginally relevant addition to the meeting until around mid-morning at which time I left things in the capable hands of a couple of my staff and I went off to visit some of our projects in the area. The schedule was quite tight and I had to cram in as much as possible.

With the exception of some small meetings and some email time, that was how I spent the rest of the day. The following day consisted of more project visits until mid-morning and then the half-day drive back to Bujumbura. The return, though I was a bit dirty and weary, was nothing like the arduous treks back and forth from Dar to the refugee camps in Tanzania. Not only does the latter take additional time and modes of transportation, you and your belongings are covered with red dust that seems to find its way into every nook and cranny including ears, pockets, keyboards, nostrils, etc.

roadside kiln for making bricks
Back to Buj

And the house hunt continues. I'm told it's normal for it to take some time to find the right house. Given that realization and the fact that the agreement ended on our tiny guesthouse, we just moved into a new temporary house until we find a place of our own. We were able to get a cool place near the lake that would be too small to live in for longer term but at least now have a bit more space and it no longer feels like we're living in a hallway closet.

hitching a ride
No real complaints though. We've been blessed in more ways than I can count. Happy to be here.

another way of hitching a ride

 


 


 

Saturday, September 18, 2010

And so it begins…

A Bit about the Blog

As you can decipher from the link for this blog, it was originally to consist of rants. Years ago I was accumulating numerous frustrations of this world in which I live that were, for the most part, and in my opinion, unnecessary. They were largely the product of human greed at the expense of others. The idea of the blog was that the ranting would give me an outlet for my frustrations and possibly shed some light on what is happening in this world where I work and live. The greed, just as much a characteristic of those helping Africa as those on the receiving end, hampers the ability of the aid to help those who need the help the most. If you're seriously in this work to see people's lives change for the better, I can assure you that seeing this over time creates considerable anxiety. There are many disillusioned bleeding hearts that have left this work for good as a result.

My occupation, however, took a different turn and I soon found myself no longer in a position to speak as freely about such injustices. I still see them. In fact I'm still writing about them but they will not be a part of this blog – at least not while I am doing what I do. For obvious reasons, I must be strategic in my approach to what I say and how I say it. I am very much involved in battling the injustices that exist but right now I can contribute more in my current role than I can by ranting (though I can say with all honesty that I am very happy with the integrity of the organization for whom I work). So for the time being, I'll continue to bite my tongue about some things and tell stories about other things. The stories may not have the bite that a nice corruption scandal would have but the blog does serve to shorten emails to family and friends. In other words, you can get the goods on what's going on with me if you want to but I'm not going to hammer you over the head with it. And if you are expecting any juicy stories about corruption in Africa, you shall be sadly disappointed. For now.


 

And so it begins…

So where did I leave off? Oh yes, the insignificant changes of a new home, new job, new language and new country. The language isn't entirely new to me but it is new from what I was using a couple weeks ago. Takes me a little longer to write emails since it's been 11 years since I worked in French.

Overall the change is going well. The new team has been very supportive and I have no complaints. Lots of reading to do and getting up to speed on what we are doing and where. It's very different from Tanzania where our primary focus was refugee camps. Here we're working in a post-conflict setting. This is where the war was that drove those people to become refugees (not referring to the Congolese for the time being). A little less than a tenth of the population is said to have been a refugee at some point. The programs target primarily, though not exclusively, the particularly vulnerable in this setting (ex. women, children, youth) and there are some pretty impressive efforts underway. I will discuss them from time to time in the weeks ahead.

As for the current security situation in the country, so far it seems to be unclear. I have met with a few other representatives of organizations, UN, embassies, etc. since I arrived and everyone seems to have a slightly different take on the current level of security. The three pillars of danger are banditry, internal conflict (roots of which go back to the decades of war) and the external threat posed by Muslim extremism in the form of Al-Shabaab (due to their anger regarding the presence of Burundian peace-keeping troops in Somalia). Most seem to put the threats in that order as to how much of a danger they are to personal safety for the population. I suppose you could include road accidents since that's the leading cause of death of foreigners in Africa but I'll stick to the other ones for now.

The variances are in how much of a threat people think each is. No one seems to live in panic in spite of a very visible presence of security forces around. I pass through a security road block almost every day just driving to or from work or going to a restaurant in the evening. It's not a problem really since they either just wave me through (my SUV is clearly marked as an NGO vehicle by license plates and our organization's logo) or ask me a few general questions as they peek in the windows. They have a tough job to do since they have a responsibility to protect the population without being overly invasive, abusive or just annoying. I wouldn't want their job.

I don't have a good feel yet as to how dangerous life is here. My security briefing from the UN comes every 24 hours and it lists incidents that are surprisingly numerous. The key, I think, is not to blow it out of proportion yet keep a close eye on things. My security responsibilities go beyond my wife and me since I'm also responsible for hundreds of staff. Remain vigilant. Keep the finger on the pulse of the security situation. Discuss frequently with the staff and partners. Don't overreact to rumors. Filter through the tons of information and communicate the essentials. It's as easy as that.

As a naïve newcomer to the country, I'm going to go out on a limb and say that I'm optimistic. The people here seem very sharp and good-natured. They have an enormous amount of challenges ahead and decades of war is not something that you recover from overnight. We shall see in the weeks, months and years ahead but this is such a beautiful place. It has so much potential and there's no question that most people want to put all the crap behind them and move forward. Fasten your seatbelts and store your hand luggage in the overhead bin. There may be a little turbulence but overall we anticipate a good flight.

Saturday, September 11, 2010

Homeless


There is homelessness and there is homelessness. The kind that I'm experiencing is not the bad kind, or at least not the real bad kind. I don't like being without a home and being without our belongings around us but, given my occupation, I am quite aware that there are people that are far worse off in this category than I.

Nonetheless, being without any place that you can refer to as home is destabilizing. And it's probably a healthy experience. It's no comparison to people who have been driven from their homes due to violence but it does get old. First we sent our belongings on a truck a few weeks ago. Then we gave up our place for the arrival of the person (and his family) who was taking my place in Dar es Salaam and stayed with a friend for about a week. Then we went to Zanzibar for a break. Now were in Bujumbura staying in a guesthouse until we find a place to live. After a failed attempt to find a place last week, we will try again this week though I'm told it could take a few weeks. The whole time we are living out of a suitcase.

I'm not complaining. It's more of a description of our situation. I know we will find a place to live and we're not suffering in our tiny guesthouse. If this lasts a few more weeks, I may start complaining.





Zanzibar

When changing jobs, people often take a bit of a break. In my case, I took a break a bit longer than the length of a weekend. Maybe taking such a short break wasn't the smartest thing to do but we'd had a vacation in the US not long ago and I have been anxious to get started in the new job. They've been without a Country Director for almost two months and I'd probably stress out more not working (with the anticipation of the change) than working.

So we headed to Zanzibar a week ago Friday. Seems like longer than that after all that has happened since. Anyway, we took the arduous 20 minute flight, grabbed a taxi and headed to the east coast of the island. The taxi driver was an old guy who launched into a lively dialogue (monologue is probably more accurate) bouncing back and forth between English and Swahili. His English was surprisingly good and Priya accurately guessed that he was a former teacher before becoming a taxi driver as his retirement job.

The drive lasted just under an hour as we weaved our way through the bicycles, carts pulled by cows, the unique wood-sided Zanzibari daladalas (buses), pedestrians, etc. Driving in most African cities is an art – one that consists of a varying blend of aggression, courtesy, ruthlessness and sometimes teamwork. Anticipating the movements of others is essential and experience is the only way to learn. Our well-seasoned driver was half philosopher, half Formula One.

We were married on the east coast a few years ago but much further north than where we headed this time. As we pulled into the compound, I began to smell the salty sea air. We paid our driver and made arrangements for him to pick us up two days later. The warm, white sand felt good and I was happy with our decision to take our brief break here.

Our lodging was simple, comfortable and tasteless. I generally have high expectations for the décor of Zanzibar establishments given the wonderful and sophisticated style for which it's famous. Be that as it may, I was happy to be on the beach with air conditioning and running water. Let the relaxation begin.

It seems we split our time between the beach and the dining table. A sign of a good weekend. We'd pondered more activity but then thought otherwise. I desperately needed some downtime and in retrospect, we did the right thing. 
After a wonderful couple of days, we met our driver in the parking area and navigated our way back to one of the world's tiniest international airports. After our short flight to Dar, we flew directly to Bujumbura via Nairobi. We were met by a couple of my new staff and a driving rain. We meandered out of the airport parking lot and down the road towards town. Within less than a minute we were at our first military checkpoint. And so life begins in our new city.