(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.)

Monday, November 29, 2010

Makamba to Gitega to Bujumbura to Kigali...

I think this will be a relatively short posting. I'm tired and probably not in the best mood to be anything close to interesting.

I'm in a hotel in Rwanda. The room smells like pee. Not the first time I've stayed in a hotel room that smelled of some sort of bodily function but I confess it's been a while. During my poorer years in Europe and the US as well as some budget travel here in Africa, I've had much, much worse than this but I didn't really expect it here. In my limited time in Kigali I've been exposed to mostly clean facilities. Oh well. At least I have a mozzie net and the BBC to keep me company.

Last week I traveled to Makamba (southern part of Burundi) to visit staff and give a presentation to newly elected government officials from the region. It was a good trip overall (minus a shootout not far away resulting in 2 dead and 2 captured by the army). I would have liked to have stayed longer but I needed to attend an opening ceremony of a gender-based violence (GBV) center in Gitega, a town in the center of the country. So the next morning we headed about 2 hours north. The ceremony was a couple of hours late (sigh) but it was fortunately not in Kirundi (French) so I could happily understand. Just afterward our convoy of twenty-some SUVs rolled to another part of town to another related event - the opening ceremony of the 16 Days of Activism for GBV at the local stadium. This was a large event attended also by the First Vice President. I took a couple of photos but they're not on this computer so you'll have to use your imagination.

It was a nice afternoon and I was happy to have attended. Unfortunately at this event only one speech was in French so during the Kirundi I either discreetly did some work or gazed about observing the interesting scene before me. One awkward bit was a little theater performance by a drama team to attempt to show the ugliness of abusive behavior. I'm not sure how effective it was. It started out with a woman in traditional dress doing her chores as her husband returned home. He asked her for some money so that he could go out for a drink. Without looking up she said that if she gave him some money it would be to go buy some food. Not appreciating her response, he reached over and smacked her (acting). She fell to the ground and the crowd roared with laughter. With raised eyebrows I looked at my GBV Coordinator colleague sitting next to me and she seemed a bit horrified. Theater is an amazingly powerful tool in sub-Saharan Africa. Need to use it wisely.

Monday, November 22, 2010

Anonymity

One thing that occurs to me every time I leave Africa is the sensation of anonymity. There's a certain amount of bliss in being able to leave your house without people staring at you or at least observing you at great length. Now I know that this happens all over the world. You have black people moving into white neighborhoods. White people moving into black neighborhoods. Arabs moving into non-Arab neighborhoods. Etc. It's uncomfortable. Even when people don't do it with any negative intent or possibly don't even realize the extent to which they are doing it, it's still annoying. At least for me.

I had hoped that things might be better in Burundi than in Tanzania but it's not the case. Foreigners and Burundians seem to mix quite well when you are in a restaurant or a car. People seem pleasantly indifferent to you. However walking or jogging is usually a stare-fest. Even the guards of the housing compounds spend quite a bit of time staring as well even though they see you all the time. It's not necessarily rude; just annoying.

So arriving in NY was a change. It's probably the most difficult place in the world to be the object of someone's attention. People rarely even make eye contact let alone stare. Plus you have so much craziness going on in the city that you need to be really bizarre to get any attention. It's so easy to just disappear into the mass and no one could care less. Bliss.

So I'm back to the grind in Burundi. It's been a whirlwind of activity since my return and it's not going to lighten up until at least the holidays. It's ok though since we've moved into a house finally and I'm enjoying the work, the learning and the team. I still have tons to learn but I'm getting a better handle on things. I'm off to Makamba (in the south) tomorrow and then Gitega (in the centre of the country) on Thursday. Then back to Bujumbura on Friday and then I fly to Kigali next week. It wouldn't be so bad if all the travel didn't prevent me from getting the other stuff done. Oh well. Bring it on.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Out of the Woods and into the City

I arrived late Friday. I was largely brain-dead when I caught a taxi to take me to the hotel. Nonetheless I had an interesting chat with the cab driver. He's probably used to semi-lucid people in his car so I was probably no surprise to him. He did seem to find it interesting that I worked in Africa. He was from Guyana and it trying to obtain citizenship in the US. He had lots of questions about working with asylum seekers and refugees. He seemed to want to know how I felt about people like him doing whatever they can to get into the US and to legalize their status – eventually to become citizens.

I actually don't remember what I said but I can guarantee it wasn't very articulate. I mostly empathized with him and said that often times it's the more recent immigrants that are the most fervent patriots. I think he appreciated that and I appreciated that we finally arrived at the hotel and my long-awaited bed.

On Saturday I had a chance to go for a nice run around the city. I had a nice loop along the East River up to 68th or so, cross over to Central Park, back down through the park and then angle back towards to hotel. Running along the East River at sunrise was surprisingly beautiful and a frosty run through Central Park is a joy for a cold weather guy like me who's been in the tropics for 5 ½ years. The fall colors were gorgeous. They were setting up for the NY Marathon which sort of made me sad that I wasn't running it. Oh well, maybe another time.

After my run I made my ritual trip to a diner for breakfast. It's just one of those pieces of Americana that doesn't tire me. I read through the NY Times, had a gallon of coffee and then went out to do a bit of shopping. I came across a street vendor who was selling various things on a table on the street. I searched the table over and honed in on a pair of sunglasses. I looked over at the guy who, oddly for a street vendor, was barely even paying attention to me. I asked him how much for a pair I was pointing at. He said, "They ain't for sale. None uh this stuff is for sale." I looked at him like he was crazy to have an official NYC vendor permit attached to his coat and a table full of merchandise in front of him with nothing for sale. He could see that I was still puzzled so he said, "Look around. This is a movie set. I ain't no vendor and none uh this stuff is for sale." Sure enough, I looked around and began to see that the cops on the street corner were not in fact real cops and this guy was, in fact, an "actor". He also pointed out various cameras being discreetly manned here and there. There were some above us dangling out of office windows and others across the street on rooftops. Now clued into what was going on around me, I could see that the whole intersection had been taken over by the film company. After taking it all in and speculating as to whether there was chance I could see them actually do some filming, I asked him if he could still sell me those sunglasses. He laughed. He said to come back when they were done filming and he's sell me the glasses, the fake cop car sitting in front of us and probably lots of other stuff. I smiled and told him the car was too big to take to Burundi as a souvenir and headed on.

On Sunday I was able to make it to church and see Tim Keller speak. No noticeable effects of jet lag. I have to say, Tim's good. I get why he resonates with a sophisticated NYC congregation. So brilliant and easy to listen to.

Monday and Tuesday were filled with meetings. In between I was able to fit in more meetings. That's sort of how it goes here. Monday night was a dinner with a very wealthy and prominent donor. It was held atop his office building in a large board room converted into a very nice dining room. Great conversation and very cool to see that someone like him is so informed and engaged in the work that we do around the world. Smart guy.

Wednesday night was the big gala event at the Waldorf Astoria. All kinds of important and famous people were there. I didn't get any photo ops but I did get to shake a few important hands.

Andy Grove, former CEO of Intel and former refugee assisted by IRC
I also fit in a lunch and a dinner with our friend Liya who now lives in NY. Good to see her and have her introduce me to some great food – including sushi and this other place that specializes in chocolate. What's not to like?!

Liya and me in front of some sort of amazing chocolate something
I left on Saturday evening and now I'm in my beloved Amsterdam airport. I'm taking in my last bit of broadband for a while. I arrive at 8:30am on Monday morning and head straight to the office. My first meeting is at 9:00am. Let's hope I can sleep on the flight tonight.

Monday, November 8, 2010

From 36,000 Feet

Flights should never leave at 1:20 in the morning. That's just wrong. Then I feel like I'm passing through every single airport between Burundi and NY. It reminds me of when I first moved to Europe and I learned the difference between a regional train and an "intercity" train - the hard way. I had hopped on a train from Lausanne to Geneva simply because it said it was going to Geneva. Wrong. The stupid thing proceeded to stop at every little train station the whole way. I think it'd been faster to walk. I know some of you are thinking "I'd never be that dumb" and for most of you that's probably the case. I did so many embarrassing things when I first started living overseas and fortunately for me, the world will never hear about them.

So anyway, I'm typing this as I fly over Albania or thereabouts. I'm sipping on some red wine and listening to Dean Martin on my ipod. This last flight from Nairobi was actually quite beautiful. I've rarely seen it so clear. Earlier the morning sun made the Sahara as bright and golden as I've ever seen it. Alexandria was so clear you could see cars moving about on the streets. Then of course the Mediterranean was a magnificent blue. It was the first time I'd seen my beloved Greek island of Santorini from the air. I'm aware that it's a sin for jaded travelers to be seen being impressed by anything to do with their air travel. You're not supposed to be caught paying attention to the flight safety demonstration and God forbid someone should see you take a photo from the airplane window. Alas, I threw caution to the wind and did both.

I will be in NY for meetings. It's actually not a bad time of year to be in NY. The cool air will do me good and it's usually not that biting cold that will come in a few more weeks. Also, a small dose of the Christmas holiday is nice given that I'm not subjected to the holiday hell that the Western world suffers. There is also the NY Marathon which, if I were to plan better, I might try to do the next time if the schedules coincide.

I'm also excited to attend church. Now I'm aware that such things are not high on people's tourism list unless it's to see a fantastic cathedral or listen to the organ in the Notre Dame (which by the way I highly recommend). In this case it is to see a man named Tim Keller. Not only is he an amazing and well-known speaker, he's also the uncle of someone who used to work with us in Kibondo (Carolyn is mentioned in a few past blogs). Back in the day we'd sit on our rustic porch overlooking the hills and the passing thunderstorms and listen to downloaded sermons. Anyway, with the crisscrossing of time zones, travel fatigue, time change in the US, my goal may be simply to be on time and awake.

Monday, November 1, 2010

Makamba

In the past several weeks I've been doing my best to get settled into the new job. It's a lot of new information to take in but I am starting to feel a bit more comfortable with my knowledge of what's going on. One of the things that has been helpful is taking the time to visit all of the field operations and meet with staff. I began with the trip to Muyinga in the north. Then there was the trip to Kigali. Then this past week I was off to Makamba, our field site in the south.

The drive along the coast of Lake Tanganyika is exceptionally beautiful. I had been to Makamba last year while I was still in Tanzania so I had a decent idea of what it was about. Nonetheless, it was still a very pleasant drive minus the police checkpoints and the time I was buried in my laptop.

Stove to support bread making activity
We arrived around noon and I had lunch with the Field Coordinator. We spent the afternoon meeting about various issues prior to the large gathering of the entire field team. They were generally very welcoming with the exception of the usual questions regarding salary increases.

The next day I made a brief stop at a gender-based violence workshop where I met with representatives from partner organizations. I wasn't able to stay long and was soon whisked away to a savings and credit activity that we are doing in a very small village near a town on the lake called Nyanza Lac. It was a wonderful but long meeting where I was able to participate by simply saying a few words and then letting them get on with their own thing. It was as close as a tall white guy can come to being a fly on the wall in a rural, sub-Saharan African setting. With the exception of occasionally looking to see my reaction to things, they carried on as if I wasn't there.

Opening the locked box of cash - three members each possess a key to ensure security
The activity is set up such that it is self-funded with the exception of some basic bookkeeping materials. Otherwise, the biggest thing we add is expertise. The beauty is that it is sustainable and they will be able to continue it in the future without our assistance.

While I was sitting there, a small girl was sitting across the way. She initially was terrified by seeing me and then gradually warmed up to me as the meeting progressed. At one point she began to fuss and I gave her a pen which she proceeded to chew off and on for the duration of the meeting. I think that helped break the ice. Not long afterwards she came closer and even sat down on my feet facing me with the slobbery pen sticking out of her mouth. While I focused on listening to my Kirundi translator, I suddenly felt a vibration on the top of my shoes. The vibration became audible and it quickly became apparent that the little one was quite happily having a little bowel movement. The mother, who was one of the money counters, was sitting in front of me to my left. Her eyes opened wide with horror and she started to get up to retrieve her daughter. Just then an elderly lady, who I found out later was the grandmother, waved off her daughter, came over, swooped up the little one and headed for the door. As she picked her up, however, it was quite apparent to all on my side of the room that junior was not wearing nappies.

She may look innocent...
The young mother, with a renewed look of horror as she saw my shoes, came over with a cloth that she'd been sitting on and proceeded to wipe them off. Trying not to disrupt the meeting, I motioned to her that it was fine and I finally got her to retake her seat. I looked down and the remnants of the greenish, watery mess were already starting to dry. Several in the room seemed to get a kick out of the whole thing. Good news is we both ended up with a story to tell.
Bread makers with one of our staff