(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, December 26, 2011


I’m now in southern Indiana. Tis the Christmas season and time to take a short break from work and from Burundi. Much needed. Very challenging developments at work and I feel weary. Looking forward to time with family.
Priya, Kathy and Kiran

Putting the Mass back in Christmas
So the US has a lot of big people. It doesn’t strike you until you’ve been out of the country for a while and then you find yourself in a shopping mall surrounded by a sea of rotund shoppers. The endless fast food opportunities may have something to do with it.
Christmas at the Satows
In Burundi and traveling about I haven’t been exposed to the holidays. Hadn’t heard a single Christmas song outside our house until we arrived.  Little to no decorations anywhere. We didn’t have time to put up any in our house and we only put on some Christmas music once or twice. It does make it nice when you arrive in the US since it’s not too much. You get a quick, short dose of the holidays and then it’s over.
Kiran and mum
Travel with Baby
This is our first Christmas with a baby. I was a bit nervous about the flights – stops in Kigali, Nairobi and Amsterdam before arriving in Minneapolis. But Kiran was a champ. No problems whatsoever and we had the benefit of bulkhead seating and boarding the plane first. Benefit of having a kid.
It was also nothing like the drama last year where snow caused us to spend the night on the floor of the Amsterdam airport with thousands of other stranded travelers. The thought of that happening with a baby makes me shudder. Fortunately it didn’t happen.
Kiran and dad
After relatively smooth travel, we had a brief stopover in Minnesota to visit our friend Kathy. Our bags didn’t arrive but that’s sort of common, at least with me. I’m actually more surprised when my bags arrive than when they don’t. We did manage to get them transferred so that they arrived with us the following day in Louisville.
Kiran and Grandma
Kiran and Grandpa
Our week in Indiana was wonderful but without a Christmas snow. On the other hand with the new kiddo I suppose milder weather is not a bad thing. She’ll have plenty of time to enjoy snow later. As for activities, much of our time was spent around playing with Kiran though we were able to fit in our routine of last minute Christmas shopping, trips to the gym, the Eve service at the church, lots of yummy meals, etc.
Cousin Isabelle assisting with Kiran's first Christmas gift
It’s now Christmas Day and we just had a big, fantastic dinner. Need to begin packing. More complicated with the little one.  Off to Idaho tomorrow.
Too much Christmas

Thursday, December 1, 2011

A Week in Jordan

Since the last posting, a lot has happened. I have been moving around a bit. Currently I’m in Dubai. I spent the night here last night and am trying to work my way back from Amman to Burundi. Other than my overnight in the United Arab Emirates, I have to spend about 8 hours in Nairobi when I get there and then about an hour in Kigali before finally arriving in Bujumbura at 1:45am. Woo hoo!. All in all this trip has amounted to 3 days of travel (1 ½ days each way) for three days of meetings. I figured Burundi to Jordan wouldn’t be very direct but it was a bit less direct than even my pessimistic expectations.

Oh well, in addition to the 3 days of meetings, I took about 24 hours to head down to visit one of the seven wonders of the world – Petra. I’d been there before almost 20 years ago but it’s the kind of thing you could see periodically your whole life. It’s pretty amazing.
Due to my restrictive timeline – about 24 hours including 3 ½ hours driving each way – I had to be pretty precise as to when I left and returned. I decided on taking a taxi. It’s what many people do anyway but when I’m alone I normally like to do this sort of thing on the cheap if I can. Renting a car wouldn’t have been much less and it would have eaten up even more time. And I’d have needed to figure out where I was going and all that. So I arranged the taxi through the hotel. I bargained on the price and did ok but it was still enough to make me swallow hard when I pulled out my credit card.
Thursday after my last meeting, I went to the lobby and the concierge said that the driver was out front. As I walked out I noticed that my taxi was a sleek, black 2011 Mercedes. Nice. I was starting to feel better about how much I’d paid. Moreover, the driver, Gabriel (English version he goes by) not only spoke English, he strangely enough had an accent that was half Arabic and half Texan. He’d apparently spent some time in the US many years ago and has since retained his excellent English. He also spent time in Iraq as a translator for the US military. His rich use of American profanity was a testament to time spent with soldiers.
The guy was full of stories and the drive through the barren desert went fast.  He talked about his role as a translator and how it was far more than he’d signed up for. Every day was tense and often scary helping people understand each other, mostly at police/military checkpoints. He gave an example of a situation in which an Iraqi, frustrated and angered by the presence of US soldiers on his land, pulled out a gun as his car was being checked. He apparently had nothing to hide, he’d just reached the end of his tether as the questions and searching went on.
One of the soldiers put a bullet in his leg at they tried to get him to drop the gun. Though wounded he refused to put down his weapon. The translator had become a mediator as he tried to get assurances from the soldiers that if he put down the gun, he wouldn’t be harmed. After a long and excruciating moment, the guy lowered his gun. At that moment, one of the soldiers fired on him and the Iraqi was killed instantly. Shocked by what had just happened, he turned to the soldiers in disbelief. They turned away and carried on with their duties.
Gabriel talked about how much that incident, and others, scarred him. He said he’d thought about raising the issue further but he was afraid of losing his job. The salary wasn’t great but it was far more than anything he’d earned before. So he kept silent and it still haunts him. He’d given the Iraqi his word that nothing would happen to him and he was killed nonetheless. 
 Wadi Musa
Initially I’d wanted to take the longer road which follows the east side of the Dead Sea but Gabriel said he had to take the Desert Highway according to the agreement to go to Petra. Apparently this was something I was supposed to have discussed in advance. I also found out that he was hungry and wanted to get settled into Wadi Musa and get something to eat. Whatever. This time of year, with the shortened days in the Northern Hemisphere, daylight is reduced so it was probably just as well that I didn’t try to bite off more than I could chew. Getting to Petra after a half day of meetings, visiting the site and getting back to Amman for my flight the next day was relatively ambitious as it was.
view from the hotel
Upon arrival it was chilly and the sun was already getting low. We stopped at the first hotel we saw and I agreed to the first rate the guy gave me – about fifteen bucks. Tourism is suffering right now due to low season and the Arab Spring so I wasn’t in the mood to bargain. Also, it was pretty cheap as it was. Gabriel asked if I wanted to see the room first. That’s of course normally advisable but I was in a hurry to send Gabriel on his merry way and have the evening to myself. The guy behind the desk assured me there was hot water, gave me a clean towel and handed me the key. I have to say, I haven’t stayed in a place like this since my single days traveling around Europe. The carpet was nasty and it smelled like a 1980s pub at 2am but I have to say, it didn’t bother me a bit. I was happy to be there.
Wadi Musa is in the southern part of Jordan. Its reason for existence is primarily the adjacent historical site of Petra. It has no particular charm but, like most towns at the doorstep of cool places, its purpose is more about being functional. I wandered about the place for a while and finally stopped for some local food. In spite of the cool air, I ate outside to avoid smoke and a loud TV. After eating my fill of good food I meandered my way back to the hotel, took a hot shower and called it a day.

the siq
The next day, Gabriel was ready and waiting at 6:30am as we’d agreed. We drove the 5k to the entrance and I was off. The combination of off season and an early start gave me a peaceful walk through the siq, the long narrow canyon that takes you into the ancient city carved from sides of rock faces. Already I was noting changes from the way it was nearly twenty years ago when I was last there. The natural dirt path was now covered by tarmac. There are now benches and rubbish bins, more signs, etc. I suppose things are a bit more “civilized” but I sort of liked it a bit more raw.
Coming to the end of the siq you arrive at the famous Treasury, the incredible façade made famous in part by Indiana Jones. I had the place to myself with the exception of two camels, a Bedouin and a cat. That in itself was amazing. When I returned three hours later the area was filled with hundreds of tourists. One change to the Treasury since my last visit was that the interior is no longer accessible. It’s not a huge loss since it’s not that amazing on the inside but the extent of the carving is impressive. And it has nothing to do with what was shown in the movie.  
the Treasury
After a short visit, I moved on. I could hear the echo of voices coming through the siq and I wanted to stay ahead of the coming throng.  As I walked through the ancient city I stopped at a small tent and bought a thick cup of coffee from a couple of Bedouins. I walked along with my cup to-go shooting photos and enjoying the cool desert morning. I hiked up to the monastery, sat for a moment and enjoyed the view from the top and then started heading back down. 

the monastery
After a three-hour visit or so I was back to the Treasury which was by now a sea of tourists speaking every language imaginable. After taking a few more photos with the different lighting, I worked my way back up the siq feeling a bit like a salmon swimming upstream. Arriving at the entrance I located Gabriel who was having a smoke with his friend Mohammed. We shared a quick mint tea and then it was time to head to Amman. I still had a long trip ahead of me that would include a flight to Dubai, overnight in a hotel, flight to Nairobi (where I am writing this during my 8-hour layover), flight to Kigali and then on to Bujumbura for my 2am Saturday arrival. Then no more travel until…Monday.

Monday, November 21, 2011

Lots of Travel and a Famous Visitor

“Absence diminishes commonplace passions and increases great ones, as the wind extinguishes candles and kindles fire.”
 -Francois, duc de La Rochefoucauld, moralist (1613-1680)

I’m in Amman, Jordan. Clearly absence is something I’m familiar with. Trips to visit projects. Rwanda. New York. Jordan. Then it will be back to Rwanda, then back to the US (multi-city) – all of this within an 8-week period. Then it all starts again in January. Nonetheless, I’m looking forward to the upcoming holidays, even though it means loads more travel. As far as my family goes, it’s travel without the absence.
Dubai rising above the mist on my flight to Amman
Whether or not you’ve noticed, I seldom use last names or sometimes I’ll avoid names altogether. The desire is to limit the google search presence of people’s information. I don’t password protect the blog because I don’t think it’s necessary but I do want to limit to some extent the blogs web footprint. It’s not that I say anything secretive in nature, it’s just that I would rather that most of the visitors be family and friends. I don’t mind other people reading and it sort of fascinates me that people I don’t know read this thing. Last month I had 483 hits just to give you an idea. Maybe it’s a sign that winter is setting in up in the northern hemisphere and people have nothing better to do. 

As I mentioned previously, we had a visit by a British actress. In this case I’ll go ahead and name her since publicity is a good thing for actor. Moreover, I’m going to say nice things. Her name is Romola. She’s a Golden Globe nominee and I was familiar with her having seen Amazing Grace (which I highly recommend). She’s also done a lot of critically acclaimed stuff that I haven’t seen. Now that I know her I want to see more of her work.
Romola (seated center) watching the Burundian drummers
Most of the visit to our program in Burundi came while I was still in NY. Fortunately, at my request, she was able extend long enough for me to overlap with her by a day and a half or so. I have to say, these types of visits can go either way. There have been some nightmare celebrity visits to international organization projects around the world. I have had few such interactions since I tend to work in obscure places but my Country Director counterparts have some stories that make my stomach tighten up just hearing. In our case, Romola is intelligent and came well informed. She asked good questions, honing in mostly on women’s issues though we visited others youth projects as well. We had lunch a couple of times and she came to our house for a reception. I have to say, she does seem to escape the stereotypical self-absorbed, ill-informed actor out to ease his/her conscience and boost the career by photos with starving babies. It will be interesting to see where this goes but I do know that she has a good handle on what this work is about. She’s clear on the fact that the developing world doesn’t need or want a quick fix, particularly since it doesn’t exist, and that the work is often arduous, long-term and the solutions are complex.
Anyway, go see her movies. She was a great visitor and I hope, if we get more celebs interested in coming, that they measure up.

For now, however, I’m in the Middle East. It’s raining and chilly this Sunday night. Had a skype video call with my wife and baby a bit ago.  Sad to be away so much but it does seem to diminish “commonplace passions and increases great ones” – the great ones being my family. In case you didn’t know.
the great ones
cutest baby ever

Saturday, November 12, 2011

A Quick Week in NY

I’m sitting in JFK Airport after a busy week in NY. It’s been good to be in the US but I’m very happy to return to Burundi.
visiting our friend Liya (in front of Madison Sq. Garden)
One thing that always amazes me is how American media fixates on stories and they just go on and on. I’ve never seen this anywhere else. The Wall Street protests (which I visited) have been replaced by the Penn State football scandal which was momentarily replaced by Rick Perry’s gaffe and now we’re back to endless commentary about Penn State’s scandal. It’s not that these are not news stories; it’s that they beat the story into the ground. CNN, which I presume would have access to lots of other interesting stories, is at this moment interviewing a former Penn State cheerleader. Sorry. That’s not news.
the Wall Street protestors
My week in NY was fortunately not filled with time in front of the TV watching recycled news stories. Loads of meetings filled my days and work dinners filled my evenings. One exception was our gala event on Wednesday which included David Gregory (60 Minutes) as MC and David Letterman doing a bit of comedy.
apparently some recycled jokes from the night before, but still funny
He was followed by Colin Powell who gave a rather impressive speech about the work our organization does and encouraging some of NY’s wealthiest to cough up some funds for our work around the world. Powell was followed by Tom Brokaw and family who received our award this year. As I did two years ago, I was able to chat with him a bit afterwards. He’s particularly attached to our program in Rwanda to I have a connection with him. Very cool guy and a wonderful family.
Tom flanked by family and Colin
The evening was wrapped up by a couple of songs from John Legend. He’s become a big supporter of our work and has even visited some of our projects. I’d like to get him to Burundi or Rwanda. Be good for our programs and probably for him as well.
It’s nearly time to board. Anxious to travel halfway around the globe to see my wife and baby. I arrive at around midnight tomorrow and by 10am I need to meet our British actress visitor to Burundi. Going to be some fatigue and jet lag.
So I wasn’t successful in getting this posted before the flight. I’m not on the other side of the Atlantic getting ready to head south. That’s one thing that is on my Christmas list: direct flights to the US. Speaking of flights, after we boarded our Air France flight in NY, they started playing the James Bond theme. Caught my attention but I didn’t think too much about it until the pilot came on and said, “Welcome aboard Air France flight 007 destination Paris Charles de Gaulle.” Mais oui, the French do have a sense of humor.

Monday, October 31, 2011

An Uncomfortable Thought

It's a rainy morning in Bujumbura. 'Tis the season. I always say that it's my favorite time of year and I'm often challenged by expat friends who tell me that it's easy for me to say since I don't have to walk everywhere and fear that my house won't slide off the hillside. Fair enough I guess. Nonetheless I thought I'd poll a few Burundians/Rwandans to get their opinions. In my non-scientific survey I've been pleasantly surprised to find out that people are quite mixed on the topic and it seems irrespective of level in society. So I will say freely, the rainy season is my favorite time of year.

I was in Rwanda last week for my regular visit, meetings, etc. It was a good week overall and I like the team there, the new office, etc. There is a lot of work to be done but I think we're on the right track.

artful interior of the museum
One thing I remembered was that I never blogged about my visit to the genocide memorial/museum. Usually when I go to Kigali, I just lower my head and work 16-17 hours a day. I normally don't go out unless it's for work and I have never spent time just driving around and exploring. The last visit encompassed a weekend and, though I was tempted again to take advantage of the extra time and catch up on emails, I did venture out for a few hours – just a vehicle and me with no driver (except of course me).

victim photos
Most of the time was spent at the memorial. It's an intense experience, particularly if you go alone and take your time to think about what you are seeing. Even though I'm generally well aware of what happened, having seen documentaries, read books, talked to many Rwandans about it, I have to say that it's still beyond what the brain can handle.

In addition to a lot of new contextual information, it was powerful to walk around and see the events develop. There are photos, short films/testimonials, etc. that take you through the relevant history well before the genocide all the way up to today. I often felt sick to my stomach as I tried to imagine what people were going through. It's hard to get your mind around the fact that so many people gave themselves over to so much brutality.

haunting displays of victim clothing
I read an interesting book a while back about a black South African woman who was working with the notorious Apartheid killer Eugene de Kock (dubbed "Prime Evil") during the well-known peace and reconciliation efforts. The intriguing thing about her book was to watch the evolution of this woman who, over the course of many interviews, went from hating this man to the uncomfortable feeling that he was not the detestable creature that she wanted him to be. His demeanor was nothing like what she had expected and it eroded some of the feelings that would continue to justify her hatred towards him. Taking nothing away from the horrible things he was responsible for, it became more about the sick feeling she developed that quite possibly the potential for such behavior to germinate was in all of us. Though not an amazing piece of literature, a fascinating book nonetheless.

this is not Halloween
And so I thought about that book while I visited the memorial. It's clearly one of the most vivid case studies (similar to WWII) of how evil can penetrate a large population. It's beyond tragic. And when you look at where Rwanda is today given where they've come from, it's even harder to believe. While the progress is astounding and it appears that the past is well behind them, you can't help but wonder if the potential for the train to derail is still there. 

I was reminded that today is Halloween in the US. Probably a sign that things are going well in a society that can find fun in scary things. 

Monday, October 17, 2011

Of Mice and Men

Cleaning lady just came in to clean out the cupboards in my office. The multiple shelves have been serving as spacious high-rise apartments for the little annoying mice. While traces of their nibbling and feces have been apparent for months, the last week or so has seen a significant increase in activity, just short of seeing empty wine glasses and crumpled party hats. Anyway, as we used to say, it's all fun and games until someone gets hurt. Time for a mousetrap.


We have now moved into our new house. I'm more excited about it than Priya who had grown attached to our neighbors. We're still only a short walk from our former house but it's much more complicated to access our former neighbors than it was – particularly in the evening. Moreover, the new house comes with some issues. One of which is the electricity. We had a massive and sustained power surge (almost double the voltage) and knocked out some of our electrical appliances. This happened in Dar to us a few times as well but not quite on this scale. Our big, expensive surge protector blew up as a result but at least it gave its life to protect our new TV and some other things. The wireless router however was toast along with my computer cable even though they were on the protector. In the kitchen it was the fridge that bit the dust. My desk is now strewn with blackened circuit boards. But we have a nice view.


So the British actress that was interested in coming to visit our projects here in Burundi has confirmed that the trip is on. And wouldn't you know that it is exactly the time that I need to be in NY for meetings. I'm trying to get her team to overlap with me by a day so that I can at least meet her. We don't get that many famous people interested in our work and it'd be nice to be around. More later on who this actress is.


Towards the end of last year we did a survey with Johns Hopkins University for our gender-based violence program across the border in the Congo. The survey interviewed women in rebel-held (FDLR) areas around Bukavu. The results are pretty shocking:

  • 90.7% of interviewed women have been raped at least once in their life
  • 79% of raped women were gang-raped
  • 22.2% have a child from the rape
  • 30% have never told anyone (family, husband, friends) they have been raped
  • 48.9% have been rejected by their families following the incident
  • 51% were abandoned by their husband following the rape


It's a pretty sobering list of statistics. While it makes me glad we're here working on these issues, it just sometimes seems so incredibly daunting what women are going through every day. Our contributions seem very pale in comparison to the magnitude of the problem.

Friday, September 30, 2011


The small town of Gatumba is located on the northern tip of Lake Tanganyika, only a few kilometers from the border with the Democratic Republic of Congo to the west and a similar distance to Bujumbura to the east. Given the lake's tremendous length (673km/418m – the second largest freshwater lake in the world by volume) and the only options to get from one side to the other were by boat or to go around, this strip of land at the top has seen considerable traffic for centuries.

Rough Neighborhood

This area, and particularly this hamlet, has seen more than its share of violence over the years, most of which has probably never been recorded. Enough has been documented to give you an idea of the drama the residents have experienced, particularly in recent history.

Theories abound as to why the area has seen so much violence. One logical starting point is the Western invasion into the heart of Africa. In colonial times the northern part of the lake was a point of contention between occupying powers. In the early 20th century, the outbreak of World War I saw Allied forces (i.e. Briton and Belgium) taking up arms against the Germans, who at the outset, while occupying what is modern day Tanzania, had complete control of the lake. Each side forced indigenous populations to serve as foot soldiers. Often this forced people to be at war with each other that had peacefully coexisted for centuries.


Che instructing Congolese rebels
As colonial times were drawing to a close, the large and hard-to-govern Congo continued to play a role in the area's unrest. One small but interesting example was in 1965 when Argentinean revolutionary Che Guevara used the western shores of Lake Tanganyika as a training camp for guerrilla forces in the Congo. From his camp Che and his forces attempted to overthrow the government but ended up pulling out in less than a year.

The hangover from the colonial era set the stage for the ensuing ethnic violence in Burundi and particularly Rwanda that would inevitably spill over into the Congo. These more recent struggles, the Rwandan genocide, civil war in Burundi, violence in the Congo, provide the basis for today's animosity which is linked to a number of causes, ethnic animosity being only one.

Refugee Camp Massacre

Flash forward to August 13, 2004. A refugee camp in Gatumba was the scene of one of the largest civilian massacres ever carried out in Burundi. A force of armed combatants, many of them members of the Forces for National Liberation (FNL), massacred at least 160 Congolese civilians and wounded more than a hundred more. The attack occurred after nightfall when men armed with machetes and guns attacked the camp, torching houses, shooting people as they tried to escape and leaving the scene littered with bodies, many burned beyond recognition. (NB: The refugees were subsequently moved to the eastern part of the country and we are now providing protection, education and other support for these camps.)

One Example of Many

I visited the town a few weeks ago. One of the people we'd been supporting through our activities in the village had been killed and I was paying a visit to the mother of the victim as a show of support. The girl, a 9-year-old, was raped towards the end of last year. Though the perpetrator had been arrested, the mother and daughter had been dealing with not only the incident but also threats from the family of the rapist. Long story short, the girl went missing in May and her body was found a few weeks ago decapitated and lying in a wooded area just outside town. The brother of the rapist is considered to be the leading suspect.

visit to Gatumba

Yet Another Massacre

My visit was still fairly fresh in my mind when another and much larger incident happened a week ago Sunday night. After nightfall a group of armed men attacked a bar, once again in Gatumba. The attack occurred around 8:00pm local time and the attackers were armed with guns and grenades and were well organized according to witnesses. They apparently asked everyone in the bar to lie down and then proceeded to open fire. The latest figure announced was 22 dead on the spot with several others seriously injured. The wounded were evacuated to hospitals in Bujumbura. Nine apparently died later as a result of their injuries. There is speculation that the attack was the work of a rebel group hiding in eastern Congo and connected to the current unrest in Burundi.


As we were driving back after visiting the mother of the girl that had been killed, I was thinking about the area's troubled existence and how sad it is (all the while unaware of the massacre to come only days later). The village sits at one of the most stunning locations on the lake. Facing the water you have the hills of Bujumbura to your left and the impressive mountains of the Congo to your right. The climate is near perfect – tropical without the nasty heat. The underlying tension and trouble seem to be in such striking contrast to such a serene and beautiful setting. 
view from our house
Yet people live in tremendous fear. Smaller, more isolated attacks occur almost daily, not only in Gatumba but throughout the rural areas surrounding Bujumbura. While many organizations suspended operations in the area following the recent massacre, we chose to continue. It's a credit to our staff who are willing to continue to serve the community and are in agreement that the worst time to walk away from these people is now – when they likely need us the most.

Monday, September 5, 2011


One of the nice things about living or traveling in foreign countries is that it's often sprinkled with these endearing little moments that probably only seem endearing because you're not used it.

I am sitting in this Greek restaurant not far from the Kigali house after a long day's work. I'm going through work emails and a soap opera is on a TV in the corner and Greek music is blasting behind me. The soap opera is called "Untamed Women" and appears to be one of the many that appear in Africa dubbed over into English. It is serious cheese but, unlike the title would indicate, it's not porn. It's just pure, over-the-top Latin American drama at its finest. In fact I think my current evening's mix of Latin America, Greece and Africa would be cause for a blown cultural fuse if it weren't for the fact that I've spent considerable time in all three places. The drippy, emotionally-charged Greek music takes me back to sitting in a Thessaloniki café, sipping on an ouzo and watching a passionate live performance while having my friends tell me how unfortunate it is that I don't understand the profound lyrics. The soap takes me back to sitting in a Brazilian restaurant with waitresses pausing while taking your order as their eyes are glued to a TV mounted in the corner. Will the troubled handsome rebel finally embrace the beautiful, poor, young woman as she has so patiently hoped for so many episodes? Or will he fall for the rich, mean blond that has successfully marginalized the poor, young woman during those same episodes? Or will the waitress finally take my order?

What's surprising is how many Africans watch these things. They have their own as well. Nigerians have a well-developed culture of soap operas and they're watched all over the continent. They are also loaded with drama and bad acting but the themes are quite different. One that I watched occasionally while traveling in Tanzania, limited to a single local channel, usually involved some sort of scam. One episode that sticks out in my mind had a guy selling out his girlfriend as a prostitute. She was also supposed to drug her client and rob him before leaving. When she would resist doing these evil deeds, the boyfriend would accuse her of being selfish and not loving him enough to do this to support them financially. I think the Latin American ones make me a lot less sick to my stomach because I can picture the Nigerian ones really happening.

Sunday, September 4, 2011


I'm sitting here in my living room in Kigali – Rwanda being one of my three current "homes" in addition to Burundi and the US. I'm sipping coffee on a Sunday morning and reflecting on my past week here. It's been busy with meetings, presentations, keeping up with things in Burundi, and a visit to the genocide memorial yesterday. One thing that I often think about is the fact that a lot of African countries are misunderstood. Rwanda is one of them.

People basically know about it because of the genocide but beyond that, people have little awareness of what the country is about seventeen years later. People that spend time in sub-Saharan Africa are aware that it is rapidly becoming one of the shining stars on the continent in spite of some huge disadvantages. In addition to the unbelievable challenge of overcoming the massacres, intense ethnic hatred and/or distrust, massive population movements both into and out of the country, it also has some basic economic obstacles. It is landlocked. It has no port and has to import almost everything by truck from the coast through Kenya or Tanzania. It has some tourism (gorillas) but it's insignificant. It has relatively few natural resources and it has the highest population density on the continent with all its available arable land already cultivated.

photo of Kigali from the Hotel des Milles Collines  (made famous in the film Hotel Rwanda)
And yet its economy is growing quickly. It has an emerging middle class. It's clean and well-organized. Crime and corruption are relatively low. I can walk home from a restaurant at night. None of that is true about Burundi. And yet for many, the perceptions of the country seem to be forever linked to the events seventeen years ago. Granted the country is not entirely out of the woods yet. The ethnic tension is still there though unspoken. It's still heavily reliant upon donor funding. There are also fears as to what would happen to the country if something were to happen to President Kagame given that, regardless of one's opinion about him (some feel he doesn't respect human rights but that's a long discussion that I will avoid here), he's clearly been a strong leader and played the key role in this amazing transformation.

But the country has shown a willingness to make some bold moves to not only get to where it is but also to lay the foundation such that the progress continues. It's just not clear how dependent it is on the president. One important thing they've done is create a functional legal system. Without the accountability of a legal system with integrity, you can't go anywhere. The funds that go into the government coffers are used relatively efficiently. That encourages donor investment. People pay taxes. And the government aggressively delivering. It is improving the country's infrastructure at an impressive pace.

one of the many examples of the unexpectedly modern - the lobby of the Mille Collines
Other bold moves include changing one of the official languages from French to English. That's an incredibly difficult thing to do when you think about it. One of the key rationales on the part of the government is economic (though there are some other reasons). They've also banned plastic bags. You don't have to travel much around the world to see how big a difference that makes. It's pretty amazing. And in a developing country where most people have to rely on walking great distances, forcing them to come up with alternatives to the late 20th century reliance on plastic is no small feat. They've also spent tons of money on IT infrastructure and is in the middle of a plan to roll it out to all corners of the country. There are also significant investments in the education and healthcare sectors producing some impressive results, particularly in the last five years or so.

Yet it's still a developing country with a lot of huge challenges ahead. Anyone who's picked up a history book knows how quickly things can take a turn for the worse, particularly in this part of the world. It's also in the middle of a rough neighborhood. I met with the head of security for the US Embassy on Friday and we discussed potential insecurity in other countries that may have a ripple effect on this country (particularly in the Congo and Burundi).

So we push forward with cautious optimism.

Saturday, August 27, 2011

The Thing You Hope Won’t Happen

Last week was the kind you generally wish didn’t happen. I’d thought the toughest part of my week might be meeting with the refugee teachers regarding their stipend. I was wrong.

As refugees they are not allowed salaries, partially because they receive all of their basic needs just by being refugees. Host countries also don’t like to see well-paid refugees since it tends to make them more reluctant to return to their country of origin. My job was to reiterate what they’ve already heard – that there is no increase and besides, it’s not determined by us but by the UN. I’ve had this discussion numerous times, including dozens of times in the camps in Tanzania.  While I understand their frustrations of not being paid a proper salary for their jobs as teachers, they are unfortunately refugees and they need to respect the limitations (and privileges) that come with the territory.

The Accident

We headed out shortly after noon for Muyinga. I was with my driver, Yves, and our Education Coordinator, Innocent. We were about two hours into our trip when we were entering a village, about 10k before Ngozi, a decent sized town which serves as the capital for the province. All of the sudden, out from behind a vehicle parked on the other side of the road, a little boy came bolting across in front of us. Yves hit the brakes but it was too late. The vehicle slammed into the kid on my side of the vehicle he went careening off to the side of the road. It was a sick sound and an even more sick feeling.

We were still rolling forward as Yves and I looked at each other. He said calmly, "I believe we need to keep going." I nodded. It goes against all of your Western instincts to leave the scene of an accident but even in just a few brief seconds, the mob was approaching.

This was something that I learned in Tanzania and was hoping that I’d never have to deal with it. In many parts of the world where mob justice is the norm, particularly in sub-Saharan Africa, the population has a tendency to take matters such as this in their own hands. Immediately. We saw this a number of times in Tanzania and it’s horrible. They’ll attack with whatever they have in their hands. They’ll use machetes. They’ll put an old tire around your neck and light it on fire. It’s ugly and it usually ends in death. Police don’t necessarily condone it but once it gets going, it’s very difficult to stop.

As Yves hit the accelerator I looked back to my right. The boy wasn't moving. As we made our way out of the village the vehicle was quiet. It’s one of those things that happens fast and you spend a minute or two getting it into your head that you really did experience it and now you really have to deal with it.

Just a few kilometers down the road, in one of the rare times I was happy to see a police checkpoint, we stopped, got out and explained what happened. They were quite understanding confirmed we did the right thing.  The head policeman pulled out his notebook and started asking questions. He would end up spending the afternoon with us as we went on to Ngozi to deal with paperwork and eventually, with police reinforcements, return to the scene of the accident. During this time the police commander received a call that the boy was alive and getting some medical attention at the small clinic in the village.

It was a relief to say the least. As much as I was dreading heading back to the small village, I did want the opportunity to express my sympathy and support to the family. While it’s clear that they would know why we would have left the scene of the accident in a hurry, at the very minimum there would still be quite a bit of anger over what happened, regardless of whether or not it was avoidable.

Back to the Scene

There was a bit of an awkward moment in that our vehicle is not allowed to carry guns.  While I was hoping that we would have strong, visible police protection, I wasn’t going to bend the rules even in this case. Fortunately we would be able to find the necessary protection within the small village on arrival. I was still quite nervous and I’m sure that my colleagues were as well. The plan was to go to the clinic, check on the boy and then make our way to the scene of the accident for the “investigation”.

We went straight to the small clinic. It was situated about 50 meters off the road and a large crowd was gathered near the entrance. I didn’t know how we would be received but I was pretty sure it wouldn’t be a warm welcome.  I gritted my teeth, got out of the car, made my way through the throng of people and went inside the clinic. So far so good. The smell reminded me of the clinics in Tanzania when I was working on the HIV/AIDS project. I’m not sure what the smell is. It’s not necessarily foul but it’s not necessarily delightful either.

We were escorted to the room where the boy was being treated. He was indeed alive and semi-conscious. He had a huge bandage on his head and only his face was peering out through the red-stained gauze. The father was sitting at the foot of the bed staring at his son with glassy eyes. The floor was a mess with streaks of dried blood where someone done an initial wiping but no cleaning of what appeared to have been a significant pool.

The clinical officer who was attending to the boy said that he might be ok but he said he needed to get to the regional hospital in Ngozi. I said we’d be happy to take him. The police commander reminded me that we needed to first go to the scene of the accident for the investigation and then we could come back and get the boy. Most of the conversation that afternoon was in Kirundi and except where they borrow words from either Swahili or French, I understand nearly nothing. I was generally in the dark when it came to the details of what was going on. We then made our way back through the crowd outside the clinic. It had grown and was surrounding not only the entrance to the hospital but also the vehicle. We and the police squeezed inside and off we went. This would be the second most frightening moment of the day.

It was only about 100 meters from the clinic to where we parked and got out. Or at least everyone else got out. The commander suggested I stay in the vehicle. I wasn’t sure if I wanted to be locked in the vehicle at a distance with the guys carrying the guns or right by that man’s side. I figured he knew what he was doing so as soon as they were out and pushing through the crowds towards the spot of the accident, I hit the doorlock.

I could see it was a dilemma for some of the young guys who were staring at me in the vehicle. While there was fascination over this white guy, there were a bunch of armed police over doing something that was also attracting interest. I was happy to see that, though it was about two-deep around me, the bulk of people were more curious about what the police were doing. I was increasingly becoming worried, however, about whether or not the mob could be kept in check. Because of the people gathered around me and the even bigger crowd around them, I couldn’t see what was going on across the way.

The crowd kept getting bigger and bigger. People were taking pictures of me with their cell phones. Finally (it was less than 5 minutes but it felt like an hour) they came back to the car and off we went to the clinic. Poor Yves was a mess but he held his own. After we paid the clinic bills they carried the boy to the vehicle. His eyes were partially open. This must have seemed absolutely surreal to him. We put him in the back seat with his father, the clinical officer and, of course, the police commander.

Finally to the Hospital

As we drove to Ngozi, it was a quiet ride. The father refused to make eye contact for the entire time. I offered them some water which they took though the father made a point to stare at the floor as he reached out his hand. It’s understandable though probably for selfish reasons I wanted him to acknowledge how sorry we were.

I have to say, the hospital in Ngozi was impressive compared to the regional hospitals I frequented in Tanzania. The facilities were generally very clean and they attended to him right away. The receiving doctor seemed optimistic but he said head injuries are weird. Internal bleeding and things like that can end things in a hurry. Infection is also a huge problem in rural facilities. Anyway, we eventually had to leave them. It was starting to get late in the afternoon and we absolutely had to be off the roads before dark. We were still an hour away from Muyinga and we were far from being done with the police.  We had to go to their rather nasty police compound where there would still be the traditional negotiation as to fault and compensation. I’ll avoid further detail but they were actually pretty fair.

Happy to Be Done with the Day

We eventually got to our guesthouse about 5:30pm. I was tired, dehydrated, headachey, hungry (no lunch) and that sick feeling in my stomach would stick around for quite some time. I was happy to hear that the boy is likely to pull through. I was also happy to get off the roads given that Muyinga has been having some insecurity by what some locals are calling rebels and the police are calling bandits. Either way, my concern was validated. Around 11:00pm that night in a small community not far from town and unidentified armed group reportedly lobbed a grenade in a local shop, attacked a residence and injured two people.

As I drifted off to sleep in the shelter of my mosquito net with the hum of the generator in the distance I thought, it’s still only Monday.

Sunday, August 21, 2011


So the relationship with my family has been reduced to this:

Now I'm not complaining. Seeing my wife and baby for weeks and weeks via my computer screen is amazing. I compare it to when I first left the US and my communication with family was a short once-or-twice-a-year phone call and letters which usually would take two weeks to arrive. A video call back then would have been science fiction. But I'd still like to have the real deal.

Sad Story, To Say The Least

I went to church this morning. One of the things this church does is call the children up to the front before the sermon. Then they are released to go terrorize their Sunday school teachers. You have all sizes and shapes. There are a couple of white kids but the rest are mostly Burundian. As I looked at them I wondered about the future of the children in this country. Often when we're tired of the bad news we hear or read about, looking at children gives us a bit of hope. As I looked at these kids, I have to say that I wish I were more hopeful.

Towards the end of last year I was informed that a girl had been raped in a community where we work just a few kilometers from here. She was 9. Tragically that's not necessarily rare news here. Even more tragically, that's not the worst part of this particular story.

The alleged perpetrator was arrested. A sick footnote is that he happened to be in a relationship with the girl's mother at the time of the rape. Apparently he's not a nice guy but since the mother is single, often women are desperate for some sort of financial support. Your choices in this situation are limited. I was also told that, though he is in jail, he may not stay there if there is no solid case brought against him. For poor people here, that's not an easy thing to do. You can't just put a case forward to a state-appointed attorney and just sit back and watch the system do its thing. Moreover, power and/or money can easily make things go away. 

Then in May the girl disappeared and no one has known what happened to her. Until last week.

I was informed on Wednesday that the girl was found dead just a few kilometers from Bujumbura. She'd been decapitated and left in the woods not far from her village. Because there is no embalming or refrigeration, funerals generally happen quickly. They held this one on Friday. According to the mother, the rapist's brother is allegedly responsible for the killing.

a girl similar in age to the victim
(my colleague Felix took this)
I normally don't use the blog to go into the dramas that are the realities of life in the developing world. I hear tragic stories on a daily basis through my staff, counterparts in the government or other organizations and in my security reports. It's quite messy here and it's not my intention to depress people in the developed world as they are sipping their morning coffee. I normally discuss these things in general terms, possibly to let people know about the context in which I work but also to remind people that there are some nasty things going on and a broken dishwasher just may not be the end of the world. This situation, however, struck me as one that shows the dysfunction of so many aspects of this society. It's ugly and sad and I felt compelled to write about it.

I'm sure that the psychoanalyst in some of you might say that he just had a daughter and therefore such things are striking a chord that they didn't previously. Maybe. One thing is for sure, though I have far thicker skin now that I did many years ago, I always want this sort of thing to affect me. I never want to get to the point that I am numb to such tragedies no matter how often I hear about them.

So as I looked at those children this morning (girls all standing straight and boys punching each other), I felt a cautious smile come to my face. The vast majority of violent crime in this country, including the above case, is cause by people who were in their formative years during the 13-year civil war that officially ended in 2006. Encouragement can be drawn from the fact that those children have no conscious memory of life in wartime (instability of course but not war). Maybe, just maybe, that will make the difference.

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Return to Burundi

My return to Burundi comes with a couple of welcome back gifts that are common in sub-Saharan Africa: rolling blackouts and bug infestations. As for the former, I'm sitting here in the dark, in the glow of my laptop, feeling like I'm back in Tanzania. This sort of thing happened frequently while I was there. It was such the norm that if you were at a restaurant with friends and the lights went out people wouldn't even break conversation.

Though it happens here from time to time, it's nothing like Dar es Salaam. Having said that, this period is apparently going to last. I'm still not sure what the power cut schedule is but since my return it's been 6pm to 6am or so every two days with sporadic outages here and there. For me there's good news and bad news. The good news is that I now have a generator for the house. The bad news is that it's not hooked up yet. Oh well, I can type until my battery runs out.

For the latter gift, I went into the pantry to grab some coffee to start my Sunday morning. I looked to my left and saw what looked like small chocolate chips in the bag of flower. Then I noticed them in the large back of rice. Then the lentils. And so it went. Given my zero tolerance policy for bugs, I unfortunately had my next couple hours planned for me. I salvaged what I could and tossed the rest. The stuff that was in sealed plastic containers was just as bad as the rest since the bugs arrive already in the dry goods. Sealing it inside just kept the competition out. Much of the lentils were reduced to powder so there was no saving them. I bought a deep freezer right before I left for the US so this might be the solution.

Funny how our cook prepared chapattis and rice for me last week without mentioning it. Ugh. As I peer into my rice I can see that some of the invaders made it all the way. As for the chapattis, the discovery came a bit late. I already ate them.

And now back to my favorite subject...

So I promise not to use this blog to talk about our new daughter all the time. But given that it's still the first month, I'm allowed.

that's right, cutest baby ever
After Kiran was born, and to pick up where the previous entry ended, I had a little over a week to spend with her before I had to leave for Burundi. It was so amazing. I thought of all those people who told me they had their first baby and to whom I probably I acknowledged it with some level of heartfelt congratulations. I must admit, however, I didn't have a clue what might be going on inside their heads. Granted, not all people experience things the same way and I think my reaction to this is probably different from someone, for example, who's in his twenties. And there are probably others who don't overthink things like I normally do but regardless, I would have to believe most people would be at least a little blown away by the thought of bringing a life into the world – that crazy God-given miracle that starts with a couple of cells and somehow turns into something that spits up on your shoulder. Given that we had a slim chance of having kids, she's all the more of a blessing.
I'm just sayin', she's really, really cute

Thursday, July 28, 2011


I'd hoped to get more time to write while in the US. I'm finding it has been a lot harder than I anticipated. Granted, it has been an eventful time.

So I'm in southern Indiana. Hot, muggy southern Indiana. I've only been here around Christmas and it's the first time that I've seen it in summer. It's quite beautiful though the weather tends to keep you indoors.

The Beginning

Well, the big day finally arrived. Life will never be the same. On July 19th at 9:28pm ET Kiran (Keer-uhn) Crothers was born. Ah yes, the cutest little girl on the planet. Don't EEEVEN try to tell me otherwise.

It began by my arrival in Louisville and the half-hour to forty-five minute drive to Priya's parents' place. One of the first things on the agenda was the birth class. We were able to fit in two of them and I have to say that, though I was dreading them, they were quite good. The instructor, Virginia (a bit of irony in the name for such an occupation), was witty and moved quickly through topic after topic.

One thing that amazes me about the whole process is how much we do not have figured out. Everything comes with the caveat that one never knows exactly what's going to happen. From the way the pregnancy unfolds to what exactly is going to transpire during the birth. There are many knowns of course but a fascinating number of unknowns, particularly since this process has happened many, many billions of times.

The night before the big day Priya felt what seemed like contractions. We weren't really sure since Priya didn't really know what contractions felt like. By 2am, however, we knew that they were the real deal. I timed them over the next few hours and by 6am we decided that they were within the range of where we were told to make our move to the hospital. We had a 45 min. drive and the potential of 8am traffic so we decided all things were pointed to the need to get on the road.

awaiting the next contraction
The Hospital
We were sent to triage where we were told that Priya met the criteria to be admitted. We were told that about two-thirds actually get sent back home due to false alarms so we were happy to be officially underway.

The next several hours were largely uneventful as the contractions didn't progress significantly. They'd actually diminished since the administering of the IV so we were a bit concerned that this may take some time. About noon they decided to break her water and get the process moving. It did but more lethargically than we'd hoped. She was just under 5 cm. dilated (of the 10 necessary) and not increasing.

the first photo
One thing that was moving forward, however, was the intensity of her contractions. It's a brutal thing to watch someone you love go through such pain though it pales in comparison to actually going through it yourself. As much as we wanted to avoid it, by the middle of the afternoon we opted for the epidural – the wonderful drug that numbs the lower body.

A couple of hours later they decided to administer Pitocin to provide a boost to the process. It worked and within the next two hours Priya was 9 cm. We now knew we were getting closer.

Hospital rooms are notorious for isolating you from the outdoors. Given that the adjacent parking garage had a bird's eye view of our room and all the poking and prodding the doctors were doing to my wife, we kept the blinds mostly closed. Nonetheless we could hear the arrival of an approaching thunderstorm. For the remainder of the eventful evening, the pounding thunder and rain against the window provided a backdrop.

After one last check around 8:30pm, equipment was starting to arrive in our room. Staff were moving in and out arranging scalpels, towels, lamps, etc. Shortly after 9pm Priya was asked to start pushing during contractions. Because of the epidural the nurse had to tell her when the contractions were.

washed but not happy
We'd been told that there would be a sheet to provide a bit of a barrier for the "activities". None was provided so I had a front seat for the whole show. I have to say, however, that the subsequent events ended up being far from gross or cause for dizziness. It was a fascinating and wonderful event (aided by the epidural).

found the thumb quickly
The Arrival
The new addition to our family began to make her appearance little by little. By 9:28pm out she came. At this point, had I not been sensitized to what I was going to see, I might have been somewhat shocked and/or queasy. The shiny, purple creature doesn't look very human at the outset and there is that accompanying mess.

The pace of activity increased. I was given the scissors to cut the umbilical cord and ceremoniously carried out my duty. Our little girl was then quickly handed over to the two staff waiting to attend to the new baby. I had Priya on one side of me and the newborn on the other. As Priya seemed to be doing well, I turned my attention (and my camera) on the latter. Fingers and toes all accounted for. Her voluminous cries demonstrated that her lungs and voice box were clearly intact. As they checked her out it began to appear that she was a healthy and beautiful baby.

the new dad
After a while I was asked if I was ready to take our newborn. Being caught up in the spectacle of the whole childbirth scene, it took a brief second to respond to the request. Oh yea, not only is this a surreal scene but we get a baby out of all this drama. Hand 'er over.

Now I don't want to make a bigger deal of holding my child for the first time than it really was but I have to be honest. It was one of the most incredible things I've ever felt in my life. She was wailing away and I barely heard a sound. I just looked at her in disbelief. I turned to Priya wanted to share the moment with her (i.e. hand Kiran to her) but they said she wasn't able to take her yet. She was still being patched up and would have to wait a few more minutes. Finally I was able to hand her to Priya and I almost enjoyed that as must as taking her from the doctor.

Over the next couple hours I spent my time sharing the amazement of the moment with Priya, waiting for the clean-up, then taking a few visitors, calling my family, etc. Eventually, near midnight, we moved to the maternity ward of the hospital. We were exhausted and hungry. I was looking forward to getting settled into the hospital room, having a bite to eat and sleeping. Little did I know, that's not how it works.

Starting from the time that we arrived in the room we had an almost constant stream of hospital staff coming in and out checking on Priya and Kiran. We had moments of sleep but nothing more than an hour or so at a time. By morning I felt almost worse than if I'd just stayed awake all night.

the tired mum
The next day we had more doctor's visits and more guests. Spent more time staring at our child. Seemed like the day went fast for some reason. The next night we ended up getting more sleep as there was less poking and prodding to do. By mid-morning we were cleared to check out though we couldn't actually get out of there until around 2:30pm. There were a large number of new babies on the same schedule we were, all checking out around the same time.

The Adventure Begins
I had heard that it might be weird to drive away from the hospital with our new human being. I've heard and read accounts of people suddenly feeling the responsibility of the first born once outside the protective surveillance of doctor. In my case I felt more freedom than burden of responsibility. I'd become a bit annoyed by the frequency of people tapping on the door, coming in to check this or change that. The care we had was wonderful but unlike the days when you had an assigned nurse who did most of what you needed, nowadays there are specialists for everything and almost zero coordination or predictability as to when they come to do their thing. The two biggest consequences: 1) the baby gets disturbed more frequently than necessary and our ability to begin establishing a rhythm had to be abandoned and 2) we, particularly Priya, were wiped out from lack of sleep and it was as if all effort was put into making sure that we had no blocks of time long enough for a proper sleep.

twelve hours old
So with our newfound freedom, Kiran in car seat, we headed north from Louisville back to Indiana. It had been a surreal 2 ½ days. Our couple had now turned into a family. Life will never be the same.






Saturday, July 9, 2011

Geneva to Idaho

Ok, so it's been a long time since I've posted something. It's been rather busy to say the least.

Since the last entry, I wrapped up a very intense time of preparation for being gone for longer than a month. After a week in Geneva, I was to go to the US for four weeks.

Geneva was an interesting week of meetings and a presentation at the UN High Commission for Refugees. It's a long story but the invitation came largely from our work in Tanzania in 2009-2010 and some good work we did, particularly Priya, in a transition to their results-based management standards and indicators. It's likely that it wasn't the most riveting topic of the week but it is important and I think it went pretty well. It was also good to see a bunch of people in Geneva that I haven't seen for a while.

From Switzerland I caught a plane to Idaho for a week of fun in the great outdoors. I only have a few days since I need to get to the Midwest to see Priya, whom I haven't seen in almost 2 months. You see, this isn't just any vacation. After a week of playing in Idaho, I'll be joining Priya in Indiana for the birth of our baby girl.

Up to now I've not mentioned it in the blog. Initially it was for general caution but thereafter it was mostly just that I didn't get around to it. Not to say we aren't excited about it. We're crazy excited though some of the fun of late has been dampened by the fact that I've been separated from my beloved wife for what seems like forever. More on that later since I catch my plane tomorrow.

For now a brief recap of my time in Idaho. The morning after I arrived, it was off to the camping trip. Our destination was north of Sun Valley, an area we know quite well since our family has been going there for three generations. Over the next few days close to twenty family members would gather for mountain biking, hiking, eating, jogging, road cycling, etc. I didn't end up with much down time but it was a lot of fun.

at the campground
riding among the Sawtooth Mountains
Curtis' photo - stopping to catch the view (and our breath)
From there it was off to Kimberly where my parents live. There was a bit more down time there though we did spend a day touring around the valley. Good to be a tourist in an area where you grew up.

yet another photo of Shoshone Falls
Kylie beneath Balanced Rock
Then it was back to Boise for a bit more biking and running last minute errands. Dinner last night in a cool restaurant, farewells and so forth. The short and sweet trip to Idaho comes to an end. Lots more interesting and funny stuff to recount but I don't have time. You'll just have to take this as it is for now.
the Boulder Mountains as seen by my new camera