(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.)

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