(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, May 16, 2011

Uno de Mayo

I was reminded that Cinco de Mayo was being celebrated week before last in the US and Mexico – yet another mysterious holiday where few of the revelers even know what it is. As usual, Americans cranked it up a notch and moved it in a different direction from what it was originally. It's not all bad. A toast to the people and culture on the other side of that growing wall we are building.

serious fun
Here we recognized May Day, a few days before. It's also a bit of a mystery as to what it is exactly but it generally has morphed into an international workers day. The US downplays it since they have their own Labor Day at a different time of year (put that in with all the other things America does differently like miles, Fahrenheit, am/pm, calendars that begin with Sunday, writing the date where the month comes first, etc.) though it apparently was a bigger deal at one time. I do remember learning something about it in elementary school in which there was a May pole with traditional dancers encircling it with ribbons. Not sure I ever really knew what the day was about. In any case, Americans find tipping back margaritas more fun than dancing around a pole. Fair enough.

Here in Burundi it's surprisingly an important day. It is generally a holiday for workers and many, if not most, employers host some sort of celebration for staff. Such was the case for us. I should admit that our "union" representative had to send me an email to notify me of this custom. It's sort of like notifying a friend of your birthday and suggesting he throw a party for you. I don't mind, of course, that I'm notified of such things since it'd be a considerable faux pas to neglect to do so and there are still a lot things I have to learn about local customs. I'll bet he helps me to remember next year as well.

So I suggested that staff organize their own party and the organization picks up the tab. At least that way they have something they will enjoy and I'm not good at such things anyway. They chose a rather simple place, somewhere I'd never been, and it worked out quite well. Most of the hundred or so Bujumbura-based staff turned up early Monday afternoon to the outdoor café/restaurant.

There was, however, the Tanzania flashback when I saw that the plastic chairs were oddly arranged around the perimeter of the facility (rather than around the tables) seemingly intended to limit staff interaction. It also made it awkward for people to use the tables for their drinks and to eat. I saw this sort of thing in TZ a lot. The other anti-social arrangement that is common is having the chairs in rows all facing forward. This comes with a head table (or "high table") normally donned with plastic flowers and often times with colored ribbons and, when possible, placed up on a stage. Anyway, we chose to slide our chairs around to make things easier.

I was only about a half-hour late for the scheduled start which meant I arrived before most people. Priya accompanied me, her first time to meet most of the staff, and it was a pretty enjoyable afternoon. I do like the team here and there's a tremendous wealth of character and experience that comes through in conversations. I often ask those who remained in country throughout the civil war what it was like for them and their families given that I've never experienced such a thing. There are so many examples of tragedy but also personal resolve and triumph. The country is moving forward but it is still in a precarious state. So many years of fighting and animosity create a hangover that is tough to shake – particularly with a younger generation that's never really known anything else.

It will take considerable hard work and continued sacrifice to move this country forward. Hats off to this group of people who are doing their part. Cheers.

Thursday, May 5, 2011

The Political Stuff Isn’t All Bad

So my streak of weekly postings didn't last. Not to say that there hasn't been anything going on.

Overall the security situation in the country remains fairly good. Still hearing gun shots occasionally, some even during the day, but overall it's not bad. In my daily security reports I do see some things that are a bit worrisome but nothing that would point to a larger scale concern. So we carry on with the day to day.

Over the past couple of weeks my job has taken more of a political turn. My position has a lot of aspects to it from bureaucracy (paperwork and signing things), to problem solving (logistics, finance, programs), to human resources (talking through staffing issues), to coordination (other organizations, donors, etc.), to politics. This last one is not always my favorite and one that needs to be handled with a bit of care.

One event was a meeting with a high level government official who has a significant amount of influence over what we do. Without entering into specifics (sorry, might be in the book), I can say that it was productive and we were able to clarify things from both sides. Hard to say how clear he really is on what we are doing but the more he knows, the better. There are a lot of promising things going on in this country.

Then a meeting with the US Ambassador last Thursday. No big surprises but there are some particular concerns about the current and potential inflation rate. In a small, land-locked country with no real shipping access except by truck, rises in oil prices have an impact on the price of almost everything. It's also been noticed that there is a direct correlation between price rises and criminality. Since peoples' ability to pay doesn't increase as fast as prices, desperation sets in. To make matters worse, marketers tend to crank it up a notch when consumption drops. All this pushes individuals to want (need) things they can't afford. Recipe for trouble. More to come.

Nelson, thanks for a lot of things, including the party

That evening was South African Freedom Day celebration hosted by the SA Embassy, the first of a couple of suit and tie affairs. The annual holiday is a celebration of the first non-racial democratic elections in 1994. The location was the Ambassador's residence which is a sweet piece of property with a panorama view of the city of Bujumbura and Lake Tanganyika. The one problem with the view is the unfortunate construction of a big apartment building right in the middle of the panorama. I'd be more than a little angry by the whole thing but zoning laws seemed to be something that wealthy countries can afford to have.

After a nice evening with the South Africans, ambassadors, government ministers, etc., the next night was a similar event with similar faces but hosted by the Dutch. The occasion was Queen's Day, a celebration in honor of the Queen of the Netherlands. Rumor has it it's in honor of her birthday which is…uh…January 31st. Makes sense. Maybe I'll celebrate my birthday in November just for kicks.

Actually, the date is more closely associated with her ascension to the throne. The fact that it falls at a more agreeable time of the year to host barbeques makes it a better time to celebrate your "birthday" – worth considering if you're celebrating in Amsterdam.

Celebrating her birthday whenever the heck she wants
Even if the Dutch are a little flexible with their calendars, they know how to host a party. The food was SO good. Herring, cheese, some sort of yummy deep fried something or other, chocolate truffles, etc. Not exactly health food but all I have to say is, "Long live the queen."