(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.)

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.