(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.)

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

The Flood

Still way behind in my blog, I’m trying to dedicate some time each week to catch up. Getting closer.

It’s been a long dry season. I’m not sure why it has seemed so long but it just has. In the two years that we’ve been in Burundi, I’ve begun to develop a bit of an understanding of the seasons. It’s not much of a sample size but you at least get the idea as to the difference between, for example, Dar es Salaam and Bujumbura. In Dar it was either hot and wet or hot and dry. Here the heat seems to be less tolerable since the weather is near perfect all year round. One simply develops higher expectations.

There have been indications that the rainy season is on the way. It hasn’t been consistent but there have been some rather dramatic messages from planet Earth that the clouds above us will be delivering once again.

About two and a half weeks ago we were at home enjoying a cloudy Saturday. Priya was at the dining table and I had just made the bold announcement that I was off to take a nap. A light rain seemed to be turning into a heavier rain and there is nothing better to provide background sound as I would drift off and make up some ground on a rather large sleep deficit. Immediately after my ill-fated announcement, a loud and sustained noise came from outside. It sounded a long thunder but soon became apparent that it was something quite different.

I looked out the front window to see huge amounts of reddish-brown water flooding into the front garden. I hurriedly put on my shoes and went out to see what was going on. It became apparent that the deep drainage ditch that flows along our property to the south was blocked. The rain was still pouring and my pathetic umbrella seemed to be providing no shelter and I soon tossed it aside. Upon closer inspection my heart sank as I saw what had happened. Above our property is another property with a tall rock wall between us. Beneath the wall is a grate which was cemented into the one meter deep ditch to prevent bad guys from entering our property. The problem was that there was no similar grate on the upper end of the neighbor’s property which allowed the debris to flow down and block the water’s passage as it would pass down through our property. With walls on three sides, the water began to build up behind what was essentially a dam. From the water marks we saw later it rose to nearly two meters before the wall couldn’t handle the pressure. Large rocks, cement and water exploded down the hill heading to our lower wall. As that lower grate was immediately blocked by the debris, the water, seeking lower ground, then flowed into our garden. The massive wave made its way across the lawn looking for someplace to escape, eventually pouring over into the driveway and out the gate.
the river through the front yard

The flood took everything in its path: bushes, small trees, flowers, etc. The cobblestone driveway was quickly reduced to mud as the stones were dislodged and driven not only out into the road in front of our house but also across it and into the median. Traffic was immediately halted and had to be redirected. Layers of dirt that were underneath the cobblestones quickly eroded.
there goes the driveway

Rain continued to fall and it wasn't clear if the situation would deteriorate further. I was trying to decide what to do first. I figured that the initial thing to do was clear the road given that the ejected cobblestones could be a hazard. Unfortunately the rush of water flowing out our gate was too deep made it impossible to get outside. Before too long the water began to carve down into the sediment and created an ankle-deep passageway. I headed out and the guard followed. 
moving stones and watching for traffic

One by one we began to remove the stones from the road. Since traffic on this particular road is generally quite fast, the guard split his time between signaling to the arriving cars of our little hazard, directing them to turn around and returning to tossing stones in between. In Bujumbura, Saturdays are big wedding days. One tradition is for the multi-car wedding entourage to honk their horns as they follow the decorated wedding couple’s car across town, usually with a front vehicle containing a cameraman filming the event (must make for some fascinating viewing later). 
lots of water

Given that it was a Saturday and that this is a common thoroughfare, we were subjected to a significant number of gawkers. However I was in no mood to care and we persisted in our work to clear the road. By the time we’d finished, the rain had slowed and I was able to make my way back into the compound to my next task which was to unblock the lower grate so that the water would stop flowing into the yard and out the ever-eroding driveway. The flooding had abated considerably but it nonetheless continued as water was arriving from many kilometers up the hill. Ankle deep in water, I began to dislodge some of the large rocks from the lower grate to enable the water to start flowing out again rather than into the yard. It turned out to be a bigger job than I had anticipated. There was about a meter of large rocks and debris to remove just to get to the top of the ditch. One by one I hoisted the rocks up and out of the way. I kept looking at the sky to see if more was on the way. After about a half hour I started to hear the first trickle of water beginning to escape through the passageway beneath the wall and on its normal path towards the culvert beneath the road, hopefully taking it on to the lake where it belongs. The water flowing into our garden finally stopped.
the path of the water; note the mark on the wall where the electrical wire is missing and showing how high the water was

Sewage is not a pretty thing. In Burundi it is particularly unpleasant. In the water floating around me were all kinds of treasures. In addition to plastic bags and other rubbish there were dead lizards and mice that had obviously been as caught off guard as we were by the flood (the consequences for them were a bit more dire, however). The broken bottles were a problem as well and contributed to some cuts that are still healing. Over the next couple of hours we spent digging out the ditch, removing rocks, etc. A water main had been taken out by the deluge and was blasting tap water into the ditch. The government water department was quite responsive and soon they were working on a temporary solution. Have to hand it to them, they’re resourceful. One worker asked for a machete, a plastic bag and a broken broom handle. Once the central water flow was shut off the guy could go about capping the pipe. He sharpened the broken broom handle, wrapped it in plastic bag to help it seal and then used the handle of the machete to pound the stick into the end of the pipe. The water was turned on and the stick held nicely. 
the path of destruction with the broken water pipe in the foreground

The clean-up lasted for several days. The driveway was finished a week or so ago. The plants that were wiped out are still laying where they were immediately after the flood. Our devastated gardener is sort of at a loss as to what where to start with the mess. I think for the most part he’s been avoiding it and keeping up the rest of the garden. He just broke his leg on Saturday so my guess is that we’ll be dealing with the destroyed foliage for another couple of months.
no more wall

Overall it wasn’t that big of a deal when compared to what real flooding does. That same Saturday many poor people in the area lost their homes. As I was blistering and cutting my hands picking up rocks, I kept thinking about how blessed we are and how I need to shut up and not complain. I have a slightly deeper respect for the power of water and how quickly it can turn into a violent and destructive force. Though I’m still looking forward to the rainy season, I do have a better understanding of the apprehension some feel as they hear that rumble of thunder off in the distance.

Wednesday, September 19, 2012


“For sleep, riches and health to be truly enjoyed, they must be interrupted.”
-Jean Paul Richter, writer (1763-1825)

I’m catching up on this blog at a snail’s pace. It’s not for a lack of things to write about. On the contrary, it’s usually when things are the busiest that I have the least amount of time to write about it.

As I’m writing this I’m in Kigali at our guesthouse. Odd to be away from my wife and daughter. The light travel schedule I’ve enjoyed lately has allowed me to grow accustomed to being at home. So I get to try for some unfettered sleep. Kiran is a poor sleeper so nights are generally interrupted several times. I wasn’t a great sleeper before having a baby but adding her to the mix certainly does help my rest. She doesn’t seem to be getting any better at it. My poor wife, a former expert sleeper. Hope she’ll regain her sleeping form once Kiran starts sleeping through the night (if she does).
Just finished a run in the neighborhood and up around the Ministry of Defense. The last half of the run was well after sunset. Weird to run in the dark since I’d never do such a thing in Bujumbura.

Mom-in-Law and Pop-in-Law
We don’t get that many visitors and so it was particularly nice to have her parents here for a week. The time went fast and we fit a lot in. There aren’t that many tourist attractions in a place like this. It’s a shame since there is, in fact, considerable potential.
at the lake viewing hippos
Given the hazy, dry season we had to try to convince Cy and Yvonne of the beautiful view that they were not seeing every day. It’s the kind of thing people get tired of hearing but, again, we don’t get many visitors and it really is stunning on a clear day. Alas, we had a good rain the night they left and sure enough, the Congolese mountains appeared the next day in all their glory. Oh well.
they certainly don't look dangerous
We had a nice evening at the lake. A couple of hippos decided to make their appearance though I think there were others lurking under the water. There isn’t that much impressive wild game in Burundi anymore so it’s cool to regularly see hippos on the lake here in town. Apparently during the night they make their way into the parks and so forth to eat before returning to the lake before sunrise. They eat around 68 kilos (about 150 pounds) of food per night. It’s creepy enough to be in town at night that has very few functioning street lights let alone bumping into one of Africa’s deadliest animals.
Blue Bay
Otherwise we spent a lot of time at the beach. It’s one thing that makes Bujumbura stand out over Kigali. It may not be safe enough to run at night and you do here gunfire from time to time but at least it has nice beaches.
hiking around Igenda
We also went to a place in the hills called Ijenda. It’s about 45-minute drive from our house almost all uphill. We’ve been there on a few hikes. The air is nice and cool. We have been hit by rain before but this particular day was actually quite nice. The view is good as well since you’re above the haze over the lake.
Priya took them around town shopping, showing them some of the routines we have. Often times people find that quite interesting, as much as some of the tourism things. I also gave them a tour of our offices including a transit center on the edge of town that we use for hosting Congolese refugees either on their way into the country fleeing violence or on their way out, repatriating to their homeland in times of safety. Even though it’s what I do for a living, I still find the operations quite interesting.

Cheesed Off
I always fly when I go to Rwanda. I could drive but it’s time consuming and when you figure the fuel costs and so forth, it’s not that much cheaper. It’s a short flight. I only have a small carry-on and my laptop. As I was making my way through the process this last time, upon arrival at the last security check the militant uniformed folks started to actively do their thing. Security is no joke in this part of the world so they do take their jobs quite seriously. Generally I don’t mind since I’d like to survive the flight and anything they can do to avoid a firey crash, I’m for it. So long as what they are doing really contributes to that end.
This time however, as the lady was rifling through my belongings, she pulled out a small round of cheese that I’d bought in Kigali. She asked me what it was. Cheese is not a common part of most Rwandan diets so I’ll forgive her for the question. Given that it was unwrapped and said “cheese” on the label, I still thought it to be painfully obvious. Nonetheless I indulged her and told her that it was in fact cheese. She looked at me seriously and said that it wasn’t allowed on the airplane. I smiled at her ludicrous statement and said politely again, “It’s cheese” only I added a couple more “e’s” this time. “It’s not allowed,” she said again. Not angry yet, I asked her why on earth cheese would not be allowed on the airplane. “It’s not allowed,” she said again blandly, this time adding a shaking of the head to emphasize her point. I gave her one more chance to provide me with an explanation since I have purchased and flown through there with cheese almost every month for the last two years. This time she said I could go downstairs and check in the bag. Not helping things, I told her she was crazy and went looking for another person in uniform who may be able to counter this woman’s prejudice against dairy. A security guy across the way looked important and I brought him the matter. Unfortunately he only spoke Kinyarwanda. Without even trying to figure out what I wanted he started to look for someone who could assist in the communication. Naturally he gravitated towards my irrational cheese-hater.
By now I had created a bit of a scene as they exchanged some words leaning over the x-ray conveyor belt, occasionally looking in my direction. Finally the lady grabbed the cheese, aggressively shoved it back in my bag and said, “You take this time but next time, no.” Yes, it was but a small round of cheese but I felt strangely compelled to see this one through.
Content in my victory over injustice, I made my way over to the lounge. As I sat down it occurred to me the possible danger she saw in my seemingly innocuous yellow round. It was likely I underestimated her knowledge of such things and she was in fact suspicious that it was sharp cheddar.

Sunday, September 9, 2012

A Glimpse of the Return

Rumor has it that some read this blog to see updates of family and friends (given that I have refrained from joining the Facebook cult). Others are interested in the international humanitarian work. It’s probably successful at neither. It is likely something that is best consulted when people are looking to avoid work or other things that they have been putting off. Or should you be so inclined, you can glance at it while sitting on the loo.

Another long delay and pathetic attempt to catch up. I will. Gradually. This one was written the third week of August.

Given the greater influence of European donors both in what we do and in this community in general, this is normally a slow time. People are on holiday and I remember last year, my first August in the country, I was in fact able to get caught up. This year seems a bit different as we have a lot going on, both in the Rwanda and Burundi programs. I suppose that’s a good thing but I do want to hit September with a clean desktop, both in my office and on my computer.

It’s been a bit more than a month since we returned from our holiday in the US. With the exception of a trip to Rwanda, much of the past few weeks has uncharacteristically been spent in my office. Prior to my recent vacation, I counted that I went 9 weeks in a row with at least some travel outside of Bujumbura each week. Whether getting my internal organs jostled around by bumpy dirt roads or traveling by air and getting violated by TSA agents, it does get old. I was happy to have my routines.

Last week I needed to travel to one of our transit centers near the border with Tanzania. The purpose was to show a representative of the US embassy the work that is being done in support of the repatriation of Burundians who are returning from their lives in the refugee camps of Tanzania as well as for me to check on the work my staff have been doing to prepare for what may be a massive return of 35,000 people over the coming months.
not bad for 15 bucks a night
Generally I would say that the visit was successful. There are three centers altogether with a capacity to accommodate over 3,500 people at a time with a possibility of 2 convoys per week (3 per week if we make some arrangements). If people were all of the sudden return in large numbers, the limiting factor would be the availability of trucks and buses rather than the capacity of the transit facilities, particularly if we’re doing 2 or 3 convoys per week. These things tend to break down a lot on the nasty roads and a lot of them are fairly old. Going to be interesting.
where the returnees are processed
All three centers are operational but we only visited the Mabanda facility which we are using exclusively until the numbers of returnees increases. As the people arrive by truck or bus (hopefully), they come to these centers to be processed, provided repatriation kits (pots, pans, buckets, food rations, etc.) and then we truck them to their destination. We timed this visit such that we were at the center just as a convoy of 109 people was arriving. It’s a minute number compared to the rate of repatriation that is needed to empty the camp by the end of the year (as dictated by the Tanzanian government) but at least some are starting to come.
feeding the multitudes
We toured the facility and were able to see it in action, albeit with a smaller numbers. I have visited it a few times but I’d never seen it in use. It was good to see all the work that had been done to get it in shape for the coming months. The embassy representatives seemed impressed by the work and the complexity involved in gracefully moving large numbers of people, providing them with basic supplies, dealing with some tough protection issues, moving hundreds of kilos of belongings (50/person) and getting them safely to their new (old) home. Then there is the human drama underlying it all. I never want to take for granted, amidst all the larger budgetary and political issues I have to deal with, the immense challenges that these people have faced that led them to become refugees in the first place and the challenges they will continue to face. It’s easy to miss it when you do this for many years. There is usually little emotion in the faces of the returnees, though my guess is that the stoic appearance hides considerable anxiety.
We sat down with a few individuals who volunteered to speak to us. We just wanted to get an idea why they were deciding to return now, why they waited, what they expected in the near future as they go to a place that has not been their home for more than a decade and a half. I’ve had these kinds of conversations before and often they try to figure out what your role is and answer accordingly. It can be tough to get straight, honest answers. In this case I’d say we got about 50% sincerity. It’s too long to tell the stories here but these people have been through a lot. I can’t even imagine. I do hope and pray that this next phase of their lives is far better. My fear is that in returning to one of the poorest countries on earth, the hardship may stick around for awhile.