(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.)

Thursday, June 20, 2013

Security and Genocide

I receive a couple of security reports per day. In the past I received more information than I do now but the security situation has in fact improved. We used to hear gunfire regularly from our house and now it is rather rare. We’re certainly not out of the woods yet but it there are indications that things are currently improving. In fact a recent report that I received put it this way:

BURUNDI: Travel Risk Rating for Bujumbura Rural Province Reduced to HIGH

In case you think this is a typo, in fact this area surrounding the capital was previously rated as EXTREME. HIGH is an improvement. It’s all relative I guess. 

In 2015, the next elections are scheduled. This is generally not good news for sub-Saharan African countries from a security standpoint. Pursuit of power drives this continent and an election is considered power for the taking.  There is no question that the security situation will decline. Last elections, just prior to our arrival in the country, all expat staff families were evacuated for their protection. We’ll be keeping an eye on things but all indication is that our positive trend is on borrowed time. Burundians have a fairly recently developed saying, “Old demons are not dead, but they are at least asleep.” We may be once again reminiscing about the good ol’ days when the travel risk around the capital was only high.

I’m in Kigali as I type this. On Monday I had a meeting with the son of one of our long-standing board members who is also one of the directors of the Holocaust Museum in Washington D.C. He’s going to be leading a group of people affiliated with the museum on a visit next year for the 20th anniversary of the Rwandan genocide. It will be a time to commemorate the occasion and raise awareness in general to the issue of genocide which unfortunately still plagues our world. They have come to talk to various people and do some planning for the visit next April. The evening was quite a who’s who of the issue (I tend to avoid last names, including my own, in case people for whatever reason don’t want their activities readily searched on the web. Not that I hang out with people that have things to hide.):

  • Michael – the guy I mentioned above, a former White House correspondent and editor for the Washington Post.
  • Nadia – head of special events for the museum.
  • Bill – former Clinton administration director of the Office of Consumer Affairs at the U.S. Department of Agriculture; current PR guy for big NGOs and I think he does a few other things as well.
  • Josh – owner of one of the nicest restaurants in Rwanda, current Asst. Clinical Prof. of Public Health for Columbia Univ.; Founder and Director of Access Project; in previous life ran a PR firm that consulted for “stray cat” governments (govts. with image problems, particularly in South America but also Rwanda in the late 90’s); just coming out with a book about his experiences in Rwanda.
  • Pastor Antoine, the famous (at least in Rwanda) former Vice-Chairperson of the National Unity and Reconciliation Commission; one of the biggest shapers of reconciliation policy in Rwanda; amazing testimony of his Christian faith and of his genocide survival.
  • Freddie – Rwandan director of the Kigali genocide memorial.
  • Nancy – a Dutch-New Yorker who’s the head of genocide studies at a university in Amsterdam, accompanied by a couple colleagues.

I suppose this is one of the great things about my job. I frequently get to meet some pretty fascinating people. I was quite possibly the least interesting person at the table and, as is often the case, people seemed more fascinated by the fact that I’m from Idaho and doing what I do rather than specifically what I do. When Pastor Antoine was asked if he’d had a chance to visit the US, he said yes. In fact, he said, he’d had a chance to go to all the corners of the country. I knew what was coming next. “Even Idaho?” Nancy asked, smiling at me. Since the pastor had arrived after the where-are-you-originally-from conversations, he was a bit puzzled by her question. I actually get that a lot when I’m in NY as well. It doesn’t seem to be a negative or a positive thing. Just a thing. Like having a third nipple.

The conversation was mostly about the Rwandan context, factors that lead to genocide, comparisons between the Rwandan genocide and the holocaust, reconciliation vs. peaceful coexistence, and so forth. While I enjoyed conversing with the whole group, I have to say Pastor Antoine (as he is called) did stand out. He has a frankness and wisdom about him that you rarely see in people. 

The evening slipped by quickly and soon we were shaking hands and getting in our respective cars. The earlier discussion about Rwanda’s current sense of order and discipline quickly became apparent for our American visitors. After only a block they were stopped by a policeman for an accidental but nonetheless illegal left turn. No bribe. Here’s your ticket. Welcome to Rwanda.

Wednesday, June 12, 2013

The Cycle of Life

“Every time I see an adult on a bicycle, I no longer despair for the future of the human race.”
H. G. Wells

My brother was recently in a serious cycling accident. Numerous broken bones and internal injuries landed him in an ICU and nearly took his life. He’s apparently doing better but it was a close call and it will be a very long, painful road to recovery. It’s one of those situations that makes it tough to be in Africa since I would have liked to have been there during this time. Fortunately other family members we able to step in and help out.

I think if you were to ask my family which member was born with the reckless gene, it would not be Curtis. It would be me, hands down. He has logged tens of thousands of miles on a bicycle is one of the most careful people I’ve ever ridden with. He applies this prudence to all his adventures and I have learned a lot from his calculated approach to things. If you want to extract a look of disdain from him, try pulling a cotton shirt out of your backpack. I am a far cry from being sufficiently cautious but I’m getting better.

Still, it is true that I have broken a few bones while riding a bike, or I should say being thrown from a bike, including one trip to a hospital emergency room. But in my case all were generally “self-inflicted” mountain bike accidents. On the pavement I’ve been very fortunate and have generally kept the rubber side down. Through years of commuting, road cycling and some competitions, I’ve never had any serious accidents. I hope to keep it that way.

“The bicycle, the bicycle surely, should always be the vehicle of novelists and poets.”
~ Christopher Morley

Biking in East Africa
When I arrived in Tanzania, I came with my mountain bike. It’s been a cherished friend for many years. It’s getting old though and, unfortunately, it hasn’t been used much since I’ve been here. Cycling can be a bit of a different experience on this continent. During my first week in Dar es Salaam I had my first sobering moment. I was told that one of our guards had been slashed with a machete while riding home. The perpetrator was successful in stealing his beat-up, fifty-dollar Chinese bicycle. We visited the guy at the hospital the next day – massive bandage on his head and another one on one of his thighs. All the while feeling horrible for the poor man, I at the same time was developing a newfound concern for my own wellbeing. I was still very new to Africa and I thought if someone was willing to take a machete to this guy’s head for a crappy bike, what would they do for mine? That’s not counting the horrendous driving that I’ve seen that would be every bit as effective as a machete in terminating or at least complicating my existence.

“Get a bicycle. You will certainly not regret it, if you live.”
~ Mark Twain, Taming the Bicycle 1884

So my bike sat unused for quite a while. Finally, when we were living in remote northwestern Tanzania, my bike was brought back to life. A doctor that came to work in our refugee health operations brought his mountain bike. I figured that riding with him would be safer and smarter.

And ride we did. Africa is a wonderful place for single track. Walking trails are everywhere and, though one needs to be extremely careful not to run over the top of ladies carrying huge bundles of wood on their heads, it’s a tremendous amount of fun. We did have a bit of a bad experience one day and it sort of put me off riding, at least the longer distances. On this particular day we’d ventured into some far reaching areas where we’d never been. Most of the little children had never seen white people before. Moreover, we were wearing helmets and sunglasses that likely made us look like we were from another planet – at least to people that weren’t used to seeing this sort of thing. 

riding near one of the refugee camps
At one point we came upon a group of girls carrying various things on their heads. As we got closer one of them turned around, screamed and took off running. The others followed suit. We immediately took off our helmets and sunglasses in an attempt to un-frighten them but it was too late. By now they had dropped everything, including their sandals, and were well off in the distance. As we looked at each other slightly bewildered by what had happened, it occurred to me that we might be in a bit of danger. Sure enough, their screams had been heard and to our left, two men appeared through the head-high elephant grass. They were shirtless and had come from the nearby field, shining with sweat, angry and carrying machetes. We tried to explain what had happened but our pathetic Swahili and good English wasn’t working. I was pretty sure that we would be unable to get back on our bikes and get the hell out of there before they would be on us so we were at a brief impasse. Fortunately for us, up from behind came a guy on a bike with a girl riding side-saddle behind him. We’d passed him earlier and, quickly realizing our predicament, he began to explain to the other guys in Kiha what had happened. Or at least we think that’s what he was doing. Either way, the two guys cracked a smile and faded back through the grass. We thanked our young savoir, decided to cut our losses and headed back to Kibondo.

To Ride or not to Ride
A guy I know recently completed what they called the Tour of Burundi. I think it was an inaugural episode of what they intend to become an event. I wasn’t aware of it in advance I might have considered taking part. Unlike the Tour de France, in a week’s time you can circumnavigate the entire country of Burundi. Though the group of less than ten pulled it off without mishap, this country can be a bit precarious from a security standpoint – particularly some stretches of road in particular. In any case, they were successful and the idea is intriguing to say the least. Case in point, last week in my daily UN security report I read that not far from here unidentified assailants with AK-47s shot and killed two cyclists. It’s unclear what the motivation was but it was likely theft. 

I miss riding. I used to spend hours and hours riding on the California coast or in the mountains of Idaho. I do plan on taking it up again at some point (other than my current vacation riding with family). The question is when and where. All I know is that when I do, I’ll need to keep that reckless gene in check. It’s not as easy as you might think.