(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, December 12, 2013

On the Muddy Road

Over the past five weeks I’ve been to NY, Rwanda, and all three field sites here in Burundi. My calculation for 2013 is that I will have traveled 47% of my working days. It’s a fair amount of being on the road but oh well. It’s what I do.

Last week I went to Makamba to visit the team there. We’re consolidating our two offices there so in 2014 we will have a single compound. It will be much easier and more efficient once we get it all done. The logistical support that we do there for UNHCR is phasing out and by the end of next year we are likely to be only doing protection programming. It’s good though. When you phase out programs like that it’s a sign that we did the job, the refugees have returned home from Tanzania and the mission has been accomplished. It’s just unfortunate for those who will lose their livelihoods as a result of the end of the project.
visiting the storage of plastic sheeting, tents, buckets, etc.

This week I’ve been in Ruyigi and Muyinga. For the former, I arrived in the afternoon after the long drive, the last stretch on the muddy, bumpy road. I began with a tour of the facilities, something I do about every other visit. It’s good to see what has changed, what needs fixed and have some quick individual conversations with the team. We then had a good meeting with all the staff, as I did in Makamba. It’s a time for them to ask questions, complain, etc. but also for me to give them an overview of what I learned in NY and to provide them with a general perspective of their organization. When you work in a field site, as I know quite well, you sometimes can feel isolated in your little, remote corner of the world.  Even for our national staff, most of whom come from Bujumbura, life is not easy being separated from family. That evening I had some meat skewers and a beer with a couple of my leadership team and then went back to the guesthouse to sleep just as the storm hit. The cool air and hard tropical rain make for good sleeping conditions. 
the beautiful Burundian countryside

The next day we headed out to Kavumu refugee camp. I’d last been there in May when the camp was just getting going. It’s a new camp, the fourth in the country, that has been welcoming all the new arrivals from violence in the Congo. Hard to say how things are going to evolve in 2014 but we’d ideally like to think that the flow of refugees into Burundi will calm and eventually start to reverse itself as people begin to feel it is safe to return. We’re certainly not there yet.
humor Congolese style

My visit was timed, partially accidentally, to attend the closure of a two-week long event raising awareness to the problems of gender-based violence. Since we are the organization that oversees this sector in the camps, it was good that I could be there. 
some of the spectators

As usual with these sorts of things, there is a lot of dancing, singing and speeches. Usually they drag on a bit longer than they should but given that things like this break up the monotony of life in a refugee camp, I was happy to indulge.
little drummer boys - note the drums made from used cans and plastic

I sat at the head table and enjoyed the festivities, taking in what is not only a lively event but also a rather beautiful setting perched on a hilltop in remote Burundi. As is the usual tradition, I was pulled into a Congolese dance, much to the delight of the cheering crowd. I’m not a huge fan of dancing – at least being a participant – but in this case it is not something I can avoid. I’m sure they all get a kick out of my brief yet awkward attempt at Congolese-ness. A scarf was then draped around my neck and I was, happily, able to return to my plastic chair and avoid further embarrassment. 
the dancers

As soon as the event came to a close, I was whisked off to the Land Cruiser to begin the trek towards Muyinga. It was a couple hours away and I had to get there to meet the UNHCR head of office and then the meeting with 80 or so Muyinga staff. It was a long and exhausting day but it all went generally well and I was able to squeeze in all the critical things I’d wanted to. The evening was much like the previous one – beef on a skewer and a beer. We even had evening and night downpours, more intense than what we’d had in Ruyigi; the rainy season still doing its thing.
On Wednesday I was off rather early to get back to Bujumbura. It was nearly a four-hour drive with mudslides, set in motion by the heavy rains, often blocking part of the road. Happy to be back in the office, and eventually home, I’m a little over 48 hours from traveling again – this time home for the holidays. I can deal with that.

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