(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.)

Wednesday, May 22, 2013

Workers' Day

Over 80 countries in the world recognize Workers’ Day as a national holiday. I looked up the May 1 on Wikipedia to see if I could find out more about the day. One interesting thing it said that the “earliest May Day celebrations appeared in pre-Christian times”. Given that the Christian calendar didn’t exist pre-Christ, I find that a bit odd. I’m going to assume that they meant that there were spring celebrations which were later associated with what we call today May Day.

In Burundi each year it is a rather big day. So many people do not have employment and those that do are grateful. Some areas have parades in which staff wear the matching shirts from their organization, carry a flag or banner and march with pride. They usually congregate at rented restaurant or reserved table (depending on the size of the organization or company) for food, drinks and speeches. 

Since I’ve been in Burundi I have celebrated the event with staff here in Bujumbura. Though it’s a day off, most staff are happy to join in on the festivities, fun and, of course, free food and drink. This year, however, I decided that I would make my way to one of our field sites and join in with the team there. Because staff in some of the more remote areas often feel neglected, I thought this was a way to demonstrate to them their importance. I also was due for a visit to the field since I’d been in Rwanda and Entebbe so much the last couple of months. But to avoid being away from my family yet again, we decided that they would join in on the 3-day, 2-night journey which would also include a trip to our other site in Muyinga where I could attend the inauguration of our new office there.

Bujumbura to Ruyigi
We left around midday that Wednesday. It’s about a 3-hr drive and the road is mostly good. We stopped in Gitega at a decent grocery store before pushing on to our site in Ruyigi. We arrived at the restaurant just in time as staff had already assembled in the usual socially awkward seating arrangement – a single row of plastic chairs around the periphery of the room. It was standard in Tanzania as well. It doesn’t facilitate personal interaction since you’re stuck with only a person on each side of you. Consequently, after people have exhausted the conversation opportunities with their neighbors, they proceed to bury their noses in their cell phones.
our small Ruyigi team
As we entered, attention was immediately drawn to the little 21-month-old who was relieved to be out of her car seat and start working the room. The standard head table was awaiting us at the end of the room with the padded chairs. No plastic flowers adorning the table – probably a good call given that Kiran would have had her way with them.

The evening was nice. Drinks. Conversation. Speeches. Photos. Food. We then bid our farewell and headed to our hotel.

The next morning we were up and off to another brief event. The head of UNHCR for Burundi, a colleague and friend, was in the area and conducting a visit of the new refugee camp in Kavumu with the local governor and other partners. I was invited to participate given that we are their largest partner in the country and the largest organization working in the camp. I also had wanted to meet with our staff and see the new facilities as all the basics were in place and we were starting to welcome new refugees from violence in the Congo.
Kavumu - just like building a new town

The only hesitation I had was that I had my family with me. I was hoping that the visit would be relatively short and efficient. In the end it was. But it did get a bit hot while Priya and Kiran waited and the latter generated a rather large mob of curious toddlers so they had to seek refuge in the vehicle from the refugee children. Eventually my tour of the facilities with the Rep. and the governor concluded and we were able to head back down the rather nasty road back to the main road towards Cankuzo. From there we would cross the Ruvubu National Park towards Muyinga.

Cankuzo to Muyinga
This was a road I’d never taken. Since I arrived in Burundi the area has mostly been off limits for security reasons (i.e. banditry). The road is horrible and the armed bad guys had the habit of hanging out near the worst spots as drivers slowed to navigate the mud, ruts or whatever and they would jump the vehicle. Lately however the security situation has improved and we decided that it was safe enough for travel.  In the end that was the case. We were in a convoy of four-wheel-drive vehicles which included the Cankuzo governor so it added to the chance that we would make it without mishap. It didn’t make the road any smoother however. My poor pregnant wife was uncomfortably jostled around in the back seat and she made it clear she didn’t appreciate it. Fair enough. I didn’t realize that it would be quite as bad as it was. 
the amazing colors of the Ruvubu River

I should say that it was particularly beautiful and, once they build the new road, it is a drive that I would highly recommend. Though there are supposed to be all kinds of wildlife, we certainly didn't see much. I suspect much of was poached during and after the war. 

After what seemed like forever, we arrived at the ever-elusive town of Muyinga. As we pulled into our new office compound, the last ribbons and other decorations were being put in place. After the long drive and with a restless toddler, we agreed that it would be wise for Priya and Kiran to skip the inauguration even and go to our guesthouse. I would join them after more drinks, conversation, speeches, photos and food.

Muyinga staff assembled for the speeches
Muyinga to Bujumbura
The next morning we had breakfast and headed to the office for a quick hello, download emails and pick up our driver. I have a lot of talented and interesting staff in Muyinga and I enjoy going there. This visit would be very short but I assured them that I would be back before too long. So we bid farewell and headed off for the capital. 

The return seemed to go quickly. I was able to get some things done in the car and, given that it was now Friday, take some work pressure off my weekend – something I’ve been able to do better this year than in previous years. With a job like mine, a child and another on the way, time management is key. And spending time playing with my daughter is good for both of us.

“Man is most nearly himself when he achieves the seriousness of a child at play.”
-Heraclitus, philosopher (500 BCE)

Tuesday, May 14, 2013

Some Numbers

Happy Mother’s Day
As most of the readers of this blog are aware, my wife and I are going to have our second baby in a few months. According to a recent report by Save the Children on the worst places in the world to be a mother, Burundi ranks 137. I suppose that given the obstacles it could be worse. It’s still not good. Neonatal deaths are very high and unlike Nairobi and Johannesburg, no matter how much you pay for the care in the country, it is limited. We’re heard horror stories from friends including one where the power went out during the birth.  With over a million newborn deaths in the world every year, it’s best to take as few chances as possible.
After much reflection about where we would have the baby, we are opting to go back to the US. Even though the US isn’t even in the top ten of the survey (a surprising 30th), it’s probably our best option, including the fact that we can be surrounded by family.

And Now For Some Numbers
There are a lot of other statistics that shed some light on the difficult situation in this country. In fact, Burundi, despite being potentially self-sufficient in food, has the highest level of hunger of all 79 countries listed in the 2012 Global Hunger Index published recently by the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI). Some 58 percent of children are chronically malnourished, which means the physical and intellectual development of the child is seriously threatened. It gets worse. In the UNs recent human development index, Burundi ranks 185th out of 187 countries. This is seriously bad, particularly when you consider how many economically devastated and worn-torn countries were rated higher. To top all this off, the attempts to fix these problems are hampered by corruption. Burundi is listed by Transparency International as one of the six most corrupt countries in the world.
While I’m mentioning surveys, the Economist came out with a list of the worst places to find something to eat. The criteria included affordability, quality, availability, etc. Burundi fared much worse than on the mother survey. It ranked 3rd to the last.
The 10 worst places to get food are:
1. Congo 18.4 points
2. Chad 20.2
3. Burundi 22.9
4. Haiti 24.5
5. Madagascar 26.3
6. Ethiopia 26.4
7. Tanzania 26.8
8. Malawi 27.3
9. Togo 27.5
10. Sudan 27.6

So yes, that’s where we live. I should also say that’s why we’re here. If one wants to do humanitarian work and contribute to the lives of those who are suffering, the numbers reveal that these people can certainly use the help. Being land-locked, maintaining a very high birth rate, low education levels and possessing limited natural resources, things are likely to stay tough for a while.

So Now What?
In spite of all this, Burundi is a strikingly beautiful place. The seemingly endless hills are green and very lush. The climate is near perfect year round – tropical without the unbearable heat. I find the people to be quite warm and welcoming. In fact the country is currently host to nearly 50,000 people (mostly from the Congo) who have been given refuge in this small, densely populated and troubled country. It’s an incredibly challenging feat to do such a thing even with international assistance.
After living here for nearly three years, I find it easy to waver back and forth between optimism and pessimism. I think if you only see one or the other then you’re not paying attention. The reality is both. I don’t think we are on the edge of war right now but I don’t think we’re on the edge of prosperity either. Time will tell but it is likely that we are in for a long, slow slog in a gradual albeit positive direction.

…And Where Is the Food?
In case you are wondering about the ten best places to find something to eat, here is where the US makes up for its paltry conditions for motherhood:

1.  United States 89.5
2.  Denmark 88.1
3.  Norway 88.0
4.  France 86.8
5.  Netherlands 86.7
6.  Austria 85.6
7.  Switzerland 83.7
8.  Canada 83.4
9.  Finland 83.1
10. Germany 83.0

At least when we get to America we will be able to find something to eat.

Sunday, May 5, 2013

Northern Uganda - Part 2

The next morning we were off. The weather had cleared up and the roads, with the exception of a couple of tricky spots, would be fine. Our initial destination would be Agoro, tucked into the base of the mountains that form the northern border with South Sudan.

In the early 1970s, Agoro was holiday resort for high profile visitors to Uganda and holiday home for President Idi Amin, who left an indelible mark on this land after constructing a huge prison farm. It’s an amazingly beautiful area and Amin’s attraction to it is no surprise in spite of its remote location.

Agoro, Uganda; the border with S. Sudan is the ridge of the mtns.
While driving to Agoro, I asked some staff how they viewed Amin and whether or not they had seen the movie the Last King of Scotland. They had all seen the movie and were all in agreement that it was a disappointment. They, like most Ugandans, have more of a complex view of Idi Amin and what he contributed to their country. While most agree that he did some horrible things, they feel he was also endearing in many ways. At different times during the trip staff would recount stories of interesting, funny and whimsical things that Amin did. For example one time he required government ministers to spend a few days working on the prison farm so that they could get a taste of what the common man has to go through on a daily basis. He also would often stop his vehicle and engage with locals in various sports. I think for those who were not directly affected by the brutal killings of his government, it’s probably easier to take a more nuanced view of his leadership.
Unfortunately after the time of Amin, the beautiful area of Agoro was submerged under a shadow of misery brought about by the insecurity and prolonged unrest perpetuated by the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA). I’ll try to be brief but I think it’s good to have an understanding of what happened in this area. The people seem to feel that in the wake of the LRA’s departure, the world is quickly forgetting them as they work to recover.
The LRA’s motives have always been heavily debated. Some believe that their naissance in the north of Uganda suggests independence as a driving factor in their terror. But their horrific treatment of their fellow northern citizens (children abducted as soldiers, rape, theft, etc.) makes that less plausible. Their rhetoric, limited as it was, seemed to point to more of a general anti-government sentiment. As their numbers have now declined and as they were pushed into the Congo and now into the Central African Republic, it seems they may now be more motivated by simple survival.
Connected to northern Uganda’s troubles with the LRA was the situation just to the north in Sudan. Prior to the recent separation between Sudan and South Sudan, the protracted conflict between the Muslim north and the Christian south was a constant thorn in the backside of the Islamic Sudanese government. With accusations that Christian Uganda was supporting the efforts in southern Sudan, the Sudanese government allowed the LRA to establish bases in their country along the Uganda border.
All hell broke loose when the Ugandan government launched operation “Iron Fist” to flush out the LRA from their bases in southern Sudan. The bad situation turned worse as northern Uganda subsequently came under brutal attack. Thousands of children were abducted and forced into becoming child soldiers. Rape was rampant. Thousands were killed. The entire population of was displaced for about a decade beginning in the late ‘90s. To protect the population, the citizens of northern Uganda were consolidated into dozens of concentrated “camps” or densely populated villages provided military support. 

While it did assist in providing security, it was only limited. Military postings were strangely placed in the middle of these camps which left the periphery open to attack. Several camp massacres took place. Anyone walking along a road, particularly women and children, were vulnerable. As we drove past people walking or riding bicycles, staff told us this was something that would never happen during the years of the war. With this displacement, the bulk of the population of Agoro was confined to the trading center in the middle of the village. From there they were provided relief food by the World Food Program. Houses were built only a couple meters from each other and life was a claustrophobic struggle in constant fear of attack.
The Long Road to Recovery
As the war went on and the LRA was eventually being driven out, fear began to subside and people gradually returned to their land and their lives. Little by little, people began to venture out and build a sense of normality. Much had changed due to the protracted war. The infrastructure was destroyed and is slowly being rebuilt. Land disputes are still being settled. Formerly abducted children are now adults and struggle to put the past behind them.
As we arrived in Agoro, it would be easy to believe that none of this had ever happened. At a glance it seems that it would be more of a holiday destination rather than a war zone. The bordering mountains are lush and green. People are out working the fields, some by hand, others with the aid of oxen. The market was full of bright colors as vendors were selling their goods – everything from vegetables to baskets to rubber boots to plastic ware from China.  
Agriculture Project
We made our way to a plot of land being farmed by a co-op and supported by our organization. The group, primarily women – seven of whom had small children in tow, sang and chanted as we arrived. They explained the improved farming techniques and the value of the co-op in improving their livelihood. We went from there to a village savings and loan group which has also been instrumental in improving their ability to grow their incomes. Testimonies revealed that families were able to pay school fees so that the next generation would lead better lives than their own.
The last stop in Agoro was a grain drying and storage facility. For relatively little investment from donors, this facility (and now cell phones) has been making a huge difference in the ability for farmers’ access to markets and move beyond subsistence farming.
Palabek Kal
After a farewell to the local administrator (mayor), we were off to Palabek Kal, southwest of Agoro. Recent rain had made the roads a bit precarious in places. However we were never in any danger of getting stuck.

There we visited an interesting project of combined livelihoods and parenting support. Under the shade of a mango tree we heard testimonies of people who had been assisted by the project. One woman in particular talked about having been formerly abducted as a child. After years of abuse she was released. Needless to say she had a hard time adjusting to her new life. She had difficulty relating to people and shut herself off from society. Little by little, including through support from this project, she is regaining confidence and learning how to associate with others. She is now married, has a small child and seems to be turning her life around. Can’t imagine what that must be like.
It was now late in the day and we needed to return to Kitgum before dark. We had succeeded in dodging storms throughout the day and the road was good. The low sun cast a beautiful light across the Ugandan countryside. I often look out the window on trips like this wishing I could just stop and hang out in one of the local villages. Not only does time not allow for it, it’s difficult for a Westerner to do such things in an unobtrusive manner. It’s hard to pop in for some quick roasted goat, chat about the day’s events and carry on. I suppose that is the appeal of Peace Corp or some missionary work where you are a part of these villages long enough that you don’t attract as much attention.
We arrived back at Kitgum, tired and crusted over with the reddish brown dirt. It was a very good day and I think we all agreed that the long drives were worth it. Nonetheless, we still had another 8 long hours back to Entebbe the next morning. For now, however, it was time for a quick shower in preparation for a dinner with the local staff. Throughout the visit they communicated that they don’t often get visits like this these days since the program has been reduced. Donor interest is waning in places like this with all of the other international crises, most notably Syria. Both they and the beneficiaries were encouraged by our interest in their activities. We all agree that it will be a challenging future for them to maintain their support for these communities and even their jobs. Regardless of what happens, the people in northern Uganda are in a better place. Let’s hope it stays that way.