(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, May 6, 2014

Good to be Home



When we returned from Singapore, I had to quickly turn around and go to Rwanda. We’ve been having some problems with a nutrition project there and it’s been a battle to get it fully off the ground. I won’t go into details but it can be a tough place to work, in spite of the fact that the infrastructure has advanced so much. 

The morning after returning from Rwanda I then turned around and headed to our Burundian field site in Makamba. It’s supposed to be about 3 hours from Bujumbura but it keeps getting longer as the road deteriorates. We were about an hour and a half into the trip and all of the sudden we saw trees and rocks blocking the road. My driver asked a guy who was walking along the roadside where we were supposed to go to continue on. He said there is a side road back a few hundred meters that is serving as a detour.

This is annoying. This is a main road. There is no sign that there is a blocked road ahead. No sign that there is a detour and where the detour is. It doesn’t take much to put something like that in place. I found out later that this has been like this for many days and there doesn't appear to be any progress on getting the road open. As is often the case here, if there is a functional workaround, nothing gets fixed.

So off we went up the dirt road passing through a couple of crossroads, turning where we thought there were the most vehicle tracks indicating the likely way to go. No signs anywhere of course. Eventually we made our way back to the main road and we carried on. 

The reason for my trip was Workers’ Day, or May Day in some countries. It’s a public holiday similar to Labor Day in the US but taken much more seriously. Instead of taking the day off to devote to family or recreational activities, workers expect to be wined and dined by their employer. There are speeches and in most places they have parades where people walk in groups wearing the matching shirts of their respective employer. While I’ve never done the parade thing, I have done my duty as an employer and not only supported the event but participated in various places where we have offices. Last year I was at our office in Ruyigi (which I blogged about; I brought the family with Kinaya in the womb). This year it was Makamba’s turn.

These things are not that animated generally. Drinks are handed out. People usually sit in a semi-circle facing a head table where I sit with my head of office next to me. Because of the anti-social arrangement of the chairs, people either talk to whomever is on their left or right or their heads are bowed looking at their cell phones. 

Then the food comes. There is usually meat, a starch (fries in this case) and some “salad”. I use quotes since it’s usually a couple slices of tomato and a little lettuce or cabbage. It’s more like decoration. Often there is no expectation that you would use utensils and none were made available on this occasion. A lady had earlier walked around with a pitcher of water and a stainless steel bowl with a small bar of soap in the bottom. As she leans over towards you she pours the water over your hands as you scrub up. If you see her coming, it’s often a sign that in this place forks are for chumps. Besides, with the type of food most people eat utensils aren’t needed. Most don’t touch the salad and I just scooped it up with my shiny, greasy fingers.

The speeches came next. It’s always better to give a speech after people have eaten. And after the drinks have been passed around. People with low blood sugar aren’t the best audience. Later, after a few conversations about politics and what Burundians seek in relationships, it was time to head back to the guesthouse and call it a day. Our house in Makamba is situated on a nasty little road in a neighborhood of walled compounds. It’s not a bad place but it suffers from lack of love. Since it’s nobody’s home, it’s simply functional. 

The town is quite a bit higher in altitude than Bujumbura and is usually cool in the evenings (4,400ft/1,341m vs. 2,800ft/853m). It’s been rather warm in the capital lately so it was nice to get away from it briefly. I nestled into bed with my laptop, did a few emails, listened to a podcast and drifted off to sleep. 

The next morning I awoke to the call to prayer coming from the mosque. Even though Burundi is about 85% Christian, Makamba has a decent sized Muslim population, largely due to its proximity to Kigoma region just across the border in Tanzania. Even though Kigoma is in the interior of the continent (and the Swahili coast is generally considered more Muslim), the history goes back to the East African slave trade and the fact that Kigoma was a hub for the trafficking of slaves towards Bagamoyo (near Dar es Salaam) on the eastern coast. Many of the traders and those affiliated with the trade remained in the area. Thus the horrors of the slave trade extend even to today – waking me up at 4:30am. Actually, when the call is a bit fainter, it’s actually quite pleasant and takes me back to when we were living in Dar.

I shouldn’t blame it all on the call to prayer though. Within minutes after the call faded, the clanging of the church bells began. No matter the faith, thou shalt not sleep until daylight. It’s ok though. Soon I was back home, replacing the religious institutional noise with a cute yet needy toddler as my 4:30 wake-up. Good to be home.

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