(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.)

Saturday, February 28, 2015

Beauty and Razor Wire

Burundi made world news recently with the release from prison of the director of a radio station. It never was very clear to me why he was jailed in the first place but it was, at the very least, a message to the media that they would need to watch their step. The situation in the country is particularly tense these days now that we have moved to the final months and weeks before the elections. It’s a tremendously complex political situation that has been increasingly focused on whether the president would run for a disputed third term (disputed in the sense that a third term may or may not be allowed under the constitution depending on how the constitution is interpreted). The announcement is to come anytime in the next few days and there are deep concerns as to whether or not it could provoke widespread violence.

In the midst of this tension, the release of the director caused potentially more nervousness than the arrest. The days leading up the decision to let him go were filled with tense but peaceful protest. As information spread that he would be freed from his jail located about an hour from the capital, the protest turned to celebration in rather dramatic fashion. Thousands of supporters filled the streets, many carrying palm branches. Youtube has clips of the excitement. Priya was inadvertently caught up in some of it in her car and said how moving the scene was. It was a moment of release for a weary people.

It’s been a tough time. In addition to being one of the poorest countries on earth, the long drawn-out tension is weighing heavily on the population regardless which of the many sides you are on. High stakes drama is nothing new for Burundi and its citizens tend to be quite resilient. Regardless, you can feel the tension and weariness when you talk to people. You feel that things could erupt at any moment. Rumors abound about movements of soldiers, political decisions, militia group activities, reactions by civil society, coalitions within the opposition, etc. No one seems to have any idea how this may play out. 

In the meantime people go about their business. You keep your telephone close by in case something happens. It's not uncommon to see several staff huddling around a radio broadcast through a cell phone. This morning while we were at a local swimming pool with the girls and a group of friends, I received a series of text messages from our security focal point regarding activities taking place in the capital and parts of the city to avoid. 

So we wait, the beauty of the country providing stark contrast to what lies in hiding. While we wait we prepare our contingency plans, both for the security of staff and assets but also for how we as an organization might respond in support of the population in the case of violence and/or displacement. We hope it’s a lot of preparation for nothing but history has shown that these things are often sorted out by something other than peaceful means.

beauty and razor wire - the amazing southern red bishop in our garden

“Burundi is the garden of Eden; the gentleness of the fresh air is inexplicably beautiful.”
– Bishop AndrĂ© PĂ©rraudin in colonial Burundi, 1955

Sunday, February 8, 2015

The Great Separator

When social media was emerging people frequently referred to it as being the great equalizer. People could communicate without knowing your appearance, ethnicity, gender, etc. I think it must have felt liberating for many and probably still does. However if electronic communication is the great equalizer, the gym is the great separator. 

Though some gyms make an effort to be welcoming of newbies, they are still sort of an intimidating place (beaches can also be intimidating for some but they tend to draw a broader demographic than gyms tempering the threat somewhat). In a gym, the haves and the have-nots are easily distinguishable. For most equipment there is no place to hide. It’s obviously a reason that it’s so hard for people to go for the first time or start again after being away for years. It’s too bad, really, given the obvious short- and long-term benefits of exercise, particularly things like resistance training that are a bit more complicated outside the gym. 

One thing that helps is making acquaintances. It’s less of a problem to throw around tiny weights if you’re surrounded by people that know you. It's the acceptance. You still may be a wimp but your pals have seen it before. When I was in California my gym had an interesting demographic. At all hours of the day a large percentage of the members were retirement age. Even the free weight section, which generally has a tendency to be testosterone-charged, was frequented by people of all sizes and shapes. As a result the gym seemed far more congenial than most I’ve been too. And it was constantly bringing on not only new members but people that had little or no experience in a gym. 

In the gyms that I’ve been to in sub-Saharan Africa, most have been relatively welcoming. In Bujumbura, fitness is pretty important. Joggers and walkers can be seen on the streets during most daylight hours although weekend mornings and weekday early evenings are particularly active. Until last year when the government banned running in groups for security reasons (unless you obtain permission), it was even more impressive.

(Yes, that’s what I said. Running in groups is now forbidden. It has been tradition here and people would jog together and chant things. Groups can be connected to churches, political parties, employer, etc. Last year an opposition group turned their Saturday morning jog into protest that went very awry. All have been banned since. Hopefully the ban will go away after the elections). 

Going to a gym here is a luxury and less a part of mainstream culture. Though a lot of people are fit, rarely do you see someone bulky. We now have several choices of gyms in Bujumbura. A couple of them are quite nice. Then there are a few others that are a bit rough around the edges. When we first arrived in Burundi I went to a small gym not far from our house. It had broken down equipment and you had to be a bit creative to get your workout done but I managed for several months. Eventually I tried a different one that was slightly further but still only a 5-10 minute jog away. It’s very small and doesn’t have much equipment but if I go early morning I can do what I need to do without people getting in my way and vice versa. It’s about three bucks per visit so I’ll not complain.

A week ago a couple of Indian guys came in. They appeared to be new though they did everything in their power to appear otherwise (their capri-pants-for-men didn't help their cause). In between exercises they would make a healthy glance in the mirror to check on any muscle development since the previous set. That's actually not that uncommon here. Unabasedly checking yourself out in the mirror seems to be quite acceptable. It's also relatively normal to break out into a bit of a spontaneous solo dance when the music happens to give you the inclination. It used to crack me up but now I hardly notice. There is also an endless number of bizarre "exercises" that people do. I put quotes around it since in many cases it's not really exercise per se but some sort of movement of appendages in an erratic manner. It's usually done with a super look of confidence and no one calls anyone out on this sort of thing. I look forward to seeing more.

Security Situation
Some of you have been asking about security situation given the upcoming elections. I can say that it’s been calmer than I had expected. You can still hear gunfire from time to time in the evening but not much of an upswing as of yet. There was a rather large battle north of here a few weeks ago that resulted in around a hundred deaths (supposedly) but it may have been more of a one-off event. 

Otherwise, we’re doing a lot of contingency planning and keeping an eye on things. There is somewhat of a tension in the air when you talk to people about it. Nobody professes to know how this is going to turn out though most feel large scale conflict is unlikely. I tend to agree but stuff will invariably happen. When and how bad, it’s hard to say. I’ll keep you posted.