(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, July 4, 2015

Taking a Break

I’ve never been here at this time of year. Normally I’m in the US on my R&R visiting family. This year of course is different. I pushed my leave back to be here during the elections. It sort of worked. With the postponement of the election dates I will only have been here for the local and parliamentary which was on Monday. 

I suppose I should be flattered that there’s been this big fuss around my leaving for a few weeks. It almost didn’t happen. There have been loads of discussions around when and if I should go given what is going on in the country. As director I'm sort of the last one standing. I am currently the only expat here. I agree that my presence has probably been a positive thing. I’ve heard on number of occasions how staff are appreciative that I have remained though most other expats based in the capital, including heads of NGOs, have been gone for weeks. At church last Sunday a couple of people told me the same thing. Many feel that the international community is abandoning them during this time of need.

Having your leave approved is no small feat during times like this. I spoke to someone from the US embassy on Sunday and she was scheduled to leave this week to go to the US to her son’s wedding. At that point they hadn’t approved her leave and she was getting a bit tense. Understandably so. My leave was just approved on Wednesday. 

But to be honest, I have a solid team and they know what they are doing. Though my presence might provide some comfort – the confidence that someone is that the helm. But in reality when things unravel, these guys are good. I know because we were all tested during the attempted coup d’├ętat back in mid-May. Amidst the sound of gunfire, grenade blasts and heavy artillery, the key staff maintained composure and did rather well. At one point I was talking on the phone to my operations coordinator and his house happened to be just a few hundred meters from the area which was sort of the epicentre for the conflict. Though I was hearing the battle from my house, the sounds coming through the phone were deafening. I can’t imagine the stress he was going through. Clearly there are some things that we learned and changed but it generally gave me more confidence to step aside for a few weeks. Lord knows I need it.

Two attack helicopters were flying overhead on Wednesday, Independence Day. Tension has been high. Gunfire and grenade blasts occur nightly and sometimes even during the day. I don’t think anyone feels that the opposition is going to take the current situation lying down. The question is what they are going to do and when. I figure the helicopters are trying to send a message that the govt. is ready for whatever may come at them. One warning on Twitter the other day from a shopkeeper was to stock up on food for your children. One does not know what may happen. 

I did go for a run this morning. I also went on Wednesday, the holiday. I hadn’t seen the schedule for the Independence Day commemorations (and I wasn’t invited – I think it normally it’s for heads of diplomatic missions which I am not). I assumed they would be doing something at this monument area on the hillside near our house, a place where some former presidents are buried. However I didn’t think it would start so early. About 7:15 I headed up the hill on this loop I normally run. Suddenly I was engulfed in heavily armed police and military. They were quite nice though as I snaked my way through the crowd. I even received a couple of thumbs up. I tend to draw a bit more attention these days when I run since it’s known that so many people, and their families, have left the country for security reasons.

So we press on. I will stick it out here in Bujumbura through Monday at which time I will go to Kigali. Looking forward to seeing my wife and daughters. I see them on skype occasionally. It’s killing me. My situation is far worse than most since I have the cutest daughters on the planet.
I will be in Rwanda for just a couple days and then we’re off to the US for a much needed break. Now that my leave is formally approved I can start to enjoy some of the anticipation. 

"No drug, not even alcohol, causes the fundamental ills of society. If we're looking for the source of our troubles, we shouldn't test people for drugs, we should test them for stupidity, ignorance, greed, and love of power." 
- P.J. O'Rourke, writer (b. 1947)

Wednesday, July 1, 2015


It’s July 1. Independence Day in Burundi. A quick word about what this day is about, or should be about if it weren’t for all the political and security issues. 

After WWI, the “fun” of colonization began to wear off. The powers who were lording over their African territories were gradually coming to grips with the fact that these arrangements weren’t working out. The war had fundamentally changed people’s world view. Europe no longer had the stomach for imperialism that it once had. With the exception of Mussolini’s rather insane venture into Ethiopia in 1935, the overall trend was that self-government was just a matter of time. While it would be wonderful to spin the end of colonialism as Europe deciding that it was the right thing to do for the African people, the reality was that it no longer making sense for Europeans. 

During WWII, however, the European powers showed they were in no hurry. They took advantage of the distraction (and the African people/resources) to procrastinate in providing full autonomy. After the war, the justification for delaying was that time was needed to build African leaders to run these future nation states.  Constitutions needed to be drafted. Many believed that the transition would take decades and thus there were generally no real structured strategies put in place to pull this off effectively. Adding to that you had increasingly antagonistic relationships between Africans and their colonial leaders that sapped the will of the powers to make the necessary efforts for a truly successful transition.

But the Belgians, who possessed the massive and unwieldy Congo in addition to little Ruanda-Urundi (possessed by Germans prior to the end of the war), after experiencing riots and seeing the ugly rebellion in Algeria, decided it was time to make their hasty departure. They pulled out of the Congo in 1960 and two years later from Ruanda-Urundi (currently Rwanda and Burundi) leaving the entire territory split along ethnic and regional fault lines. The new countries were well prepared for civil war and anarchy and unprepared to function as a nation. The stage was set for the tumultuous 53 years that bring us to where we are today.

Normally a speech during a ceremony for a country’s independence would be filled with phrases like “look how far we’ve come.” To be honest, the events of today bear a striking resemblance to what the country was like in the mid-1960s. Solving problems by force seems to always have been a way of life here, both on a macro and micro level. Over the past five ears we’ve had several instances where staff received death threats due to some sort of disagreements. Over the same time period, weekly, if not daily, I have read about someone being killed, often by a family member, as a result of a land conflict. It’s unfortunately how things are often settled here. I’m not sure how you change that. We make attempts through some of the work we do here but our work can be undermined if all levels of society are not committed demonstrating the same changes. All countries have deep rooted problems that constrain them and this seems to be the Achilles heel for this country.