Saturday, October 07, 2006

June 27-29, 2006

Mamman Lyse’s House, Bujumbura, Burundi

Greetings, Good People, from the land of HOT!

Nan and I are having a fantastic culture shock. Not mention heat shock. It’s mildly oppressive. Did I mention it’s hot here in Africa????

We met a gentleman at Dulles Airport who asked us to please accompany his mother-in-law all the way to Bujumbura. She had been in the States for a year visiting, and was returning to the Congo. No problem! But, she ONLY speaks Swahili. That was the first adventure. J We dragged 66-yr old Igege (mother of 13) through Addis Ababa, through customs and immigration (she doesn’t read or write, either) into a bus, into a motel (where she refused to sleep alone, so she shared a room with Nan), through buffet meals at the motel (supper and breakfast), and met lots of people as we tried to find Swahili interpreters, and we all had a happy time. Addis was a crazy, huge ALIVE city ~ we didn’t leave the hotel once we arrived, but driving to and from the airport was enough to get a good idea of the place.

Nothing is happening quickly here. NOTHING. We ate at 10pm last night. But the food is great, the beer is above average (the brand is Primus, and it is manufactured at a brewery here owned by Heineken), and the people are fantastic. We are staying at Aline’s Aunts’ (Viola, aka Mamman Lyse) house, which is like a mini-compound (it’s walled), with Viola’s 4 children (Lyse, Francis, and the twins who we call Dodo and Solo), and Nadine, Aline’s sister, (they all live here), Aline, and her friend Chao who is from Kenya (visiting for a month), and 2 others who live and work here for Mamman Lyse; Gaspar, the cook, and Fede, the housekeeper. Electricity is on for about 12 hours each day, but you don’t know which 12 hours those will be. Water is on for part of the day, again, no warning, but AT LEAST WE HAVE IT! Regular flush toilet, cold shower, cement floors in the house, Gaspar actually cooks over charcoal in the little open space in the “compound” – and he smiles all the time.

THE MANGOES ARE FANTASTIC. We have grand meals – last night was fresh fish, rice, something that looked like chopped collard greens (it was cassava leaves), cassava meal that is ground up and made into something that looks like thick tapioca and tastes like bread dough, a meat sauce (reminiscent of spaghetti sauce with pieces of meat), and fried potato wedges. We had fried green bananas at our lunch meal yesterday, along with 4 other things…. Those bananas were FABULOUS! I’m not going to lose any weight here!! Did I tell you it is HOT here? You sit, stand, lie down, and SWEAT. But it is great!!! Yesterday afternoon everyone danced in the living room – a great party – and that’s sort of how this all feels. Today we are off to find the US Embassy to register our presence in Burundi and adventure around the city with Aline and Chou. The drivers are all maniacs. The roads are impressively terrible. The steering wheels are on the right side, but we also DRIVE on the right side. There are lots of bicycles, too.

We saw some other white people driving UN vehicles, but that’s all. We did meet a retired Italian who was with Doctors without Borders on the plane who resides in Bujumbura, but he was pretty weird, so we didn’t follow up with him for a visit. We are looking forward to a trip “upcountry” to the villages where there will be NO electricity and NO running water, but the mountains “upcountry” (where we are going) look incredible!! Flying into Bujumbura reminded me so very, very much of flying into Haiti – steep mountains, dirt roads, agricultural fields. We were in an internet café last night trying to type, and the electricity went out, Nan lost everything she had typed, so now we are intelligently typing in advance.

Oh yeah, we taught some Nuns some English yesterday at a convent. It was a blast. We will start with the real students (I think they are college-aged) next week.

Wednesday: Finally got a nice cold shower this morning. Mosquitoes finally appeared in the house last night – we hung out with some local college students in the living room and talked politics, etc. Then supper again at 10pm. Did I tell you it was hot here??

We are getting ready to go to town again before we teach English to the Nuns at 4pm. Nan and I are having a great time – it’s a blast – we are both exhausted and our bodies have NO idea what time it is or what we are eating, but it really is fun. I am taking some little video clips to share when we get back. The language is Kirundi, most people also speak French, some people speak Swahili, and most people want to learn English. I am most excited to go into the mountains and the villages – we are going Sunday through Tuesday. It will be cooler there, too. This trip is such a reminder that we have so very, very much in the US that we take for granted.

June 30, 2006

Today we sat through an incredible Burundian dance competition. Some groups had drums, others dance and sang, some just sang, but they were all impressive. We were the only umuzungas (white people) in the approximately 800 people there. Groups from all over Burundi were performing. It was in an outdoor stadium, and we were sitting in covered bleachers in the VIP section, thanks to Mamman Lyse. The theme was PEACE.

Near the end of the afternoon (we were there from 10-5), Nan wanted to venture onto the competition field to photograph anyone interested. The crowd’s attention immediately shifted from the stage to the umuzunga with the camera, and Nan was swarmed by performers and street children wanting to get a piece of the action and cash. Aline saved the day, and we were glad to get off the field with Nan in one piece, camera intact. Not everyone was thrilled to see the white people (Chao could hear commentary in Swahili and I was observing facial expressions), and watching Nan being enveloped by a large crowd was a bit unnerving.

All is well, it is still hot, electricity is sporadic (which is fine ~ when it is on, the kids watch TV), water is often on first thing in the morning (which is great), and then off by 7:30am until sometimes the next day. As soon as possible in the morning, Gaspar and Fede furiously fill pails of water to leave in the bathrooms to flush toilets and wash hands. The hard thing for them is that they have to have water to clean the enormous number of dishes that are used for each meal. There are 10 of us to feed, and we all have plates and glasses for every meal, and all of the containers that the food is in, and the serving spoons, it adds up!!

We are still having fun, though. Aline took us out to a restaurant for breakfast the other morning where Nan and I sucked back coffee as though it was a good wine, and we enjoyed a day in town. It is all so fascinating how so many people can survive with so little money and limited employment opportunities. The street children are probably the most depressing thing I have seen here. These are orphans living literally on the street, thieving and begging for food, money, or anything else.

Time no longer matters – we get to where ever we are going when we get there, so I have given up wearing a watch. Nan and I continue to laugh hysterically at the irony of it all. Two planners (us) stuck on someone else’s clock. It is STILL hot, my feet are STILL filthy, but the food is excellent and the people are wonderful, and the sights are unbelievable. Nan has been taking great photos and I have been taking video clips, so we should have some great stuff to show upon our return. (It is now Saturday) We went “clubbing” last night, and danced to Dire Straits and techno-ABBA along with African pop music. But really. How does one dance to Dire Straits? And how dumb do we look dancing with people who have evolved with real rhythm???

We will attend a parade today, and head upcountry tomorrow through Tuesday. There will be NO electricity or water or internet cafes for the next few days. It will be good for us. This has been pretty posh for living conditions.

Observations: Coffee in a thermos for 20 hours is still pretty good. Mosquito bites do not always hurt. It is hot here. No one wears shorts in public (except the occasional male child). No one drinks anything between meals. Fanta is the soda of choice. Regardless of what we do, we are not able to “blend in.” I don’t know what the UN or any of the NGOs are doing here except drive their large 4WD vehicles around the city, adding to the already insane traffic. Although no traffic rules or laws are obeyed, people do use their turn signals to pass. That is the only traffic etiquette (other than honking horns to let the car, bus, person or bicycle rider know that they are about to get hit) that we have seen.

Enjoy your air conditioning and hot showers while we enjoy having a cook and fresh mangoes in our lives. Cheers!

July 5, 2006

Back in Bujumbura after a trip to the upcountry.

On July 1 we made a poor choice to visit the Independence Day parade in Bujumbura, where we were the only white people in possibly 10,000. Mamman Lyse had secured invitations for Nan and I to sit in the bleachers with the officials and Ambassadors, but we got there too late and had to hang with the masses. We watched hundreds of military personnel march with guns. It was very hot, and it was very uncomfortable being white (Burundi secured independence 44 years ago from the white Belgians).

Nan and I survived an exciting trip to the village Kiganda where we stayed in Aline’s grandmothers compound. It was a 2 hour drive straight up a mountain, and I do mean straight up – it would be a great country to train for the Tour de France if there weren’t so many people, bicycles, taxis, buses, the occasional gas truck, and goats on the road. We packed 7 adults, 2 cases of bottles (soda and beer), luggage, bedding and food into the Toyota Land Cruiser and our driver played the same cassette tapes for the ENTIRE trip – a UB40 tape and a woman who sang in Swahili – I can sing all of her songs now although I don’t know what the words mean. The driver was pretty good, I must say. So far, all of the cars we have traveled in (including Mamman Lyse’s) have at least one window that does not roll down, so Nan and I alternate with the closed window on our adventures.

We visited the governor of the province to pick up a set of armed guards. Mamman Lyse got the guards under the pretense that we were registered with the US Embassy and we should have protection at all times. The real reason was that Aline’s Uncle is a bit mentally challenged (bipolar? Schizophrenic? Who knows… but he is NOT right in the head) and had told us we should not come up to Grandmother’s. He has left his wife and children in Bujumbura and has moved in with Grandmother, and sees himself as the king of the compound.

Anyhow, we were joined on all of our adventures in the mountains by at least 2 men carrying AK-47s. This included the rides to and from our destinations – on the craziest rutted red dirt roads you have ever traveled on – with guns pointed upwards (butts resting on the floor of the vehicle) usually towards our heads, not intentionally, but slightly unnerving, to say the least. The kicker was that we kept the guards peaceful by providing them with beer. Speaking of beer, the Primus we drink is really bad, but warm Amstel is worse, believe it or not!!

We met with the ~30 women who comprise the Duhindi Ikibiri “collective” – they are trying to grow crops and sell them to raise money for the group, and Nan has brought $1,500 from Pro Literacy to help them get started. Most of it will be used to purchase a goat for each woman and fertilizer for the fields. Mamman Lyse is not only the ultimate haggler (she haggles prices for everything, from $18 fabric to bananas that are less than $1), but she is an astute businesswoman. She has gotten this “collective” off the ground and it is exciting to see people actually organize and want to work together. We had a little meeting outside, sitting on the ground, and this fantastic hairy caterpillar climbed on my pants, and as I was getting ready to photograph it, one of the women snatched it from my leg and squished it. I was informed it had very painful stinging hairs.

The climate was grand in the mountains – finally cool – we even wore sweatshirts – and there was some humidity, even though it is the dry season – but finally got to see some insects!

Of course my delight was in the trees, most of which I couldn’t identify, many I had seen in Hawaii, and thankfully the family members who wandered the forest and fields with us could provide names (in Kirundi) and uses for all of them. Eucalyptus is planted and grows very fast and straight. The landowners use a certain kind of tree to delineate their fields and property lines. There is plenty of agroforestry – the cattle are grazing on native bunchgrass underneath the trees. I was impressed with some of the field plantings we saw – they practice crop rotation, but they also interplant many crops in a field. Cassava, sweet potatoes, beans and what I think is arrowroot – big elephant ear leaves – they dig the roots and boil them like potatoes. There were also banana trees everywhere, and the occasional avocado tree. Coffee trees were around, and we passed a few tea plantations in our travels.

Breakfast consisted of coffee and a novelty. Avocado sandwiches! These avocados are velvety and have the taste and consistency of butter. Aline mashed the fruit and put it on white bread rolls – sort of like blended egg salad. It really was good. Lunch and supper was the usual 4 choices: starch, starch, meat sauce, and beans.

In the village, we visited Aline’s school, and a huge Catholic church built in the 1940s by the Belgians (which has 3 services each Sunday, over 1,500 in attendance at each service). The morbid highlight of the trip upcountry was a visit to the hospital. Malaria and dysentery are the top illnesses in the area. The hospital services 44,000 people in the community. There is no doctor. The conditions are horrific. There are beds with rotting foam mattresses or no mattresses, there is no medicine, and people basically come there to die. Malaria patients are given IV drips and they are ALL women and children. There is no generator. There is ONE very old metal delivery table for the maternity ward, and the government is now supposedly subsidizing childbirths, so the women are all coming to the hospital to give birth for free. But what happens when 2 women need to deliver at the same time?? The hospital has nothing. It was really, really disconcerting. Nan and I are trying to figure out how to get the hospital some mattresses before we leave.

My observations of Burundi are now incredible poverty, overpopulation, and where and how to begin to help? It is depressing from my perspective, but then I watch the faces of these people and see happiness in spite of their situations. Everyone is happy and no one is complaining. I keep having flashbacks to Haiti!!

From Nan’s email: “The people in the villages were much friendlier to us. The first question Burundians ask is, “How do you find our country?” A simple question that deserves a complex answer. Generally our answer is that we love the people and are aware of their poverty. Our discussions are amazing, and misperceptions are debated. One perception is that there is NO poverty in the US. Zero. When we said that there were poor people here, they just couldn’t believe it. Of course we said that the magnitude of it didn’t compare, but yes, we have our poor. The other is that there is NO theft or crime in the US. That was surprising. I think that since they imagine we have no poverty, that there would, as a consequence, be no reason to steal. They are also surprised that we eat rice and beans!”

We will begin to teach our high school and college students tomorrow. We will resume teaching the nuns this afternoon. Our weekend travel plans include a visit to the Source of the Nile, and a pyramid there!! Hope all is well.

Wednesday, August 23, 2006

July 7, 2006

Nan and I are ready to return home – we miss our families. However, we are facing the realities of life without Gaspar, the cook, and Fede, the maid. We are looking forward to salad, ice cream, ice cubes, cheese, and hot water. It has been a healthy challenge to live without electricity part-time and hot water full-time, and no water sometimes!

Dogs in Burundi: The ones we have seen are very different breeds than what we have in the US. These are long-legged, scrawny, and skittish. They howl and attack things in the night that we choose not to identify (goats? other dogs?) and I have yet to meet one that is friendly. A few follow their obvious “masters” around – I have seen 2 such dogs, and have seen 2 on leashes. Some people do keep them as pets, or as guard dogs, but these are people who can afford to feed themselves first. So I understand why Aline does not care for animals. I have seen NO cats in Burundi.

A few highlights since the last email:

We had lunch last week at the home of one of Aline’s friends. The mother of the family works for the UN. Her German colleague who has been in Burundi for 6 weeks joined us. It was our first interchange with an umuzungu since we had arrived!! Nan and I bombarded the poor man with questions about the UN and the situation in Burundi. He had just come from 2 years in the Congo, where things are really terrible, and gave the impression that Burundi was more like a vacation for him than work! He speaks fluent French and English, is a lawyer by profession, and both he and his wife work for the UN.

I had written the US Ambassador to Burundi prior to leaving, and she gave us an appointment last Thursday afternoon at the Embassy. Pat Moller is a 60+ yr old tiny spitfire of a woman, with a commanding presence and a twinkle in her eye. We met with her and another woman who was interested in our literacy program. Meeting with the Ambassador was a real treat! We had such a great time talking about Burundi and the plight of education that we (Nan, myself, Aline and Chao) are invited to a luncheon at her personal residence before we leave. We received personal invitations at Mamman Lyse’s house for this event!

Our other umuzungu experiences have been with a retired couple who arrived this weekend with Aline’s Aunt (Rinilda) from the Philadelphia area. The husband was a public school administrator and the wife was/ and I think still is a social worker. They will be here for almost 3 weeks. Nan and I clued them in on the important things to know while in Burundi: 1. You may wear the watch, but the Burundians keep the time (the Ambassador told us that one); 2. Bathrooms (outside of your personal dwelling) are a luxury, so plan accordingly; 3. Get ready for starch, starch and more starch in the diet! We (10 of us from Mamman Lyse’s, the retired couple, and 2 drivers) are heading up to the Source of the Nile today for another “rural” experience. The roads, drivers, bicycles, pedestrians, goats and chickens are an experience alone!

We taught our “students” Thursday and Friday mornings of last week, and will be with them Monday and Tuesday, then we depart on Wednesday. Aline and Chao will continue to teach them through mid-August. We had 30 students on Thursday, and 20 on Friday, and just being with people so eager to learn is encouraging. Ages ranged from 11 to 24, most on the older side, and about ½ are studying in the local universities. Here’s the kicker on post-secondary education in Burundi: To attend the public universities, you must pass an examination. If you pass, you may attend for free. However, the professors are not paid well and are constantly on strike, so what should take 1 year of studies might take you 2 instead. Regardless of whether or not you pass the entrance examination to get into the public university system, you can always go to a private school (assuming you had high enough grades in secondary school), where tuition is $180-200/year, the professors are well-paid, and education is good. Most families cannot afford that tuition, and students go to school all day Mon-Fri and Sat morning, so juggling a job with school is usually not an option. We are teaching in a classroom at a Catholic primary school, where Thursday and Friday were the last days of the term, so we had hundreds of little children trying to get photographed by Nan and pressing up against the bars (that serve as windows) to listen to what we were saying in English to the students. They, too, are eager to learn. It’s heart-wrenching to see these little ones whom you know will most likely never leave Burundi, and live a life of day-to-day existence… but what can you do?

On Friday evening, Aline’s Aunt Rinilda, a high school teacher who lives in the Philly area, hosted a small housewarming party at her new “vacation home” in Bujumbura. It’s in a new “wealthy” neighborhood, she has been building it for several years, and it is finally finished. But Nan and I were appalled at the quality of the construction. It is SO bad! Rinilda’s husband (a chemist) is from Kenya, so their retirement plan is to move to Kenya and do some farming, then vacation in Bujumbura. Rinilda had invited a local Catholic priest to bless the house, along with a group of 20 orphans who are part of a dance/song team to provide us with entertainment. The children (ages 8-15) were great – they all looked like UNICEF poster children, but they, too, were so eager to learn English from us and to teach us Kirundi and French. We wanted to take them all home with us. The little girls clamboring on Nan’s lap to try to get to the camera was a sight to behold. The children’s group coordinator had failed to negotiate a ride back for the children in Aline’s Uncle’s van (which had brought them there), so the Uncle left without the group, and there we were, with 20 hungry children until after 10pm. They eventually piled everyone into a bus around 11pm and they all got home.

We took a 2 hour ride to the Source of the Nile on Sunday, which was, as you might expect, a pipe sticking out of the ground at the end of a goat path. We had hauled 20 people (family and friends) up and over the mountains with 2 Isuzu trooper style vehicles (yes, 10 in each vehicle) and 2 drivers who were from another planet. I think they were NASCAR racers in a former life. It was very scary, mostly for the sake of the people and cattle walking in the road as we whipped around corners. Nan has excellent pictures of the cattle from the window seat. The bovines were being walked to Bujumbura from the Tanzanian border, which is a 4-hour car ride (at ridiculously high speeds), so one can only guess how long the animals and herders had been walking. One irony is the beautiful paved main road system in the mountains contrasted with the rutted, dusty roads in the city.

The other destination at the Source of the Nile was marked as a pyramid on all of the maps of Burundi, and labeled as such. Did the Egyptians come all the way to Burundi? NO! The Italian surveyors built a little 12-foot tall pyramid as a dedication marker in 1938 on a peak adjacent to what they determined was the Source of the Nile! We had to laugh – and we will remember to tell folks at the US embassy that this landmark is not a travel destination of choice, nor should it ever be a tourist attraction.

We just finished lunch at the US Ambassador’s residence. We were joined by Canadians and a Macedonian working for a USAID contractor, the director of the English Language Center in Bujumbura, a representative of the International Language Center, and an English professor at the University of Burundi. There were 13 of us at lunch, including the Ambassador, and it was a GRAND affair! WOW!! We had any drink you could imagine and delicious snacks, followed by excellent wine, most excellent gazpacho, real French bread and butter, followed by grilled fresh fish, real spinach, a baked tomato stuffed with rice pilaf, followed by a delicious fresh fruit salad that included passion fruit and pineapple that was the best I think I have ever had. Then good coffee and chocolate covered espresso beans. It was a gastronomic orgy – compared to our usual Burundian diet of rice, beans, bananas or potatoes, and smashed green leaves with lots of grit. Nan and I had a few enlightening discussions during this luncheon about the security in Burundi. We have been slightly naïve, although safe, during our stay here. However, Americans working for USAID do not drive to the places we have visited. They travel by air to a “safe” destination close to the desired location, where their driver picks them up.

The people attending this luncheon will excellent contacts for Aline after we leave, and for ourselves should choose to follow up with any financial aid ideas for the hospital or schools in Kiganda. It was good, once again, to be in the company of adults with agendas, goals, ideas, actions, and time management skills.

This will be the last email before we return. Nan and I will MOST LIKELY not miss the dust, Primus beer, the lack of efficient organizational skills, the ever-present negotiating, the miscommunication (really, really bad between everyone), the lack of fiber in our diets, the mosquitoes, and the driving. How could I forget the heat?? But we WILL miss the eagerness to learn that is present in all ages here, the beautiful (although mostly all were sick) children, the straight white teeth that shine in the smiles, the incredible fresh fruits, the landscape, and the joy of not being busy. It has been a tremendous experience.

Peace ~ Amahoro ~ Beth