Monday, June 30, 2008

The 16 years in the making reason to have tried to learn Swahili

There is much to say about our trip up country to day but we all need to rest up for the extravaganza of a day we have in store for tomorrow at the Independence Day celebrations. But I had to tell this story really quickly from last night.

So it was my birthday yesterday and we got some sweet bread (since it was Sunday and many stores were closed, it was the best we could do) and invited some of the people who work in the building to join us. As I was preparing to cut the bread I asked for a knife. Andrew, who had heard my learning Swahili story earlier that day, brought me a knife and asked if I thought I might need any more. To which I replied, Kisu kimoja kitatosha. The look on the faces of my new Burundian friends was priceless. As if the cat had just spoken. They laughed and applauded and asked how I knew Swahili. I then had to explain I only know that one sentence and I'd been waiting half my life to be able to use it. See, it all comes together eventually.

Sunday, June 29, 2008

On mosquitoes

I can't tell you how happy I was to see my whole Kamenge wedding post intact. As I was posting it last night it didn't seem to load and then I thought I'd lost the whole thing and I was about to weep at the thought of having to do it over again.

I want to say a quick thank you to my friend Allan Mayfield whose emails about his own work in Burundi are largely responsible for the fact that I'm here today and from whom I also learned valuable information about the proper way to set up mosquito netting over one's bed from his detailed account in one of those emails. Just in case any of you should find yourselves in a malarial region I'll go over the salient points. You may have this image in your head of diaphanous clouds of fabric festooning a giant four poster bed. What I actually have is a little twin with a foam mattress and a net which gathers to a point hanging from the ceiling. It is important to tuck in the bottom of the net very tight under the mattress with a generous overlap in the split for you to get in. It's best to have a fairly taut coccoon because the other important thing is that the netting keeps mosquitoes out but will not stop them from biting you if any part of you comes in contact with the net. So the sleeping area is reduced even further because your arms and feet (and all the rest of you) need to keep at least a mosquitoes nose distance away from the net on all sides. Allan, I believe, also had to deal with the difficulty of having to set up his net anew each night which meant dealing with the mosquitoes who get trapped inside the net while you're setting it up. Fortunately I'm able to leave mine set and only have to maintain the tightness of the tuck.

We're actually not bothered at all by mosquitoes in the daytime. Only at night when we're sitting around in the office do they really trouble us since once we go to sleep we're safe in our nets. Well that's not so true for Red who keeps stretching out her feet and wakes up in the morning with a dozen bites. Andrew was joking that if we could just work out a cadence for our frequent clapping at the mosquitoes buzzing around us, we could could have a musical number worthy of STOMP! (Yes that's right, even though 3 of the 4 of us are peace loving Quakers we kill, kill, kill every chance we get. Light of Life in every creature or no Light of Life in every creature. Here's how I see it, if you look at any given mosquito, not as a being unto itself but as part of a larger, whole Grand Mosquito Entity, then what we're doing is not so much killing as clipping the toenails of a monster trying to give us malaria. I know, I know the mosquitoes aren't trying to give us malaria that's just an unfortunate side effect of how they naturally live their lives. Here's where all that pacifism breaks down. I'm willing to invade the personal sovreignty of a mosquito to reduce my- and others- chances of getting malaria.)

Speaking of which I'm getting tired of, rather ineffectually, clapping at mosquitoes so I'll retire to the safety of my expertly maintained net.

Tomorrow we go up country!

PS. It was my birthday today and it was fantastic.

Saturday, June 28, 2008

Kamenge Wedding

This afternoon we went to a wedding at the church in Kamenge where the clinic is. It was an amazing and in many ways complicated experience. Kamenge is a district outside of Bujumbura which is not quite rural but not quite urban either. What it reminded me most of was pictures I've seen of refugee camps that have been around long enough to have semi permanent structures. I couldn't tell if we were passing through an area where people actually lived. What I saw were rows and rows of shacks cobbled together from salvaged wood and metal with stands selling used bicycle parts and used shoes and some food. I had learned before coming that the life expectancy in Burundi is about 54 and that most people have large families and looking around Kamenge those statistics became tangible in the crowds and crowds of young people and children with nothing to do but walk up and down the road.

The church in Kamenge (some other time I'll get in to the difference between Quakerism in Africa which is evangelical and programmed and therefore has a pastor and a church and Quakerism in America, or at least in Evanston which is unprogrammed, without a pastor and happens in a meeting house, anyway) is very large, we're told about a thousand people attend. When we got out of the car I'd easily believe there were 500 people there. As we passed a group of children John said hello and they all reached out to shake our hands and though I said Amahoro to them they all seemed very excited to say Hi! & Hello! which is most likely the only English they know. We could hear them whispering Mzungu, Mzungu behind us. Mzungu essentially means "white person" though we've been told it can also be understood as "foreigner" or "rich person". Pastor Elie told us this afternoon that he is sometimes called "mzungu" when he goes up country because he has a car. Very odd to be treated as a celebrity, simply for the color of my skin.

Once we got into the church we were ushered to seats toward the front. We watched the bride and groom process in together very slowly preceeded by 4 boys and four girls doing a synchronized dance in front of them- like back up dancers, but in front. The whole ceremony was in Kirundi of which I could occasionally pick out the words 'good' 'peace' and 'much' but wedding ceremonies seem to be much the same the world over. While the bride and groom were giving their vows after each section the rest of the people gathered would laugh and call out encouragement and clap.

Afterwards it was time for the massive driving procession to the Tree of Love and then to the lake. Tons of people (though not everyone who was at the wedding) pile into vans and cars and taxis and follow the bride & groom to this huge beautiful tree. We expected they'd have their pictures taken in front of the tree but instead they stood in front of a flowered hedge in front of a car dealership with large advertisements for Land Rover and Nissan. A couple from a different wedding was about 20 feet away having their pictures taken in front of the same hedge. Then it was back into the cars and on to Lake Tanganyika for more pictures of the couple writing "I love you" in the sand by the waters edge. Again about 20 feet away was another (different) wedding party doing the same thing. Then off to the reception, hazards flashing and horns honking.

At the reception site, (where again there was yet another, different wedding party reception the next space over) the groom's family and friends sat in rows of chairs on one side facing the bride's family and friends on the other with four chairs up on a dias at the center to one side for the bride, groom, best man and matron of honor. We sat ourselves toward the middle of the bride's side (we'd been invited by Dr. Alexia who was the matron of honor) but had only been sitting for a few seconds when an usher called to us "Venez ici" and gestured for us to come up and take seats of honor in the front row. John and Andrew are veterans of several Burundi weddings and said that it's considered a coup for the wedding to have mzungu present so we are placed in a prominent position for everyone to see. Not necessarily a comfortable place to be in, honor without having earned it. It's such a complicated situation and we talked about it among ourselves after we'd left. I mean in some ways it simply makes explicit the actual state of things in the world, that people are either revered/feared or reviled/feared based on the color of their skin. It just seems especially sad to have the status quo enforced by those who do not benefit from it against the desires of those who do. And if we had refused to come forward and had insisted on sitting in the back where we'd placed ourselves, that would have been perceived as an insult, as if we did not think this couple's wedding deserved the honor of our presence. We can't even avoid the situation by not going to the wedding at all because that too would have repercussions. I can only hope someday to speak the language and know the families well enough to have an open conversation about it.

After the bride and groom processed in and sat down young women came out with crates of bottled Citron Fanta and Coca Cola which they handed out to everyone. The bride and groom toasted each other with Citron Fanta in wine glasses. Fanta, really popular in Burundi and is the beverage most often offered to guests. That's right Jason, an entire country when people are practically forced to drink soda. It replaces wine at any dry wedding. This is the extent of reception refreshment at many weddings, the cost of providing food for the 200 or so people who come would otherwise make it nearly impossible for anyone to actually get married.

Then the speeches began. If you thought there were a lot of speeches at Erik & Kathy's wedding, let me tell you the Burundians love to make speeches. All in Kirundi so we just did our best to clap when other people clapped. At a break point Charles, Alexia's husband let us know that our car would take us home while the bride and groom went to change their clothes before they came back for the next round of speeches. So here I am back at home, pondering the events of the day and what it all means and how to be part of the solution.

Friday, June 27, 2008

From One Great Lake to Another

Well my friends, we have arrived. I'm very extremely tired right now so I'm not certain how coherent or interesting any of this will be. Let's see, in the last 48 hours I've been to Rome, Italy; Addis Ababa, Ethiopia; Kigali, Rwanda & finally arrived in Bujumbura, Burundi at 2pm this afternoon. I've settled into my room, which I share with Red (AKA Vanessa) improvising a kind of dresser out of my (AKA Lauren's) suitcase and have discovered (obviously) that mystical source of information and communication known as The Internet. But right at the moment others are waiting for me to finish so they can set up the router we just brought over, so that's all you'll get for now. I'm here, looking forward to tomorrow. We're going to a wedding!


Wednesday, June 25, 2008


Saturday morning my roommates drove me to the airport and I flew to DC. I shortly found myself wishing they could have come with me as the theme of the crossword puzzle in the Hemispheres magazine was supervillians. I'm sure they would have thought of Juggernaut and Sabretooth way before I did.

Orientation was at Wellspring, a retreat in the woods of Maryland. I met my fellow travelers, Red and John going to Burundi as well as the workcampers heading for Rwanda and Kenya. There are a lot of teachers and students which makes sense when you think about who'd have a month free in the summer. We range in age from 18 to 62, are from the West Coast, Midwest, the Northeast and Canada. Dave Zarembka who runs the AGLI program says this years group is a good mix age wise and the gender breakdown is pretty typical. That'd be mostly women. I think there are 15 of us total, 4 men, 11 women. We played a few ice breaker games and then got down to the business of learning what to expect in the coming month. There will be a lot of cultural differences to prepare ourselves for, issues of gender roles, money and history. We were very grateful to have Anna, a workcamper from 2005, come and tell us first hand about her experiences.

Monday the people going to Rwanda & Kenya flew out leaving me, Red and John waiting for our Wednesday night flights. My brother and his wife kindly agreed to put up Red and I for Monday and Tuesday and will be taking us to the airport in just a few hours. Yesterday my brother's wife Nikki took off work and showed us around DC. We visited the WWII memorial which I'd never seen and walked up to the Lincoln Memorial, always a favorite of mine. I was struck again by the eloquence of the two speeches which are inscribed on the walls of the monument. You know there are people who speak dismissively of how Barak Obama is 'just' a speechmaker but I couldn't help thinking as I read the Gettysburg Address and Lincoln's 2nd inaugural not just of the comfort and inspiration people must have taken from those words at the time but how those words have come to define our ideals as a nation. It is not nothing to have a president capable of crafting words in a way that resonates beyond the moment of a particular speech. How long has it been since we've had a national leader whose words you could imagine someday being carved in stone? Words are never 'just' words.

After lunch we went to the National Archives, where I've also never been, and filed past the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution and the Bill of Rights. I do wonder what we will write to match them. Sacred as I hold them myself, I worry that we as a nation are too content to let ourselves stand on the shoulders of the giants who came before. We saw several motorcades, apparently a common occurence in DC including one for officials from North Vietnam who were visiting the US for the first time since before the Vietnam War.

This afternoon we're going to take a little stroll around Great Falls National Park and then head for the airport. We fly out tonight to Ethiopia via Rome and will arrive in Addis Ababa tomorrow evening. The following morning we fly to Bujumbura. Here we go!

Saturday, June 21, 2008

Monday, June 16, 2008

Burundi in the Canadian news

And here's another article.  This one is about John McKendy, one of my fellow workcampers.  John points out that it has a few typos.  It's unclear to me whether they were written into the article or were casualties of the conversion to electronic media.  Anyway you can see pictures of where I'm going!  John, as you will learn in the article, is from Canada.

Burundi in the news

This is me attempting to paste a link into my blog.  A rare instance of Burundi news making headlines in the New York Times.  

  | June 16, 2008 
After 15 Years, Hints of Peace in Burundi 
A cease-fire signed in late May is still holding, and for the first time all the decision makers — including top rebel leaders — are all in the same place, in the capital, Bujumbura. 

Friday, June 13, 2008

Home Schooling Part 2

When I was a senior in high school I decided I wanted to learn to speak Swahili.  I'm not sure I had a good reason as to why.  I remember that someone had once told me it was a very beautiful language.  It's possible it was because I was also told that the short, large eyed alien with the tri-folded cheeks helping Lando Calrissian pilot the Millenium Falcon in Return of the Jedi was speaking Swahili.  Whatever the reason, I went out and bought a book called, Teach Yourself Swahili and proceeded to make flashcards, memorize vocabulary and try to wrap my mind around the Bantu grammar.  I remember being impressed with its simplicity- the 3 verb tenses, the unified spelling rules and its friendliness- everything agrees!  The first verb the book teaches is tosha, suffice so all of the first few exercises were about what had been, was or would be sufficient.  Hence my first Swahili sentence- Kisu kimoja kitatosha.  One knife will be sufficient.  I believe I made it through Lesson 9 before some other extracurricular interest took over (fencing maybe?)  
Now here I am again having pulled Teach Yourself Swahili back off the shelf, wondering if I still have the flashcards  in a box in the basement somewhere.  Now however, my reasons for studying Swahili are clear, present and unmistakable.  I am studying Swahili to avoid studying French.  French is a ridiculous language.  14 tenses and a mood?  Enough irregular verbs to fill a dictionary?  Extra letters thrown in whose only purpose is to avoid the horror of the glottal stop?  Honestly.  So I'm taking a little break from conjugating etre, avoir and faire to hang out for a while with the ki vi class.  I only hope is that juma moja litatosha.  

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Home Schooling

First of all I have to say Chicago is trying really hard this week to make me sad I'm leaving for a month of the summer.  "Chicago" and "perfect weather" are not often found in the same sentence but I defy anyone to find me better weather than the 78 deg, clear blue sky and light breeze we've got right now.  And my Andersonville neighborhood could not be more beautiful.  It's amazing the difference that leaves make.  During the winter my neighborhood is beautiful because you can see all the amazing old buildings with their little decorative touches and during the spring you see pretty much the same thing, just through a haze of pale green as the tiny buds start to come out.  But right now walking down the street you pretty much see green, walking through a tree tunnel along garden and lawn.  These are great days for the sun porch where I'm spending a lot of my time, reading and studying.

I'm trying to learn as much as I can about Burundi and it's history and so on before I go.  I picked up one of the books recommended by the fine folks at AGLI, it's called Unlocking Horns: Forgivness & Reconciliation in Burundi.  It was written by two Quakers (one from Burundi) and gives an overview of the history of the country and of the missionary work within it.  It is very much written from a Christian perspective and focuses in its later chapters on the relevance of Scripture and Christian values to the healing process.  I might argue that 'Christian' values are also the values of many other religions but my understanding is that part of the intent of the book is to be relevant to the large Christian communities in Burundi itself.  And the authors are also careful to say that Christians are after all, human, like everyone else and subject to the same weaknesses and failures to live up to religious (or other) ideals as anyone.  

Now in an attempt to re-iterate to myself what I've learned and perhaps pass some knowledge on to others I'll summarize a few things I found interesting.  Burundi stands apart from many other African nations in several respects.  Though its people often speak several languages (currently including Swahili, Kinyarwanda, French and English) everyone has at least one language in common, Kirundi.  Where other African nations are made up of many disparate tribes with no history of unity, Burundi's three ethnic groups were ruled by a single king long before it was colonized by the Germans and then the Belgians.  Burundi's traditional religion (prior to the coming of the missionaries) was also monotheistic in contrast to the animism prevalent in other African cultures.  So there were all kinds of reasons to hope that Burundi would escape the violence and internal strife that befell so many other nations in the transition to independence.  But when Prince Rwagasore who had just been elected prime minister in the elections of 1961 was assassinated, Burundi lost a charismatic leader who had worked to build support among both Hutu and Tutsi.  Himself a Tutsi his wife was Hutu and had he lived to establish a government much of Burundi's recent history might have been quite different.    Instead there has been a succession of assassinations and military coups and the life expectancy of several prime ministers is best expressed in days rather than years.  

I'll pass on more history and the current situation as I learn it.  Right now I need to make cookies for one of the several hundred social events I have scheduled  prior to my departure in (counting down!) 10 days.