Monday, 28 December 2009

Culture Shock #14 - "Don't Shoot in the Air this New Years"

I'm currently in LA, and coming home on the subway today I saw an advert. Four pictures of cute children, surrounded by the slogan "Love them - don't shoot them. Don't fire in the air to celebrate this New Years".

Bloody Hell.

Sadly the train was crowded, and I couldn't figure out a way to surreptitiously take a picture. Happily the LAPD blog came to my rescue and here is a picture of a similar billboard:

I mean, I understand that there's a constitutional right to bear arms and all, but are they really supposed to be used for celebratory purposes? What's next, kalashnikov's to celebrate a wedding? And is it really constitutionally necessary that someone dumb enough to fire guns in the proximity of children is allowed to have one?

Further investigation via the LAPD blog provided good news and bad news. The good news is that the image is slightly disingenuous and that mass deaths of children are not, in fact, an annual New Year phenomenon - the last was in 1999. The bad news is that last year 165 guns were fired in celebration. The worrying bit is that the penalty doesn't really seem to match the gravity of the crime - a maximum of one year in jail. Seriously?! Risking bystanders lives for no reason gets you only a year?! That's it?! The really, really worrying bit, is that they find it necessary to have a 'what comes up must come down' campaign to warn people that firing guns in the proximity of children is a Bad Idea. Maybe just me, but isn't that kind of obvious? And I know the US public school system basically sucks, but doesn't it even cover gravity? Personally I'm looking forward to one of those idiots killing themselves and winning themselves a richly deserved Darwin Award.

I also consider myself lucky to be nowhere near LA this New Year!

Monday, 16 November 2009

Stuff that's Good About the US #8 - Nips

In all liquor stores, everywhere, you can buy the little 50ml bottles of alcohol - in my local corner store for only a dollar apiece. Apart from being fairly bargainous, this is awesome - as a grad student here for only one semester I'm unlikely to get through a whole bottle of gin, whisky or baileys, let alone one of each. But two shots... no problem. I discovered this joy yesterday, when with a horrible cold I decided that the only way forward was to channel my mother's spirit and make myself a hot toddy*. I'd pretty much accepted buying a whole bottle if I needed to - but on seeing the nips my troubles were over. Bought two, used half of one last night, and feel better already - the next one and a half should see me through. May head back tomorrow to stock up on some gin and some baileys.

* for any Blakeleyites with colds that are not yet familiar with the art of treating illness with alcohol, this is the way forward:
- Juice of half a lemon or a bit less
- shot of whiskey
- couple of teaspoons of honey
- 3-5 shots of boiling water.
Seriously, it's magic

Friday, 13 November 2009

Culture Shock #13 - "Thank you for serving"

I realise I'm going to get killed with this one, way worse than with the hole punches thing. But what the hell, I'm feeling suicidal.

So - just to reduce readership and therefore the number of people wanting to kill me - f you only have time to read one blog post today, don't make it this one, which is a slightly incoherant rant, make it this one, which says what I mean much more eloquently. If you do read it, feel free to respond and explain to me all of the things that I'm undoubtedly missing.

At Fletcher there was a big to-do about the celebration (or not) of Veterans day, which for the non-US among you is the same as our Armistice Day or Rememberance Day. Basically, in the US it's a holiday that most unversities have off. In Fletcher we don't have it off. A lot of the people who've been in the forces or are on study breaks from the forces got very cross about this, and emails were exchanged on the social list, in large numbers. It may not have been intentional, but the tone went something like: 'either you think this should be a day off and spend the day shaking hands with veterans, or you're a wicked person who doesn't appreciate the army. And by the way I'm better than you'. I'm exaggerating, but not much* There was also one martyred soul who posted saying that if just one person would come up to him and shake his hand and say 'thank you for serving', that would be nice.

First things first, I appreciate the military and honour our war dead. There are a lot of very brave people doing a lot of very good work in very difficult circumstances with often vastly insufficient support. And I believe that it's very important indeed to commemorate that.

However, I honestly do not see what a day off (which I would in any case have spent in the library) has to do with celebrating veterans. If I was working and having a proper day off, I would totally spend it having fun, not thinking about war and death. I like my holidays to be fun. And plus, I'm pretty uncomfortable with the 'either you think it should be a day or, or you're evil and ungrateful' juxtaposition. We manage to celebrate Rememberance Day in the UK without a day off, and that's been working really well for us for the last 90 years. Plus, with the poppies and minute's silence thing, at least there is a sense of using it to actually think about the veterans, rather than using it to go hiking/to a museum/to the pub.

The hand shake thing was more of a culture shock thing than a debate thing. Maybe it's my British reserve but I can't imagine anything more awkward, except possibly walking in on someone having sex. Actually, I think the shaking hand thing would be worse, because at least when you walk in on someone having sex you can revert to the 'pretend it never happened' strategy:

Scenario A: Bob is American
Laura: Bob, thank you for serving
Bob: Thank you
Laura: desperately tries to think of something to say, meanwhile feeling like a total lemon. Meanwhile American Bob feels great.
I guess this is good for Bob so if I was selfless I would do it. But I'm hoping that if Bob is my friend he'll be understanding of my cultural disability and let me off.

Scenario B: Bob is British
Laura: Bob, thank you for serving
Bob: Uh... what, you mean you want me to serve you tea or something
Laura: No, in the military
Bob: Oh. Uh, thanks, I guess. Bob then feels very awkward, as does Laura. See final line above. Bob also may wonder if Laura wants something. If Bob has a suspicous mind, he will assume that Laura is being sarcastic, in which case substitue 'Fuck off' for 'oh. Uh, thanks, I guess'.

I think it's like hanging flags outside your house, puting your hand on your heart when you sing the national anthem, and making middle school kids recite the pledge of allegience. I'm just never going to understand it.

The other thing I don't like about it is that it seems to equate 'service' with 'in the military'. Maybe I'm too much of an NGO hippie for my own good... but this makes me uncomfortable. Obviously being in the forces can get you killed, and therefore you need guts to do it. But what about the Red Cross worker in Somalia, or DRC, or Afghanistan, providing assistance to people in need with nothing to protect themselves. A fair few of them get killed, too, as we should remember this week above all, and they do just as much good, if not more good, than your average soldier, usually for worse pay and benefits**, worse insurance, and not much more appreciation. So when I hear people tell me that I should 'thank people for serving', the people I want to thank aren't (or, I should say, aren't just) the people who were in the army in Afghanistan, but my wonderful colleagues who have served in NGOs in Afghanistan, or Pakistan, or DRC, or some of the other godforsaken corners of the world. And while I'm at it, I want to beg my Afghan friends' forgiveness for having screwed up so royally that they might be about to be taken over by the Taliban again.

Which brings me to the last thing. The word that sprang to mind, as I read people's facebook statuses saying things like 'Jane would like to thank all the people serving this great nation', was jingoism. And jingoism scares me. Maybe this is just as an outsider, but the message it projected to me was 'aren't we amazing, and aren't our soldiers wonderful'. I listen to US radio, and I didn't really hear anything leading up to veteran's day about how terrible war is. In the UK, I feel like that's all we get. The message of Rememberance day is 'we lost a generation in WWI, and isn't it a terrible waste. Then we let it happen again 20 years later. Afghanistan is a horrific mess. And our soldiers are awesome for going through it'. While the American one felt (at least to me) celebratory, the British one feels (at least to me), commemorative.

I don't want to seem like I'm being too down on the Americans. There are bits about the American version that I like. We tend to focus on commemorating the ones who died, and I do sometimes feel that we should make more of a fuss of the ones that didn't die. We're getting better at it, but still not really good enough. And everyone likes a public holiday. And they give their Afghan translators asylum, unlike the UK, who really are ungrateful bastards (not entirely relevant, but it's a personal gripe). And I do sorta like the way they're so much more open and demonstrative than we are.

But on the whole, I prefer our way. I don't care how great our soldiers are, I want them out of a job, and anything that talks about war and the forces and doesn't hammer home that message contributes to a culture where you can go to war casually, at enormous cost to those affected. If we really want to honour our war dead and support our troops, the best way we can do it is to make sure we have an idea of what we mean when we talk about war - and how it isn't the sanitised images we see on CNN. We need to think about the ways in which we can achieve our ends without war. And we need to make sure, absolutely sure, that the message we hammer home, again and again, every time we talk about war, is that every life we lose is a terrible, tragic waste. I feel that wearing symbols associated with the trenches, holding services and minutes of silence contributes, in a small way, to that goal. And I don't think that 'thank you for serving this great nation' does that***.

The blog at the top says a lot of this much better than I can. But I feel better for getting it off my chest.

* If you're going to disagree, consider some of the comments:
'if you don't think it should be a public holiday, maybe you should go to memorial steps, look at the names of people killed, and think about it'
Response to the above: 'I agree with you. But not everyone is like us'

** Does not apply to the UN

*** If I'm missing some hidden cultural thing that means it does, feel free to enlighten me.

Wednesday, 11 November 2009

Culture Shock Diary #12 - De-Icing Stations

Some time in the last couple of weeks (been in the library most of the time so it's hard to keep track of these things), these barrels of sand appeared all around campus. I'm told they're de-icing stations. There are a lot of them. I'm torn between admiration for American ingenuity at coping with inhuman climactic conditions, and fear about just how bad it's going to get, just how quickly...

Stuff that's Good about the US #7 - Pandora Radio

After the storm of controversy I caused with my preference for two-hole punched paper, I'm sticking with a safe one.

Pandora Radio is a website where you type in songs that you like, and it finds other music that is similar to that song. You can then 'like' or 'dislike' songs and add secondary songs or artists to refine it. And if you find something really good, you can then buy it on i-tunes or download it from limewire, depending on your inclination. Cough. So it's not only a great way to get music to suit your mood on various occasions, it's also a great way to discover new artists/songs. This is particularly good when your hard drive dies the day before you copy everything onto an external one and you lose all your music. The only thing I don't like about it is that it doesn't have songs that weren't released in the US on it, so it's a little thinner than I would like on British music*.

Tragically, you can't get it in the UK. Anyone want to work out the business model and find a way of getting it in Europe?

* if you're interested, the way I worked this out was by searching for Chesney (for Americans, there's a video of Chesney's 'one and only' hit here). Yes, I'm sad. Live with it.

Tuesday, 10 November 2009

Culture Shock Diary #11 - Three Hole Punches

American paper comes with three holes punched. This is really irritating as it means the hole punches are substantially bigger. I find this to be annoying. Some of us have a theory that's it's to protect American hole punch, paper and file manufacturers from competition from two-hole nations, like everywhere else in the world.

Sunday, 8 November 2009

Stuff That's Good about the US #6 - Quidditch

How many among you have ever wished you could play Quidditch? Honestly? In fact, have any of you NOT wished you could play Quidditch?

Well, now you can.

Ever-inventive US college students, led by Middlebury College in Vermont (hey, there isn't much to do up there), have invented an earth-bound version where participants run around with brooms between their legs, chasing a human snitch and throwing bludgers at one another. They have capes and costumes, and participation from death eaters dressed in garbage bags.

Maybe this makes me a geek, but this seems like the most awesome thing EVER. We NEED to introduce this to Europe. Uberlightweights - this is a call to arms!

How I Feel About Celine Dion

There's a post on Musical Stockholm Syndrome by Myles Estoy of The Estoyage which sums up why, after a couple of months in Burundi, I have a lasting attachment to Celine Dion. So if you ever see my ipod and it has Celine Dion on it, it's not because I have crap taste in music (although I do), it's the Burundians wot did it.

It also explains my lasting affection for the Las Ketchup song, which they were playing all the time when I was in Thailand six years ago. Which just goes to show that Musical Stockholm Syndrome is a lasting condition, and suffers should be approached with caution.

Update: an ever better post on this subject can be found at Journey Without Maps. Remeber, although it's too late for me, with just one song a day you can help save an expatriate from this debilitating condition.

Culture Shock Diaries #10 - Obsessive Temperature Control

My memories from studying in the UK include buildings that were boiling hot in summer due to poor ventilation, and freezing in winter due to dilapidated Victorian heating systems. Although this was annoying, it made sense. Fletcher seems to be the other way around.

When I first arrived, and it was pretty hot outside, the rooms inside the building were FREEZING – I would walk to class in a t-shirt and put on a thick jumper, hat and scarf when I got inside. When I lost the circulation in my fingers I starting wearing fingerless gloves as well. Discussion with other students suggested two possible theories: that the person setting the temperature was a man, and that the person setting the temperature was a sadistic bastard who wanted to make sure we didn’t nap in class. I personally subscribe to option c: both of the above.

Now that it’s getting cold out and the heating’s on, the opposite is true. Admittedly I live on the second/third floor (second if you’re British, third if you’re American), and heat rises, but it isn’t right that I leave my window permanently open just to get a bearable temperature in my room. Same goes for class – I’m now going everywhere in dozens of layers and stripping down to a t-shirt when I get inside. Except for my Central Asia and the Caucasus class, which is somehow always freezing. I think it’s the sweeping Siberian winds somehow teleporting through Hess’ slideshow.

Now this does happen in the UK too, and the vagaries of old buildings don’t help – I had an office a couple of years ago where it would be boiling hot, but if you opened the window even a crack, half the room would be freezing cold (that was the half I was in) and there would be no effect whatsoever on the rest of the room. But I think both Oxford and Geneva take a relatively ‘natural’ approach to temperature control.

And even if this is a universal thing... why?! An opportunity for us to display our full range of seasonal wardrobes all year round? A King Cnut-style attempt to beat nature*? Wilful climactic destruction? A conspiracy by the pharmaceutical industry to get us sick and sell us drugs?

I think it might be time for an uprising.

* Note for Anglo-Saxon history pedants: I realise that Cnut’s point was that you can’t beat nature. The temperature-controllers can’t beat nature either. So the analogy still works.

Wednesday, 28 October 2009

Stuff That's Good About the US # 5 - Huge Portions

Obviously this one has negative aspects (i.e. obesity), but hell, it saves a fortune. When I order food, I can order an American meal's worth (and it's cheap, see previous post), and it'll feed me for two days - or three if I'm lucky. As below, I think this is pretty much the only reason I'm still alive!

Stuff That's Good About the US # 4 - Cheap Takeout

Takeout (UK English: takeaway), is super cheap here - similar prices in dollars to what you would pay in pounds in the UK. And they deliver. And the burrito place down the hill lets you order in advance (e.g. can I get a burrito in 3 hours. Great study motivation). Given lack of nearby corner stores, I'm pretty sure the takeout (and Hall of Flags food*) is the only reason I'm still alive.

* they leave out leftover food from events in the front hall and if you're quick, you get to eat.

Wednesday, 21 October 2009

Culture Shock Diary #9 - 'ways to save power... using your drier'

Been saving this one, but doing laundry today so time to bust it out...

On the back of each toilet door in Blakeley, my residence hall, there is a list of 'ways to save electricity in Blakeley'. It includes no less than four ways to save electricity using your tumble-drier: turn it off as soon as your clothes are dry, dry full loads, dry one load right after another so it's still hot, and clean the fluff out of the filter'. However, they're missing what to me seems like the most obvious way to reduce energy expenditure on drying clothes - stop using the drier and get a bloody clothes rack! Better for the environment AND it doesn't shrink your clothes! Full Disclosure: I'm being hyprocitical here as I don't actually have a laundry rack - but in my defence I've tried not once, but twice to find them in Target and failed, and there's only so much I can do!

While I'm at it on the laundry, the washing machines here drive me insane. They have four options - wash whites, colours, delicates or woolens. I'm guessing that those are in decreasing temperature order, but hard to be sure, and reduces the possibility for what seems like another obvious way to reduce energy - wash clothes on the lowest temperature necessary.

Seriously, no wonder the Americans have such high carbon usage!

Tuesday, 20 October 2009

I Don't Have TB

Like most Europeans of my generation, I have had the BCG, the very effective vaccine against Tuberculosis. So imagine my surprise at being ordered to take a TB test in order to register for class. Just to go into that a bit further, it’s not an immunity test to check that the BCG worked, it’s a test to check that I have TB antibodies. For those of you unfamiliar with theories of vaccines and immunology, the way they work, more or less, is that they give you antibodies to enable you to fight a particular disease. So if you have had a TB vaccine, you’re pretty likely to have TB antibodies. So a positive result to the ‘TB test’ to test if you have TB in fact means that you EITHER have TB OR you’re immune. Perhaps I’ve been spending too much time on my DME project, but this doesn’t seem like a very effective indicator to me.

So, under extreme duress, I got the test done. Within two days it hurt like hell and was red and swollen – I didn’t need a doctor to tell that it was a positive result. Getting to health services today, they took one look at my arm and escorted me into a private room to break the news that I had TB. My response – don’t you think it might be because I’ve had the BCG – elicited an admission that false positives were very common with people who’d had the BCG. Well, duh! Next exchange went something like this:

Doctor: you now have to get a chest x-ray to show that you don’t have TB. This will cost you at least $40 (20% of the total) and you have to go to a hospital that’s 40 minutes away on a bus.
Me: why? That’s silly – I don’t have any symptoms and I’ve had the BCG so I clearly don’t have TB. Why can’t you do an immunity test?
Doctor: That’s not our policy; we require a chest x-ray
Me: aren’t chest x-rays bad for you and expensive. Isn’t there an easier and cheaper way of doing this that won’t give me cancer later in life?
Doctor: There is a blood test option but it’s more expensive as it isn’t covered by insurance
[aside: why on earth not? Surely getting someone to look in a microscope is cheaper than an x-ray? And why would my insurance cover x-rays but not lab fees?]
Me: what about the immunity test
Doctor: we don’t consider the BCG in our policy
Me: why on earth not? Surely that just makes it a crap policy that needs to be reviewed]

This ping-pong went on for some time until they let me speak to a different doctor. She asked me what my issue with it was:
- Unnecessary expenditure of money and more importantly time
- X-rays aren’t good for you and I want to avoid an unnecessary one
- The whole policy is stupid and almost all the international students have been affected by this – don’t you think you should consider adapting the policy to allow immunity tests?
- I’m an exchange student anyway so by the time I get all this done I’ll only have about 2 weeks left at the school so it seems like a waste of time.

The new doctor was awesome and gave me some advice: go and see a particular doctor involved with the policy-making process in 10 days time and explain my concerns. In the mean time – play it long and if we get into December they’ll leave me alone.

So I now have a strategy to evade having to haul to the hospital and get the pointless x-ray, but this is still driving me crazy and at the risk of overblowing it, it does highlight what is rubbish about American healthcare: I’m paying for it so they have no conscience about making me get unnecessary procedures. In the NHS, there is an incentive for doctors to consider whether treatment is actually useful, since it’s the government paying for it there is therefore a limit on resources.

Saturday, 3 October 2009

Culture Shock Diary #8 - Wellington Boots

Yes, they keep your feet dry, no they don't keep them warm, and no they don't look good. There are plenty of types of shoe that simultaneously keep your feet dry and warm, without looking stupid. It's like crocs - why do it?

Possibly I'm being unfair and they're in fashion in the UK as well. Can anyone comment?

Friday, 2 October 2009

Joining the Red Sox Nation

Tonight I went to my first baseball game, at Fenway Park, home of the Boston Red Sox. To people that don’t know Boston or baseball, this is a Big Deal. The Red Sox are massively popular – they’re known for their obsessive fan base, the Red Sox Nation, every other person in Boston is wearing a Red Sox hat, and the games are always booked out. I was desperate to go, and luckily, tonight they were playing the Cleveland Indians, who aren’t very good, so we were able to get some tickets for $20, and off we went – six foreigners and a token American to explain the rules (see summary at the bottom).

My first impressions of the stadium was that it seemed like a cross between a stadium and a fairground. Seriously. The stadium part was normal, but on the ground there was every type of food you can imagine – hot dogs, burgers, chips, pretzels, clam chowder, pizza, toffee apples (haven't seen one of those in years!), popcorn, candy floss, and heaven knows what else. And it didn’t stop when we got to our seats – people running up and down the aisles selling all sorts of food and drink, passing money along the rows and food back – it was crazy and didn’t let up through the game. Like with cricket, there isn’t really a break between when it’s on and when it’s not – there’s no half time, but there is a lot of stopping and starting, and no-one seems to be paying attention for more than half the time. There was a lot of music as well, which heightened the fairground thing – between each player batting, they’d play a song, busting out the cheesy Euroclassics, before turning to country later in the game. Very Twenty20.

The game was enjoyable and interesting, but possibly the slowest sport ever – after a 3 hour game, the score was 3-0. The trouble is, that half the time they don’t hit it, they just miss a bunch of times, then one guy gets to first base or gets caught, then they swap innings, which can get a bit tedious – at least in cricket they mostly hit the thing! And there are long periods of standing around for no apparent reason. And when they swap pitchers, they spend about 15 minutes with the new pitcher warming up – can’t they be warmed up already?! Again, not to draw unfair comparisons, but cricket players manage it! The funniest part though, and the most bizarrely, quintessentially American thing ever (possible exception: the turducken), is that they have advertisment breaks. In a sports match. Seriously. They stop the action, so they can show adverts on the TVs around the grounds.

Having said that, it was a great experience, and it was great to see Fenway, painted green all over, with old-style signposts and with its famous wall, the Green Monster. On top of that, this was a nothing game, a walkover, but the stadium was still pretty full and the atmosphere was great, especially in the second half, when people started singing between innings – everyone knew the words so I’m guessing these were team theme songs. There were also bits of excitement – the Red Sox getting two Indians out at once by running out one at second base, then stumping the second at first; a big collision at third base between a running Red Sox player and a fielding Indian; and the Indians’ pitcher getting hit by a returned ball and having to limp off the field. And even in the in-betweens, I did find myself strangely gripped – I guess the same part of me that enjoys watching online snooker! Or possibly the former rounders player and cricket fan. I also think that in a tense game it might be more exciting, and that, like cricket, it may be one of those sports where knowing a lot about it might make it more interesting and, like cricket, it might be one of those things you’re not really supposed to sit down and watch, you’re supposed to have a grand day out and some beers with your friends.

Long story short, although thinking about the components, it should have been just wierd and dull, it was actually awesome and I can’t wait to go again! Guess it’s time to buy me a Red Sox cap... and get excited about owning an actual factual baseball baseball cap.

*For the non-Americans, it goes something like this (cricket terminology in brackets to help explain):

- Team A pitches (bowls) to Team B

- Team B’s batsman has three goes at hitting it, which each failure called a ‘strike’ (3 strikes and you’re out... always wondered where that phrase came from). If you hit it behind you, that counts as a strike. You can also get out if the ball is caught by one of the fielders. This is easier than in cricket as they have gloves and the ball just drops in. People can also get out by getting run out, or being stumped at first base before they can make it.

- If Team B’s batsman manages to hit it, he can run to first base, or beyond if he’s feeling lucky.
The next batsman then comes up to bat. If he hits it, any teammates further around the diamond can run for the next base. If they get all the way round they get one point. But they can only run once the ball has been caught by the other team... or something. I’m hazy on this rule – anyone care to clarify?

- If three players from the batting team (Team B) get out, the innings is over and you swap roles.

- Repeat as above.

- There are 9 innings, plus some tie break innings if they’re even.

- The winner is the one with the most points. Since the innings are very short, there often aren't many points. Tonight it was 3-0 to the Red Sox

Monday, 21 September 2009

Culture Shock Diary #7 - Having to Translate What I Say

Given that I speak the same language as Americans, I'm often surprised by how much I have to translate. A couple of days ago I asked to borrow some tights from a friend. She looked at me blankly until I explained what tights were, then said 'oh, pantyhose' (now I'm in a fix; I need to go buy some but there's no way I can go into a store and say 'where do you keep the pantyhose' and keep a straight face). Even when the word is the same half the time I have to translate. Today while having coffee with a friend I was talking about my work with former COMbatants in Burundi. After a couple of minutes of looking confused, he asked if I meant comBATants. I guess I did, and I suppose they do sound quite different... but it's a bit disorienting having to translate my own language into... my own language. I'm getting pretty good at it, but definitely surprised by how often I have to.

Stuff That's Good About the US #3 - Savoury Crepes

I think we do have these in the UK, but I'm pretty sure they're not as widely available or popular as they are here. Today while coming back from tea with a friend, I was a bit hungry and couldn't find a sandwich place - I ran into a friend on the street who directed me to a crepe place. So I got a spinich, tomato and basil (bay-zil) crepe with mozarella and it was AMAZING! I'm sure it was horrible for me but so good - don't know how I've coped without them all these years!

Friday, 18 September 2009

Cholera in Burundi

According to World News, there is currently a Cholera outbreak in Bujumbura, spreading rapidly in its crowded outer suburbs and even in the richer area of Rohero. Presumably the fact that everyone in Burundi drinks the tap water, even in rich areas, isn't helping here; I wonder if there are adequate supplies of clean or bottled water, and how the price will be affected. Cholera is not uncommon in Burundi, but it is always a tragedy. Even by East African standards some of Bujumbura's slums are ill-constructed and unsanitary, having been completely destroyed in the war and only rebuilt in the last few years. In these kind of conditions, cholera can spread like wildfire.

The article notes the problem of getting people to hospital, but doesn't mention the almost total lack of facilities once patients arrive there. While in Burundi I was advised that if I ever got sick I should go to the university hospital and refuse to leave, but it's small and the other clinics are woefully inadequate. There are also problems of supply of drugs, with bottlenecks and difficulties of supply, and, according to Morgan, of the wrong type of drugs being available due to kickbacks. I'm not sure how these factors will specifically affect the fight against cholera, but they can't help.

Thinking of cholera, I think of the first time I came across the disease - in a book charting the social history of London, talking about cholera outbreaks in the 19th Century. Cholera is a part of the life that our country has left behind - urban slums, extreme poverty, and lack of sanitation and nutrition for the poor. At the time there was more than poverty standing in the way; they weren't able to prevent it because they didn't understand the nature of its spread. Now, we don't have that excuse. If anything, diseases like cholera are a reminder that what we are glad to see as our past is very much a reality for many people in the developing world - and an indictment of the fact that, while we might be pretty good at vaccines, we're not very good at the interventions that can save even more lives, of even more people - like clean water and sanitation.

Reading this kind of news, I think first of my friends, living in Rohero and Kinindo, and I hope they and their families are well. Then I think of some of the young people living in poorer areas, like Kinaba, that I interviewed, and I'm terrified for them. Thinking of real people with lives and ambitions, whose lives are now at risk from a preventable disease is distressing. This outbreak will pass, as they always do, but it is a constant reminder of how far we need to go to attain even basic standards of living for millions of people.

Thursday, 17 September 2009

Stuff That's Cool About the US #2 - The New York Times

The international section comes at the front, which is just about the best thing ever. And better still, you can read it without spreading your arms to full width and really annoying the person next to you. And it's liberal without being rabid or making stuff up (I'm talking to you, Guardian!). While I'm still loyal to the beeb, my news accessing will never be the same again.

Tuesday, 15 September 2009

Culture Shock Diaries #6 - Really Short Shorts

In the UK we have short shorts on sale, and they are even occasionally bought by normal people. These people even wear them sometimes. On the beach. Or at home, sunbathing or BBQing. Or on holiday. Not in town, doing normal, everyday things. Here, people seem to wear them anywhere, whenever the weather allows. Now I know it's New England and people have to take advantage of what little sun there is, but it does just seem a little too much (or rather too little) sometimes.

Stuff that's Cool about the US #1 - big open spaces

I feel like I'm being a bit harsh on the US with the culture shock diaries, so I thought in the interests of balance I should start recording the cool stuff - then I can cross reference it with what I find wierd when I get back to the UK, or something geeky. But anyway, I thought I'd start with an easy one - there are lots of big open spaces here, fairly close to the city, which is awesome and very different to English urban sprawl, one big grey mass blending into the next. Well, that's what Southern England is like, at least.

Culture Shock Diary #5 - I've been to the UK... Dublin...

OK, this one is a little mean given that I have made a number of embarassing mistakes about people's home countries and/or had to keep my mouth shut and look it up on Wikipedia later (my roommate comes from St Thomas, which is a US overseas territory in the Carribean, but I didn't know that at the time). Having said that, Ireland's been a separate country for some time now, I don't see either it or the UK as particularly obscure on the scale of country obscureness* and (and this is the clincher) - surely if you've been there you should know what country you're in!**

* I guess 1, least obscure would be say the US or China, while 10, most obscure would be something like Niue or Lichtenstein. I would have put the UK at about a 2 or 3 (maybe a 3 people everyone thinks it's called England), but now I'm beginning to wonder. Maybe our fall from power has been greater than I realised!

** In the interests of fairness it's worth noting that at least no-one has thought Ireland was in England (though I'm sure once I venture from the confines of an IR school someone will), and, on the two occasions when someone has made this mistake, it has subsequently transpired that they were confusing 'the UK' for 'the British Isles' and were in fact aware that Ireland was a country. One of the people also thought Scotland and Wales were independent countries and the UK was a geographical term, the other had it pretty much right except for confusing British Isles, Great Britain and UK, which, to be fair, is confusing.

Sunday, 13 September 2009

Culture Shock Diary #4 - what kind of coffee would you like?

Um, the kind with caffeine in it? Seriously, before I've had the coffee, I can't make that kind of decision! Not that I would know anyway - at home when you order a filter coffee you get a normal coffee unless you specify something else, which works just fine for me. Here you've got the light roast, the dark roast, and lord only knows what - and does anyone know what the difference is anyway? Which do I have to ask for if I just want coffee. Also, in the supermarket - even the cheapie Johnny Foodmaster, there's a whole wall of different types of coffee beans for grinding at home, that you buy by weight. I'm not even sure where I'd go to buy non-ground coffee beans in the UK - do they sell them in Tesco? I guess this is great for coffee-lovers, but for non-experts it's very confusing and slightly intimidating, especially in the morning when you just want to get a caffeine dose and not be asked questions you don't know the answer to! Maybe next time I should get my own back by saying something like "got anything Burundian? Mmm, that's a shame, in that case I'll have to make do with the dark roast".

Culture Shock Diary #3 - Light Beer

There's so much wrong with this I don't know where to start. For those of you unfamilar with the concept, this is low-cal beer, and it tastes as bad as it sounds. Diet Coke I can handle, but diet beer?! Is nothing sacred?

Saturday, 12 September 2009

A Holiday Weekend

Having taken my economic equivalency exam (not that hard, and I was relieved to pass well – I would have felt that I was letting down IHEID and Professor Wyplosz otherwise!), I was free by 10am on Friday... and since it was Labour Day Weekend, we didn’t have anything until Shopping Day on Tuesday! Time have some New England fun! We kicked off in style with a “scavenger hunt” in downtown Boston. For non-Americans, a scavenger hunt is where you have to photograph yourself at a number of sites as well as fulfilling challenges like spelling ‘Fletcher’ with your bodies, fitting into small spaces, and swapping a plastic bracelet for the biggest thing we could. My group was full of insanely competitive people, so we sped around and managed to get everywhere on the list, as well as fitting into a teeny tiny house in a children’s playground (it collapsed when we crawled out – oops!), and managed to swap our bracelet for a carpet, which the boys carried for half a mile. Along the way, we got to see some of downtown Boston for the first time, including the Make Way for Ducklings statue, which I got very excited about, to the amusement of my team, who hadn’t read the book. The results haven’t been announced yet, but we’re quietly confident, and it was enormous fun! We finished the evening in Red Bones, an awesome bar in Davis Square (near Tufts) with around 30 beers on tap, where I met a few new people, and discovered that a friend from Uganda is here at Fletcher – the world of expatriates is indeed small.

On Saturday, it was time for an excursion. On the basis that if you organise the trip you get to decide where to go, I had sent round some emails suggesting a beach trip, and in the end we settled on Plymouth, landing point of the Pilgrims and home of the Mayflower 2, a reconstruction of the original Mayflower. We managed to all meet up and get the train just in time – lucky as there’s only four a day – and walked the three miles into town (there is apparently a bus, but we didn’t know that at the time and didn’t have any taxi numbers). The town was very pretty and classically New England – clapboard houses (many actually made of plastic over brick – cheats!), tall trees, and wide streets. Eventually we got to the sea – the weather was glorious, and I felt miles out of town. We walked along the shore, and found what can only be described as a fast-food seafood restaurant, where we had crab salad and lobster rolls. It was delicious, not too expensive, and one of those classic New England experiences that you have to have.

From there, we went to the information centre to find out about buses and get some taxi numbers; learning that we had 5 minutes until the bus left for the ‘Plimoth Plantation’, an open-air museum, we ran for it – only to get there and discover that it would cost $24 to get in, and we only had an hour and a half till the last bus. Totally not worth it. So we got a taxi back for $10, and went to the Mayflower II, run by the same people, instead, for $9 – much more reasonable, and the Mayflower still had actors in costume talking in old English, which as far as we could work out was the main attraction of the Plantation. The ship was tiny, especially the beds – it was hard to imaging 102 people crammed into it, but the guides were incredibly knowledgeable, both those in costume who conveyed specific characters from the voyage, and those in modern dress who were able to provide historical background.

I learnt all sorts of things about the period; like the fact that the pilgrims actually set off from Holland, rather than England, and that at this time Englishmen were actually rather well-nourished and comparably tall to today (but slept sitting up, hence the short beds), as well as more ‘subversive’ information – like they never celebrated thanksgiving, which was invented in the 1920s to promote family values. We also learnt that the ‘Plymouth Rock’, where the pilgrims supposedly landed, is a myth – no-one mentions landing on a rock. It’s also somewhat disappointing – about a metre square – so I wasn’t particularly upset to discover this! All in all a great day out, and fascinating to see how well every area of this town has been preserved – without meaning to be dismissive, I think if you have less history you have to preserve it better. And it was a great way to learn more about the US and the history of the region.

On Friday, the second years had organised a tour of Boston’s ‘Freedom Trail’, adapted to exclude sites we’d already visited on the Scavenger Hunt, and to take in sections of the African American Heritage Tour, as well as ‘other cool stuff’. We started out in Beacon Hill, one of the rich areas of Boston that also included some streets where many escaped slaves lived, including some who were probably very famous, judging by the way their names were mentioned and most people nodded knowingly, but who I hadn’t heard of because escaped slaves aren’t really a standard element of the UK history curriculum! We also visited the State Capitol, with its golden dome, and saw a statue opposite commemorating the Mass. 54th Regiment, the first black regiment during the civil war – the statue also notable for being the first in the US to depict black Americans in a heroic and generally not completely offensive manner. As Trevor, our guide put it, US race relations are often about baby steps!

From the State Capitol, we carried on into downtown Boston, visiting, among other places, the Union Oyster House, an oyster house older than this country, much beloved of the Kennedys, and what was the oldest bookstore in the country until Borders opened next door and put it out of business. There was also an H&M there, at which point all the Europeans got very excited that we could buy cheaper versions of the same clothes we would buy in Europe! We also saw Nathanial Hall, where Kerry conceded the election, and the Old State House, with a Lion and a Unicorn on the top – the originals were burnt in rioting after the Boston Massacre, just before the War of Independence, but the British gave them a new set in the 19th Century as a peace offering, and they now grace the building. Since the building is in downtown Boston, space is pretty tight – so they’ve hit on a genius method of preserving the building and also saving space. Stripping out the inside, they’ve turned it into a subway station. Amazing. And not sure you’d get away with it in the UK – there’d be a public outcry and the idea would be dropped. There may have been a public outcry here, but it was a sensible solution and they got on with it. The other interesting thing about the Old State House was that it was surrounded by skyscrapers – I’m not sure we get that much in the UK, as the areas with the skyscrapers were generally pretty heavily bombed in the war, but it’s a very striking sight and really highlights just how tall some of the towers are – definitely higher than I’d want to live! Imagine if the lift broke!

From Downtown, we walked through little Italy towards the docks, where we took the boat across the harbour to the USS Constitution, the oldest still-commissioned ship in the world. We didn’t go in as there was a huge queue and it was under repair, and instead we headed to the Bunker Hill Monument, a giant obelisk build to commemorate an early and glorious American victory in the War of Independence... that ended with the Americans running out of powder and having to defeat. Admittedly the British lost more men, but it still seemed an amusing disconnect between the official history and the reality. Then we went to The Warren, a pub that is almost older than this country, built in 1780 to replace one burnt down during the war, and that was popular with Washington and some of the other Founding Fathers... which was pretty awesome! I’d never been in a pub that was almost as old as a country before, unless you count places in Uganda or Kenya that were build before independence – but I’m not sure that most Ugandans or Kenyans would agree that their countries began at independence (will ask fellow students from the region and see what they think!).

On Monday, we went for a change from the beach, and three of us went inland to Concord, home of Emerson, Thoreau and Alcott, among others – basically all the Transcendentalists. We had discovered that we could go swimming in Walden Pond, where Thoreau spent a year to try to discover the essentials of life, and walking in the forest. So we caught the train from Porter Square (one every two hours), got to Concord, walked three miles, and there we were. The Reservation was stunning – tall trees, good trails, and the water reflecting like a mirror. The leaves on the trees were just starting to turn – the picture of the end of summer and a promise of fall. The water was cool, but not too cold – I swam for about half an hour, then out we got, walked around the lake, and back into Concord, with just time for a hot chocolate and some food before we got the train back to Boston. A short, but worthwhile outing – hopefully I’ll be able to get out of Boston at least once or twice in the coming semester.

Thursday, 10 September 2009

Culture Shock Diary #2 - Paper

The paper's the wrong size. I like English paper. It's especially annoying because I can't work out what size I need to set the paper on my Word to to print properly...

Culture Shock Diary #1 - Cars

Dependence on the car. There isn’t a convenience store anywhere near Tufts; the nearest supermarket is the slightly grotty Johnny Foodmaster, which is the best part of a mile away. To me I’m surprised there isn’t somewhere more local (what if you just want a pint of milk?), but it seems perfectly walkable. The same goes for Whole Foods, which is just over a mile in the other direction. But many in the American contingent disagree, and will wait for someone to be driving to go. My roommate, Ketura, who has a car, wanted to drive to the bookstore, a three minute walk away, the other day; I can see where she was coming from as she needed to pick up a lot of books, but it honestly wouldn’t have occurred to me to drive – until I was struggling back from the store with all my books, when I would metaphorically slap my forehead and think ‘why didn’t I take my car’!

Orient-ing in Boston

Thankfully, after my first day the weather improved dramatically – Sunday was muggy, but sunny, and since then it’s just been sunny. On Sunday I just slept a lot, unpacked and went to Target – many of the students have cars and were driving to a big out of town store over the weekend, so I was able to stock up on cooking equipment, crockery and cutlery, storage boxes, and other essentials. I had already ordered my bedding* online, so didn’t need that, and in the mean time was sleeping in my sleeping bag liner and a sleeping bag that smelt strongly of diesel thanks to sharing the back of a Land Rover with a leaking jerry can in Uganda.

This also gave me a chance to see a bit more of Boston, or at least Medford. Apart from the detached houses, the main difference with the UK is the amount of green around – if you get to high ground and look over the city, rather than seeing a sea of rooves, you see green, with church spires and other tall buildings sticking through it. I think part of this is because the streets are wider, so the trees that line them grow taller, but it’s also that they just have more space – and, of course, we’re in an out-of-town leafy suburb – but in England, as I’ve just realised, suburbs aren’t really that leafy, except for some very gentrified ones. And elsewhere in Europe, suburbs are ghettos.

Last Monday, orientation started – we started out with a load of speeches about how we weren’t admissions mistakes (have to admit I’m wondering whether, as an exchange student, I slipped through the rigorous selection process and therefore am an admissions mistake) and the great background of the Fletcher school, and how we had to learn from each other, and so on. It was all very cheesy, but also very exciting and in between the bullsh*t they did give us some useful advice, like to pick courses on things you don’t know about early on, and challenge yourself to take courses that scare you – this is something that I’ve figured out by myself over the course of the last year in Geneva, but which I really wish someone had told me earlier, and saved me the trouble of taking pointless courses to work it out. We had introductions from the highups in the Fletcher school and in Tufts – the President of Tufts, the Dean and Academic Dean of the Fletcher school, and all the people with whom we will have administrative contact – it’s unlikely that I’ll have much contact with the President and the Deans, but knowing who they are is useful and, again, something that The Graduate Institute could learn from.

In the afternoon, we had an international students briefing, where we were told that 40% of the students were international, meaning 60% were American – again, comparing with Geneva, almost all the students are international – but I wonder what proportion come from Western Europe, which I guess would be the closest equivalent. Finally we had a welcome drink, and afterwards headed out for a student-organised event in Davis Square, near the campus – in an Irish bar that was nice enough, but rammed. I’m getting my butt kicked by jetlag, so it was one drink, and home to bed.

Tuesday, we were subjected to what I am forcing myself to think of as a cultural experience – splitting into small groups and playing teambuilding games. It was pretty cringy, but for the last bit we had brief conversations (like speed dating) with everyone there, which was a pretty good way to get to know some people I didn’t know before. Then we got a tour of the campus, which was interesting – it’s very green and beautiful (at least it is now) – with amazing views out towards downtown, and a fascinating medley of architectural styles (photos to follow). Then back into the auditorium for some more speeches, this time from the alumni office, before dividing into smaller groups for library orientation (boring, mainly because the format is the same as Geneva) and an IT orientation (summary: don’t pirate. You will get sued and banned from the network).

Wednesday we were back in small groups for a Q and A session (pointless for an exchange student) then sessions on reading critically and writing skills. I expected them to be pointless – I have a fair bit of experience of reading large amounts every week, thanks to the whole Oxford Degree thing, and I write well, but I did pick up a few useful tips, mainly on how to improve my skim reading. And I resolved to download an endnote equivalent – they have a licence to give us one programme for free, which I’m excited about as I hate footnoting with a passion!

Having had a night off on Tuesday, I was still pretty tired on Wednesday as I was still waking up at 5am every day – but Eddy offered me a ride to the pub, so off I went. I was slightly amazed by how many students have cars; Tufts is a little way out of town, so it is practical to have one, and all the stores are actually pretty far (minimum 10 minutes for the closest) so I can see why they need it, but it did highlight how far the US, even in interconnected New England, is dependent on the car. But I wasn’t making any snarky comments, as I was glad of the ride, and it inspired me to sort out my zipcar membership – a process that includes getting my driver record from an office of the DVLA that is only open between 9 and 12 UK time. Which is between 2 and 5 am here. Not fun. I got the record, but politely suggested that perhaps they could open in the afternoon once a week or so.

Thursday we had an introduction to the career services, which seem WAY better here than in Geneva, and a group exercise at the end of which we got the results from a Myers-Briggs personality test we’d had to do. I normally hate this kind of thing – they always tell me to be a librarian – but it was actually surprisingly useful, mainly as it focussed on personality types and what kind of jobs you will enjoy and what you’ll hate. And it did highlight why I’ve hated some of my past jobs and why I’ve had issues with past bosses! Perhaps I’m Americanising already, getting used to the idea of psychobabble being relevant! Then back to Blakeley for our last free lunch, before spending the afternoon studying for the economics equivalency test on Friday.

* Note for Americans: Crockery is plates and bowls and things, NOT a crock-pot or any of the other bizarre ideas people had when I said this. Bedding means sheets, pillows, etc, not the mattress or the actual bed.

Sunday, 30 August 2009

From England to New England

I arrived in Boston yesterday, about an hour late due to a ‘VIP departure’ that meant that the entirety of Boston Logan airport was closed for several hours; I assume something to do with Ted Kennedy’s funeral. Now apart from the absurdity of closing an international airport for several hours because a few planes need to take off, there’s the fact that it could surely have been planned for – our pilot clearly hadn’t predicted it, as he was forced to come out with possibly the least comforting intercom message ever “they’re going to move us to the front of the landing queue, as we have a limited stock of holding fuel” (translation: we’re running out of gas. Great).

So what with the disorganised airport and crappy weather (apparently there’s a hurricane by Martha’s Vineyard and the on-land effects are wind and rain), my first impressions of the US weren’t great. Happily, it improved fast – I found the airport shuttle to take me to the T (subway), and the Bus driver got out to help me get my bags onto the bus. Then at the T station, a nice man helped me buy a ticket. When I had to go down some steps to change lines, a lady helped me with my bag and, when the subway went above-ground, pointed out local landmarks. And I got my first glimpse of the waterfront, which was pretty cool, albeit wreathed in cloud, as we went over the Charles river (oooh, the Charles. Note to self: find a rowing club). I also had my first element of culture shock; being passed by a family, three of whom were wearing jumpers saying ‘Boston’ (two just Boston, one Boston fire dept). In the UK I wouldn’t hesitate to dismiss them as American tourists (note for Americans: no-one, but no-one from London wears ‘London’ hoodies). But here I’m not sure. They have American accents, and after all there must be some explanation for the fact that people buy the ‘London’ hoodies – maybe people wear that kind of thing here.

Eventually, I emerged at Davis Square T stop. I had been told that it was a 15 minute walk to Tufts, or a bus ride. So I looked for a taxi; no joy. After five minutes, and having been assured that there wouldn’t be a bus for ages, I set off walking. I had no trouble finding my way (there are helpful signposts), but I started to question the wisdom of my decision when I got a block away and the road started to slope steeply uphill. Oh dear. The stretch of hill was actually pretty short, but carrying more or less my own bodyweight in luggage, it was a struggle. I broke it down to stretches of 50 paces, but even so by the time I got through the campus, I was exhausted.

Finding the Hall was the next challenge; I had printed out a map, but it had disintegrated in the rain, and no-one seemed to know where it was. I eventually remembered that it was near the tennis courts – walking around the back, via one last push uphill, I finally found Blakely Hall, checked in, and found my room – on the third floor. The room was nice enough though – teeny-tiny but part of a suite of three with a little living area with comfy chairs, and while mine is the smallest, it faces south-west rather than north-east, and it’s the best arranged. Plus I have barely any stuff, so I don’t need the space anyway.

Having unpacked, I go downstairs and ask directions to a food store. They tell me that whole foods (how is that a supermarket!) is about a mile away, so my best bet is the “local convenience store”. Clutching a map, I head out into the (by now mercifully light) drizzle, passing several streets of clapboard houses. Now I may be missing something, but this seems like a totally illogical way to build a house – why not just use brick?! Investigating more closely, I notice that many are in fact made of brick and faced with clapboard – again, why?! Another culture shock is that they are all detached houses – I also see an apartment block, but no terraces or semis anywhere. There’s something decadent about having so much space in a big city. And to my delight, one of them has a flag flying. I permit myself a quick snigger – I don’t think I’ll EVER understand the on-your-sleeve (or front porch, or bumper sticker, or whatever) American brand of patriotism.

Getting to the supermarket, I get another shock. I am expecting a medium-sized corner store of the sort that you would find in England – but I’m totally wrong. Rounding the corner, I’m faced with a huge parking lot and what looks like a small supermarket – about the same size as the Tesco on Cowley Road, for Oxford people, and a bit smaller than the Morrison’s in Larkfield, for Kent people. It was a bit dingy (if I’m brutally honest, it reminded me of an African supermarket, or what I would imagine a supermarket in Small Town, Tennessee to look like), but definitely a supermarket. And, again to my delight, they had a big bunch of American flags on sale at the till. Then there was the stuff they sell – all sorts of vegetables, with no respect for what’s in season (including winter squashes. Where do you get winter squashes from in August?), a massive meat and cheese selection, and no healthy ready meals (yes, I know, but I’d got off a plane and I didn’t want to cook). Even more confusing was when I looked for soap; it wasn’t with toiletries, but with kitchen stuff, and I couldn’t find soap, but could find a Dove ‘moisturising bar’. It looked like soap and smelt like soap, so I took a chance and bought it; luckily when I got home I discovered that it was, in fact, soap!

Getting back to the Hall, I met and chatted to a few people, before heading to bed. First impressions of Boston; it rains a lot (but I’m assured this will change); people are helpful; the subway is grotty and weird; their definition of a convenience store defies all logic, and the clapboard houses and big green spaces are pretty cool.

Tuesday, 11 August 2009

Return to Uganda

I arrived back in Uganda late Sunday, and have spent the last couple of days wandering around the town, revisiting my old haunts (except the legendary Bubbles, which will come later in the week). I’m also catching up on sleep – as you might have gathered from my last post on all the parties in my last few days in Burundi, I didn’t get a whole lot of sleep, and the bus ride was pretty tiring. It’s great to be back – I thought I’d died and gone to heaven when I got into Aristoc (bookstore for those of you that don’t know Kampala) and had the usual supermarket-culture-shock. It’s annoying that I can’t drink the tap water any more though (not sure if I’ve posted on this before, but in Bujumbura you can drink the tap water!).

It’s also disconcerting that in the 18 months I’ve been away, things have changed. Shoprite, Game and Uchumi have been supplemented by Nakumatt, the Kenyan supermarket chain, which have opened a branch in a brand spanking new mall and restaurant complex. Garden City is bigger, or at least the attached hotel is bigger. Kyoto has closed down and/or moved (nooooooooo!). And there’s a new brand of beer – Nile Gold, produced by the same people who make Nile Special. Haven’t tried it yet, but will report back when I have the chance.

These fast changes are disconcerting, but I suppose they are an inevitable feature of quickly-developing countries. When I go back to London or Oxford after long periods nothing much changes, because those cities have pretty much reached where they’re going to go, so change is slower and less dramatic (except for East London, with the Olympics). But Kampala is growing quickly, so changes are inevitable – people say the same things about Kigali, and I expect that if I go back to Burundi a couple of years after the election (if it goes well) then it will be very different, with either a Nakumatt or a Shoprite, taller buildings, hopefully a bookshop, and more hotels. The traffic will also be a lot worse; Claver claims that the traffic in Bujumbura is bad, something that I find hilarious – he really needs to go to Kampala! In some way’s I regret it – Bujumbura’s size and relaxed feel are part of its charm – but it’s inevitable, and I welcome it because it’s part and parcel of development. And a bookshop would be great.

Last Days in Burundi

Although I’ve already left, I wanted to post quickly about my last few days in Burundi, which in many ways summed up why I love the country so much. On Thursday, I was able to meet Marie Rose, one of only two female ex-combatants who are Members of Parliament (on which more later), and she told me more about the country’s reconstruction plans and what the government is doing to help women ex-combatants. Positive point one: the country is small, making it easy to access its movers and shakers. Later, Pierre Claver tells me that she donates most of her salary to help women ex-combatants access training or set up mutual assistance schemes, and works very closely to help CEDAC’s women’s programme. Positive point two: people really care about establishing peace and developing the country.

Thursday night, I went to a movie night at the marine house and had some beers, then stayed up late playing drinking poker. Positive point three: good beer, lively ex-pat community. Friday I rushed round like crazy trying to get stuff finished, including a trip to the market with Huy, Morgan and Carol to buy pagne, followed by a cheap lunch in a local eatery near the market. I also met up with Eric, who presented me with a carved wall plaque; it’s fair to say that it’s not something I would have chosen myself, but I said I would treasure it and meant it; I almost bawled when he gave it to me. Positive point four: Burundians are unceasingly welcoming and generous. Then Friday night I had the best party I’ve had in Burundi; started out with beer and brochettes with Pierre Claver, followed by a awesome party at Barbara’s house – very chilled out and met some cool people, including some members of Burundi’s gay community – awesome people who I wish I’d met earlier. Then on to another party at the house next door to the Marine House.

The party was allegedly organised by someone called Pierre, who worked for the EU, but no-one there seemed to know Pierre and no-one seemed to care – the doors were open to all. At the party I ran into several people (muzungu and Burundian) who I knew already – a couple of people from Iriba, where I’ve been working, and my friend Olivier, who works for UNHCR, and who poured me a gin and tonic so strong I literally couldn’t drink it. We danced beside the pool, then, almost inevitably, in the pool. As Isaac pointed out, it was like a particularly debauched scene from Emergency Sex. Positive point five: Burundians are party animals.

Saturday, I had breakfast with Pierre Claver during the travaux communitaire; like Rwanda, Burundi has regular ‘community works’. A lot of ordinary people seem to do them, digging drainage ditches, etc, but literally none of the people I knew ever did. Claver claims that it’s a waste of time because you just listen to political speeches; I’m sceptical about this – there seem to be an awful lot of people on the streets doing stuff – but it leads to positive point six: willingness to criticise the government. As I walked into town I was greeted by Amable, working as a security guard, and Eric Uwimana, who I interviewed on my first day of profiling. They wished me luck, and send me on my way. Positive point seven: a small town where you regularly run into friends.

Having been to say goodbye to Nana and retrieve my sleeping bag, I headed to Bora Bora for a final visit (positive point eight: the beach), before heading back to Pierre Claver’s to collect my stuff. A coke with Huy, a cup of tea with Morgan and a movie at the marine house completed the evening, before I grabbed an hour or two of sleep and headed off to get my bus at 5am.

In the spirit of honesty, I should point out that there were a few negatives as well, that also reflected my time in Burundi; Peace Exchange trying to rip me off so I had to walk to Face a Face, the fact that the buses leave when full, so the only place you can get a bus from the town centre is the bus station, meaning that you have to walk 10 minutes from Aroma, to get a bus that passes right by Aroma again 20 minutes later, having to wait ages for the bus to fill, people having no sense of urgency, not showing up when they say they will, and never returning calls. But although these things drive me crazy, they are more than outweighed by the positives, and on the whole it was a wonderful few days, a wonderful goodbye to some great friends, and to a country that I’ve fallen head over heels in love with, and that I hope I will be able to come back to soon.

Monday, 10 August 2009

History Passing

A couple of days ago I read on the BBC about the funeral of the last British WW1 veteran, who died a fortnight ago, aged 111, and nearly bawled. A part of our history is now gone forever; there are a few others left, but only one who saw action, and none who fought in the trenches. Of course it seems ridiculous to be so upset by the death of a 111-year-old, and even more so to be sad for the passing of a period of history that we should be glad to see the back of. It is unquestionably a Good Thing that we no long send our young men to be slaughtered in their hundreds of thousands over pointless geopolitical disputes.

The sadness, therefore, comes from two things. The first is the feeling that in those terrible times, ordinary people did extra-ordinary things. But more important is the fear that now that the horror of the trenches no longer lives in memory, we may forget it. Of course we won’t really – there is a wealth of testimony, including an autobiography written by Mr Patch when he realised that his would be one of the last voices to tell of the past. And having vivid memories of total war did not stop Europeans going back to war within a generation. But Western Europe in the last sixty years has been one of the world’s great peacebuilding stories; as I write this I am wearing a hat with the European Union logo on it (Dad, if you’ve been looking for it, sorry), and we have managed to refrain from killing one another for the longest period in our history so far.

The memories of our past now serve more to bring us together than to force us back into conflict – again, something that Mr Patch saw as crucial. At his funeral, at his request, his coffin was carried by Belgian, French and German soldiers, a piece of symbolism that again threatened tears. But it was also this that showed the wider relevance; if he was only a survivor, his death would be distressing. But he made it a symbol of unity and reconciliation, showing that out of tragedy, we can find hope and progress.

Gerard Prunier has called the war that still engulfs the great lakes region ‘Africa’s World War’, and I have spent the last two months in a country that must be seen as at least as traumatised as Europe in 1919. There are groups that blame one another and demand revenge, but, unlike in Europe in 1919, they have avoided this temptation. I won’t labour the point by trying to extend the comparison too far, but for me there are two lessons to be drawn. Burundians who have known nothing but war have told me of their longing for peace, and their hopes for what their country can do now that they have it. But Europe’s lessons tell us that that is not enough; it would be harder to find a population more desperate for peace than Europe in 1919, but within 20 years they were back at war. The second is that peace is possible; it took a second attempt in Europe, but eventually we got there.

I shared this story with some of my Burundian friends, and one person gave me a response that was one of the most moving I have heard in this country; the hope that in sixty or eighty years, the last veteran of the Burundian war will be buried, his coffin carried by the descendents of all sides, and the sense that a piece of history has passed. I passed this reaction on to Pierre Claver and Marie Rose, a CNDD-FDD Parliamentarian, and no-one laughed. I think there is a real risk that this country will slide back into war, but the story of Mr Patch’s death reminded me that there is also hope.

Thursday, 6 August 2009

Burundi Tourism

I’ve already blogged about the fact that there is no tourism industry in Burundi, despite its marketable assets. Today, via my friend Carol, I gained an insight into why that might be. She works in microfinance and will have some bosses from the US visiting next week, and was trying to find out if there were any excursions from Bujumbura that she didn’t already know about, so paid a visit to the tourism office, also a gift shop that sells postcards (woohoo), that is next to our favourite cafe.

She asked if they had any maps of the country that she could use; they offered to sell her one for 10,000F – with no looking allowed! Then she asked if they had any leaflets on attractions in the country. No. Then she saw a leaflet on drumming performances; she asked if she could have one. She could – but at a cost of 2,000F. Since she didn’t want the leaflet, just their phone number, she asked if they had any contacts or if she could just take the number from the leaflet. Again, no – not unless she bought it. They suggested she wait till the weekend and go to Saga Plage, where they perform on Sundays, and ask them for her number themselves.

All in all, it’s clear that whatever the Burundian Tourism Office is doing, it isn’t promoting Burundi, and that if you’re a visitor in Burundi, you better have sources for what you need to know, because there’s no helping you once you’re here!

Wednesday, 5 August 2009

Burundian Money: Mystery Solved

One of the things that’s wierd about Burundi is that all the money is different sizes – the biggest note, 10,000 Francs ($8), is very slightly bigger than the next biggest (5,000), which is very slightly bigger than the next biggest (2,000), which is the same size as the 1,000, which is a bit bigger than the 500, which is the same size as the 100, which is a bit bigger than the 50, which is a bit bigger than the 20, which is a bit bigger than the 10. In case you’re wondering if you read that right, the smallest note, the 10 Franc note, is indeed worth about 8 cents. And people do use them, mainly on the buses.

Even wierder than the proliferation of tiny denominations is the fact that some notes (I’ve seen it in 2,000, 1,000 and 500s, but it may occur elsewhere) come in more than one size, as you can see in the picture. The older ones are bigger, but none of us were able to work out why – if the government had been offered a deal they couldn’t refuse, if they were running short on paper, or if they just fancied a change. However, I have recently been able to confirm that the change is because Burundi is planning to introduce ATMs, and the smaller size will fit better.

Needless to say, this is awesome news. Admittedly I wouldn’t trust a Burundian ATM as far as I could throw it (same goes for anywhere else in East Africa, except maybe Rwanda), and in fairness it is possible to take money out on a Visa card. However, it involves going to one specific bank in Bujumbura, waiting at the Western Union counter with card and passport, waiting while they call your bank and fill out several forms longhand, getting a receipt, and waiting at another counter where you can exchange that for money in Dollars or Euros, which you can then exchange for Burundian Francs. As you can imagine, it isn’t exactly efficient, and this carries through to local banking as well - whenever I go to the bank it’s rammed full of people waiting, sometimes for more than an hour, at long queues at each counter to withdraw money. That’s got to waste an awful lot of man-hours, both for the banks, and the rest of the economy, so if this ever happens I would probably see it as a good thing – if they can prevent them being significant targets for robbery and if people trust them.