Sunday, 30 August 2009
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
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.
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
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
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
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.
Courtesy of Huy, here's another picture of Harriet (formerly Harry) Potter, the Guinea Pig Who Lived, which I think is pretty much the cutest thing ever! She's doing well, has a new, larger box, and was in the cup while Huy was cleaning out her cage, although she now really likes the cup, which (on its side) is now a permanent feature of her cage. She likes to back into it and hide; we're a little concerned that this may be a sign of ongoing trauma, but we're hopeful that with love and support she'll recover her mental state soon!
Tuesday, 4 August 2009
This one shows the scene just before the ceremony started - you can see the townspeople there in Sunday Best, the women’s dance group and traditional musicians waiting to perform, the drummers performing, and a group of former combatants waiting for the ceremony - as well as the weapons ready to be handed in:
This one is a clip of a traditional Burundian women’s dance, performed by one of the best groups in the country. The musicians are in pink shirts on the right of the screen, although the women are (slightly incongruously) blowing the whistles.
Monday, 3 August 2009
There’s a new report out by Human Rights Watch on Gay Rights in Burundi – which in pretty dire straits at the moment after a law passed earlier this year criminalising homosexual behaviour and making it punishable by up to two years in jail. The law was heavily promoted by the party of the President, Pierre Nkrunziza, who is, surprise surprise, a born again Christian. As well as shepherding the provision through the legislature, his party organised anti-homosexuality protests in Bujumbura. This report, which includes photographs and the stories of young gay Burundians, makes incredibly powerful reading, and I would strongly recommend it.
Unfortunately, such restrictions are far from unusual in Africa; only South Africa allows same-sex marriages, and Cape Verde, Benin, Cote d’Ivoire, Guinea-Bissau, Chad, DRC, Congo-Brazzaville, Equatorial Guinea, CAR and Gabon, Madagascar, and Rwanda allow homosexuality. That’s only 13 out of 53 countries in Africa. (Disclaimer: This information came from wikipedia). Politicians in many countries, including neighbouring Uganda, have been fairly strident in their opposition to allowing homosexuality. Uganda’s Ethics and Integrity Minister (bloated cabinets? Heaven forbid) recently claiming that it represented ‘moral destruction’ (h/t wronging rights). Even where it is legal, gays and lesbians face significant problems and discrimination – the BBC has recently produced a number of articles on the horrifying and little-punished practice of ‘corrective rape’ in South Africa.
This issue has obvious Human Rights implications, but, as the report points out, the problems caused by discrimination go deeper than a simple ban on sex. Young gay people risk economic problems if they are deliberately failed by their teachers or kicked out of home by their parents; it is this fear of economic marginalisation, as much as that of social marginalisation or retributive violence by individuals or the state, that keeps them closeted. Worse still, it creates problems in preventing HIV/AIDS, as gay people may be uniformed about how to prevent infection, or may fear going for tests, meaning the infection spreads further. This law will make things far worse – making it even harder for gay people to access information on safe sex, and making it dangerous for them to report rapes – something which, this report makes clear, is a common occurrence for both men and women.
However, because I don’t want to end on a downer, I also want to draw out something positive. Many of the young people interviewed say that even if their families have initially thrown them out, they have grown to understand, and even where they have not, others have offered help and understanding. Even in unpropitious circumstances associations are forming to support gay people and advocate for change. It may be a long time coming, but I hope that in a decade or two’s time we will look back and see these laws as the last gasp of repression.
Saturday, 1 August 2009
Rant over, I feel pretty awful for the family – they all live in Canada and it’s a pretty miserable way to come back to your homeland after absences of ten years. On top of that, they’ve had to organise last-minute leave and pay for plane tickets, which can’t be cheap, and Brian and Nana have been really good to me this summer, so I’m glad to help where I can. I’ve also found it interesting to learn about Burundian funeral preparations – African funerals generally pull out all the stops, to the extent that funeral costs have been one of the major causes of the impoverishment that has followed the HIV/AIDS epidemic. The Burundian deuil is also interesting; every night, the family and friends of the deceased person gather to support the family – an illustration of the communality of Burundian living. To be honest, that sounds like my worst nightmare; like most Westerners, I like my personal space, particularly when bad stuff happens, and being constantly surrounded by dozens of people sounds highly stressful and like it would make things worse.
I think this difference is perhaps the most important one between (many) African and (many) (Northern) Western cultures – the insistence on or lack of understanding of personal space. It has physical elements – one of the things Westerners here complain about is that Burundians are very tactile – but also social elements – Burundian friends have tended to express a total lack of comprehension when I’ve said that I like to sit at home and read sometimes. I also wonder if it feeds into things like semi-obsessive church attendance – several Burundians have flat-out refused to believe me when I claim that it’s possible to pray in private!
In case it’s unclear, I’m not criticising this communality – it brings enormous benefits in terms of mutual support, though I think that privacy also has a place – just commenting that despite years and years in Africa, this still gives me a culture shock. And I’m looking forward to getting back somewhere where people don’t feel the need to touch me all the time during conversation!