Monday, July 20, 2009

Sunday School

Our minibus chugged, grinded and churned its way across the city, every mechanical part of it long past worn out. I liked our driver though, he was aggressive and driven, and I felt hopeful that we would make record time out to the Kamenge church. A few minutes passed between that thought and our bus slamming into the back of a car full of Sunday morning church goers. Before our driver even exited the bus he was on a full-fledged rant, bellowing and gesturing in a highly aggressive manner. Everyone on the bus stretched their necks to watch as he confronted the 5 or so people who climbed out of the car. Nobody was pleased and I was concerned about how the situation would progress from there. With my powers of prediction totally on the fritz, I was surprised when our driver pointed to a thin stream of blood dripping down the top of his sandeled foot clearly an injury sustainted during the accident, which had the amazing effect of defusing all tension from the situation. The car passengers immediately softened, smiled a concession and drove off. We were back on our way.

Once in church situated at the very back instead of the very front for a change, the many choirs of Kamenge filed on and off stage blasting the audience with exuberant worship songs. We were seated on the womens' half of the church and the bench in front of us contained a mixture of moms and young children. One mom had a napping baby on her back while her very young daughter stood on the pew entertaining herself with a very gruesome looking decapitated doll's head. The doll's pale skin was in desperate need of a washing, one eye pointed north while the other one was stuck looking south. One or two hairs clung to the head but were not enough for even the most basic comb-over. After a few minutes the girl's mother tied the doll head to the little girl's back with a bit of cloth the same way that all women carry children around. My focus on the child was interrupted with a long announcement coming from the church pastor. Our interpreter notified us that he was warning the church of a cholera outbreak in Kamenge.

Back at home, we sat on the HROC computers researching cholera. Love in the Time of Cholera aside I knew very little about it. Our investigation was interrupted when we heard a loud crash coming from somewhere nearby. We live a few feet away from a construction site and thought that the ruckus came from there, but the many people in the vicinity were not acting the least bit perturbed. Bethany went back inside our compound and discovered that the ceiling in the extra guest room, which had been vacated by a woman from Kenya that morning, had collapsed.

Later in the evening Shannon, Bethany and I were invited to Alexia's house for dinner. We spent many hours before the meal chatting with her husband, Charles and some of the dozen teenagers they support by way of housing and school fees. Charles is an intelligent and passionate man with a big heart. He is a leader in his community and church and if all goes well he will be obtaining his masters in the US sometime soon. I had some questions about the district of Kamenge, the part of town where the clinic is. Charles and Alexia live up in the hills, which is a much more affluent and peaceful part of town then the slum neighborhood of Kamenge, yet they and many other people within our Burundian circle of friends, choose to attend that church. The Sunday we sat up front in the church I stared at what I suspected and later had confirmed were machine gun holes in the wall behind the preacher. The roof has significant damage to it as well as many gaps allowing sunlight and rain to come through. In a city so full of church options and in the case of the clinic, so full of need, why was Kamenge singled out as the quarter that everyone focused on?

The first and most obvious answer was that Kamenge was a Friends Church and that was their denomination. But the more complete answer has to do with history. Alexia and Charles began telling the story of how they grew up in Kamenge. It was never an affluent area but it was an established neighborhood with nice homes comprised of about 80% Hutus and 20% Tutsis. In 1993, after years of colonial oppression which was managed by the minority Tutsis after Burundi gained independence, the Hutu majority democratically elected a president. This was a momentous turning point for the Hutus who in the 70's had been "cleansed" of all there educated members, leaving several generations to willfully remain out of the education system for fear that this would lead them to the same grave as their mothers and fathers. With the election of one of their own the hope for opportunity seemed possible. Four months after the Hutu president was elected he was murdered in a gruesome, drawn out manner. Every inch of him that was slowly severed sent a message to the people who had elected him.

Charles said he had never heard guns before that day. Following the the president's assassignation the sky exploded with bombs and over 300,000 people were killed. Kamenge was the front line in the civil war between the government army and the rebel groups. Everything but the church was demolished over time. Nothing lived in Kamenge for two years. Eventually some who fled the country began to trickle back and built homes over the bones of their neighbors and family. The first workcamp dug up many bones. I encountered the distal end of a femur when clearing the garden. It may have been from a cow, but Charles and Alexia saw the killing and would put their money on human. But still, in the midst of the story Alexia throws her head back and says "I love Kamenge".

There's so much I don't understand. I hear the stories from Burundians and listen to those around me rehash the conclusions drawn from academics, ambassadors and peace workers who have studied ethnic violence in the region. It's a big story coming out of a small country. In one day I can hear first hand accounts of unthinkable violence, yet see how a trickle of blood on a man's foot will dissolve the anger of the victims and absolve the guilt of the offender. The beauty in Burundi is how, after the ceiling has fallen in, Burundians have reclaimed what is theirs. They have taken Kamenge in its decapitated state with one eye up and one eye down, and tied it to their backs with the hope of nuturing it back to wholeness.

Saturday, July 18, 2009

Feeling a Bit Peckish

Driving home on the minibus yesterday I entertained myself by making faces at the baby sitting in the seat in front of me. Babies are generally really happy here as they get carried around on their mother's back wrapped snugly in a piece of cloth. Typically a sure fire way to frighten a young child is to show them a white person. It is a right of passage of sorts. Mothers will go out of their way to show their children a white person. If the child is young enough they tend to have a fairly negative reaction to the Mzungu. This makes sense to me, I do look pretty different from the people they are accustomed to seeing. As it turns out the there is more to the response then just shock of a white person, evidently parents like to tell their children that Mzungus eat kids. I would cry too.

I have heard this from so many people now that I nod and laugh along with the recounting of this Burundian wives' tale taking my place as butt of the joke. Yesterday while attempting to dig a hole in the ground with a machete I got into a heated discussion with one of my Burundian partners about this "myth". He told me that he learned in school that the colonizers of Burundi actually did eat children. For some reason this riled me up a bit. I told him that I did not believe that the white people came and cannibalized children. Of course the things that white man did were not without evil but can we draw the line somewhere? "Adonise", I said, "What if I told you we believed that Burundians ate Mzungu babies, what would you think of that?" That was not even possible, utterly ridiculous he claimed. I said it was the same thing but his mind was not going to be changed. I decided to sulk.

Later at lunch, I fell into a conversation about baby showers with our boss Alexia, the doctor of the clinic. She was explaining how there is a special ceremony to mark a woman's passage, after a time of rest, back into daily life after giving birth to a baby. It serves as a baby shower at the end of which the women at the ceremony tie the baby onto the woman's back with cloth. I liked this concept and explained that in the States we have the party for an expecting mother before she gives birth. This was received with surprise and Alexia confirmed that I meant before anyone had even seen the baby. In a place where infant mortality has one of the highest rates in the world (16th highest in 2006, U.S. was just ahead of Croatia but behind New Caledonia) saving the party for after the dangers of childbirth is probably sensible. Alexia said that the explanation for this was because people believed that women could give birth to animals. After my argument about European cannibals I felt like the ground was too shaky to laugh at the comment as an obvious myth. I asked if she had ever seen anyone give birth to an animal. She said no, but upcountry she thinks this is what people call severely deformed babies.

All these things were on my mind as I stared at the baby on the bus. His mother took his tiny hand and made him wave a friendly hello to me but his furrowed brow showed signs of uncertainty. I then blew a huge bubble with my Gorrilla gum which is usually my ace in the hole crowd pleaser with the under 10 crowd. This made the child shriek with fear. Oh great, I thought, how is this going to go down in the history books?

Monday, July 13, 2009

The Things They Carried

As I struggled home from the city market with my Boise Coop bag full of supplies for that night's farewell party for an Extended Stay Volunteer who was heading back to the States, I cursed the weight of the bottle of cooking oil that was largely responsible for the circulation being cut off to my hand. I shifted the bag from one hand to the other and at that moment a young man came trotting past me with five cases of cooking oil balanced on his head. By my rough estimate each case would have contained 6 bottles of oil making that a grand total of 3o bottles all pressing down on him. Everyday you see a wide variety of items gigantic and small being transported in this fashion no less impressive than the boxes of oil. I suppose because I was struggling with my one bottle carried inefficiently at my side this particular display awed me.

I have seen a dining room table and chairs balanced on a man's head, lumber, and huge containers of water is a common sight; it would seem that nothing is off limits. Of course the street vendors carry huge baskets of mangos, bananas, passion fruit and avocados around. There are the young boys who comb the crowds with boxes of candy, gum (strawberry flavored Obama gum is really good) and cigarettes. Or there are the ubiquitous "protein pushers" the little guys who would make Aktins dieters proud by balancing a couple dozen hard boiled eggs and packets of peanuts all over town.

Like China and Holland, bikes are used for commuting people throughout the capitol and its countryside. Personally, my heart warms when I see families of four perched on one bike. The bicycle taxis are everywhere and passengers rarely hop onto the rear rack empty handed; recently I saw a man with a live goat in his arms. My all-time favorite object stapped to a bicycle rack was a rather cumbersome bench seat from a vehicle.

In addition to the physical burdens carried on the bikes and backs of many Burundians is the much less evident but very real weight of recent conflict. At the Kamenge clinic there is a medical assistant named Claire. In our AVP workshop we had to assign ourselves alliterative adjective names. Croyante Claire was what she chose meaing "believer" in French. Everything about Claire is soft, gentle and positive. She speaks quietly with a big smile and a glowing face making her a perfect fit for counseling the women who come to the clinic fearful of the illness they or their children may carry. During a lull in work she began telling us in broken English about how out of her family of 9 only she and one of her brothers have found each other post-Rwandan genocide. She told us that she and her husband are of mixed Hutu/Tutsi ethnicity and ended up across the border in Burund. She says this all with a smile.

Earlier this week I was clearing weeds for the garden project next to a young man who recounted the violence that he remembers seeing as he was growing up. Were it not so tragic, it almost would have been funny how I had to guess the weapon while he pantomimed spear, machete, and machine gun that he witnessed those around him murdered with. There are so many stories-ten years is a long time to be steeped in civil war. Stoically, many Burundians balance a difficult history with them as they go about their days. Watching them do it with grace challenges and inspires me to carry my own burdens in a more efficient manner.

YouTube Link to Tour of the Kamenge Clinic

Hopefully this link below will take you to a virtual tour of the clinic. If the link doesn't work try going to YouTube and entering FWA Kamenge Clinic.

For the Burundi Record

Do not panic if you find yourself sitting through a seven hour ceremony that commenced at 8am just after tea and breakfast when half way through (at the time you never would imagine that the 3.5 hr mark was only halfway) you develop an urgently full bladder. Just because public bathrooms are generally not available at massive public gatherings and indeed at the moment there are thousands of eyes looking in your direction because your white skin has placed you in dignitary seating behind a gigantic podium where a very important man has been making loud proclamations for a really long time, doesn't mean there aren't bathroom options. Count your lucky stars that your Burundian friend is sitting nearby and that one of the five languages she speaks is the only one that you do and try to gently communicate in a veiled way that you have this issue.
Don't feel awkward when you stand up in front of all of those thousands of eyes to make your way past the police with the AK 47's there to protect this Quaker celebration. Feel confident in your friend when she leads you down a dirt foot path through a banana tree grove to the first house you come to and knock on the door. Do not worry when you ascertain that no one is home and are told to use their outhouse anyway. While you are crouching do be mindful of your aim. Lastly, do not feel shy about the 25 children who have been following you the whole time.

Thursday, July 9, 2009

Culture Clash

Patrick said it was in evitable and perhaps he is right. We came to a stage in the construction process that seems for the moment to have created a rift in our once happy cross-cultural workcamp.

My fellow workcampers and I had been warned at orientation that actually doing work at the camp would prove difficult. Women in Burundi do not do construction projects. The culture is still very traditional in many ways. When I first arrived here I was perplexed by the seeming lack of women. You can walk past 50 men on the street and see perhaps one or two women amongst them (usually the women walk together). I have asked several Burundians, "Where are all the women" and they usually laugh and say at home taking care of the children. Even at church services the pews are mostly men. Domestic duties are not a part-time job. I have not entered a household yet that has running water. Electricity is not common either (we attended a lovely birthday celebration in the dark). Where we are staying, which I thought was a bit of a dive until I came to understand the context of living conditions here, we have indoor plumbing and electricty. There is no stove though and all food is prepared over hot coals in the kitchen or outside. This is standard for most households. Meals take 3 hours or so to prepare. When we sit down to a dinner and see 5 pots of food present I know that whoever is cooking for us that evening went all out.

Anyway, all that to say women have their hands full with big families and the many challenges providing for them entails. They are not out building clinics. For the most part we have been in charge of what I call "logistics". Forgive me if I already wrote abou this. Up until yesterday we kept relatively busy moving dirt, sand, wood and heavy stones around the worksite. Happily the clinic is at the point where its bare brick walls can be sealed with a plaster-like substance. All of a sudden our work force came to a standstill to watch one man splatter the stuff on the walls with a trowel. I thought this was the case because we had a lack of tools so I asked the young man who has been helping translate between Kirundi and English for us if we could buy more trowels so that everyone might be able to work. This suggestion was not met with approval. The skilled Burundian workers had suffered our unorthodox behavior long enough and for some reason this really irked him. He challenged me to do the work myself. I tried to explain that this was not the point. I did not want to do it by myself I wanted us all to work together.

Shannon, Bethany and I have swallowed this now. We have nothing to prove, the point is to see the clinic completed and with or without our direct involvement it is making slow but steady progress. In the meantime, we have hatched a new plan to keep us occupied and productive. The clinic owns a swath of land behind it that Dr. Alexia hopes to one day build a hospital on. For now it is covered in weeds and litter. At the far end of the property is a restaurant. It is a very small wooden shack with an outdoor area for food preparation-this is where our daily lunches come from. We have asked and been granted permission to dig up the land to make it ready for cultivation. We thought that by converting the unused land into garden space we could provide an extra source of income/food for the patients of the clinic and provide fresh food for the restaurant. Alexia thinks this is a very good idea so today we will start to hoe. We will have to figure out how to make a bamboo fence and a reliable system for irrigation. If anyone has any suggestions for gardenting in East Africa I would love to hear them.

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Bike Racing In Burundi

Every morning upon arrival to the clinic my fellow workcampers, Shannon and Bethany, and I are greeted by swarms of children from the surrounding community. The first days of work I thought the attention was delightful and spent time playing with them in the dirt road. Kids in Burundi are numerous. There is never just one or two of them there are 10 or 30 or 50 of them. I think all those pathetic commercials on TV with the one forlorn child covered in flies is funny because it is so inaccurate-no child is ever just one. Fairly quickly we realized that we would have to tone it down a little. The other people at the clinic: workers and staff alike, weren't too happy with a million children underfoot.

Most of our building supplies such as big stones, dirt, and sand are dumped outside the clinic's security wall and we spend a good portion of the day relocating those items into the worksite. When we are outside the wall a crowd tends to form to watch with awe and pleasure (I think?) at the Muzungos (nice white people). The children are boldest and come up with all kinds of funny little things to say to grab our attention. A few of the children are committed fans and whenever they see us yell out our names over and over again.

What does this have to do with bike racing? Well my best buddy, a little boy named Cajolle, came by the clinic in the afternoon. For the first time in the two weeks of us being here he had on a new change of clothes. The very poor children of Kamenge eat only slightly more frequently than they get a change of clothes from what I hear. Bethany, Shannon and I started making a fuss about his fancy new clothes. I saw on the front of his shirt a bike racer graphic and when I examined it more closely saw that it was a commemorative t-shirt from a local race in Arlington Heights, IL that I raced in-same year and everything! In a country where the only concept more foreign than bike racing is the idea of a woman riding a bike it was thrilling to see that I still had relavance. And if women's bike racing means something to at least one person in a half finished HIV/AIDS clinic in an impoverished war torn neighborhood in one of the poorest countries in the world perhaps there is hope for the sport.

If and when I can upload pictures I will post his picture.