Monday, July 20, 2009
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
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
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.
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
Wednesday, July 8, 2009
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.
Sunday, July 5, 2009
I literally catch my breath at the first glimps because the enormity of it is physically overwhelming.
I begin my actual exporation of the canyon which yields more managable pieces of information that help understand the whole thing.
I spend a great deal of time just looking at it from the inside. Eventually the larger than life hole in the ground takes on layers, textures, a rainbow of colors and many other distinguishing characteristics.
If I was a park ranger, Native American, rafting guide, or geologist I might with time understand it in a much deeper, fuller way and eventually come to accept the canyon as my everyday backdrop. I don't forsee life ever casting me in position to obtain that type of relationship to it though.
So it goes with travel to foreign places. The first days spent in Bujumbura nearly everything I saw was ashocking. Every social event felt like the most special moment in time. Hospitality so far from home and life as you know is accepted with the deepest gratitude. Every discovery of daily function feels like an important anthropolical theory.
Eventually, the initial sharpness of these experiences, sensations, and observations dulls and sensory processing creates a more realistic understanding of the new environment. I don't know that in four of five weeks here in Burundi I am going to obtain a reliable understanding of its people and their culture. I do know that I am kinda of, sort of, maybe starting to see beyond the enormous statement of poverty that informs every aspect of life here to see people going about their business in a dignified, very human way.
I write this because I feel torn between splashing sensational stories of life in Burundi, of which there are many, with giving sympathetic information that speaks to the human universals that we share. It is so easy to contrast Burundians' economic situation to Americans' and stop there. This seems to be a narrow, superficial interpretation of life. I just am not sure yet where to draw the line between money and the rest of the story.
Thursday, June 25, 2009
Even as I type there is a conflict of sound between that of a Burundian speaking on his cell phone in Kirundi, while the neighboring Methodist church conducts its all evening service and the sound of the evening Muslim call to prayer echo behind that somewhere. What Burundi lacks in economic standing it seems to make up for in a wealth of religious options. I write from one of the many Quaker outposts in the region and all the time I spend here is with the Quaker group African Great Lakes Initiative (AGLI) founded by David Zarembka. A Burundian woman named Alexia Nibona who once volunteered for AGLI was a driving force behind the formation of an HIV/AIDS clinic on the outskirts of Bujumbura. The clinic is partially operating as a place for those with HIV to receive counseling and antibiotics. It also does HIV and malaria testing. The structure still needs quite a bit of work before it would be considered completed. It lacks medicine, beds, and many other essentials for basic function. The idea behind the clinic is ambitious and desperately needed; the funding to make all of it possible has not yet been found. It sits in a prime location to serve the area's poorest. It is a challenge to drive a car down the road to the clinic. The dirt and rock roads are so pitted and potholed that even with the greatest of caution the car's underbelly receives a brutal scrape everytime we arrive. Car access isn't such a big deal though because no one who works there or would need the clinic's services has a vehicle. I am concerned about how much we can realistically accomplish this trip versus how much work the clinic really needs. More on that later.
Today we completed the second day or a three day workshop at the Kamenge clinic. For seven hours a day the last two days my fellow workcampers and I sat in a room with around 16 Burundians to participate in an AVP clinic. AVP stands for alternative to violence program and has its roots in the States where it was initially implemented as a program for prisoners. It has grown and been adopted all over the world. It is serving a couple purposes very well for the 20 of us this week. In addition to addressing the idea of violence, defining it, and exploring ways of avoiding it the workshop has brought together two very different cultures in a very unique way. We have talked about a huge variety of personal topics both one-on-one and as a group(with the help of an interpretter). We have played games together allowing for us to let our gaurds down and be silly in addition to eating and even occasionally singing. Language is still a gigantic hurdle to true understanding but I would like to believe that we have dismantled quite a bit of apprehension and preconceived notions about each other during the last couple of days' activities. We will continue to be referred to as Moobuzu (or something like that meaning "white person") but perhaps the idea of white person is a little less weird.
Most of the people we will be partnering with to build the clinic starting next week were in the workshop and I am pretty sure that the days spent this week in our Sunday best while talking about some of the worst aspects of humanity will make us more respectful and comfortable in each other's company than any other activity could have.
Pictures will be key to really explaining what it look like here. I will do my best to upload some as soon as possible. This for now will serve as commencement. Thanks for reading and feel free to email me if you have any questions. firstname.lastname@example.org
Saturday, April 11, 2009
Hello! I am long past due for an update on how plans for travel to Burundi are coming along. For starters I want to give a gigantic thank you to the many people who have donated so generously to the trip. With their help I have raised nearly $3000 for the work camp which is 75% of the goal!
One major development regarding the trip is that I was just granted permission to stay an extra week at the clinic to shadow Dr.Alexia Nibona, the director of the Friends Women Association http://www.fwaburundi.com/. I think it will be a great opportunity to not only observe a clinical setting outside of the U.S. but also learn from some people who have dedicated their lives to rebuilding the communities they live in through dedication and service.
Thanks again for your interest and support. I look forward to the day when I will be able to convey some first hand information. Feel free to email me with any questions email@example.com or check out the AGLI website. aglionline.org
Wednesday, January 28, 2009
The motto of Burundi perfectly sums up my motivation for wanting to go there this summer. Burundi is an area of high ethnic conflict-Burundi has a Hutu/Tutsi population that was swept up in the well publicized Rwandan genocide of 1994 (Burundi sits immediately below Rwanda). Conflict is ongoing but so are the efforts to rebuild and reunite. Being one of the poorest countries in the world means that progress is most likely going to hinge on some outside help. The primary thrust of this trip is to build the remaining three rooms onto a clinic that will gain it government recognition as an approved full clinic. The existing clinic serves some of the poorest residents of Bujumbura, Burundi's capitol city. The mission of the doctors and health care providers behind the project is to provide HIV screening and treatment for women and children with HIV/AIDS. When completed the building will have a small operating and delivery room which will serve the entire community in an ongoing effort to destigmatize those who do suffer from AIDS. Also, with recognition from the Ministry of Health the clinic will be eligible for medical and other products for laboratory grants from the Burundi government. Here is a link to more details regarding the project http://aglionline.org/Program/fwa.htm.
I will be traveling to Burundi with my fellow workcampers for four weeks in June and July. We will be staying with host families and working with locals for the entirety of the project.
My work starts today with a massive fundraising effort. Over the next four and a half months I need to raise $4500. This money covers airfare to Burundi, compensation to my host family and the necessary building supplies for the clinic. I need to raise the first $1800 by April 1st.
In my previous post I outline several fundraising incentives for donating. Details are to follow. In the meantime, if you feel inclined to donate to my cause, here are several options for doing so. By the way, The African Great Lakes Initiative (AGLI)is a registered 501 (c)3 not for-profit.
1. Make checks payable to:
Friends Peace Teams/AGLI
1001 Park Ave.
St. Louis, MO 63104-3720
make sure to put my name and "burundi" in the memo section of the check
2. You can also make an online donation by going to http://aglionline.org/get/donate.htm Please specify my name, Sarah Tillotson and Burundi when doing so. Online donations are good for up to $200 above and beyond that we ask that you send a check to the address give above.
Thank you so much for taking the time to read through the blog. Please email me with any questions. firstname.lastname@example.org
I will do my best to add content on the progress of fundtraising, incentives and the country of Burundi.
Mission of the African Great Lakes Initiative
The African Great Lakes Initiative (AGLI) of the Friends Peace Teams (a 501(c)3 not-for-profit organization) strengthens, supports, and promotes peace activities at the grassroots level in the Great Lakes region of Africa (Burundi, Congo, Kenya, Rwanda, Tanzania, and Uganda). To this end, AGLI responds to requests from local religious and non-governmental organizations that focus on conflict management, peace building, trauma healing, and reconciliation. AGLI sponsors Peace Teams composed of members from local partners and the international community.
Back-story: This past semester I was introduced to a vibrant woman belonging to the Quaker community. In retirement she has dedicated herself to the peace keeping objectives of a group of workers based in the African Great Lakes area which includes Rwanda, Uganda, Burundi, Kenya and Congo. The organization has been involved in these high-conflict areas providing, amongst other services, reconciliation workshops to impart local facilitators with resources for rebuilding communities fraught with post-civil war and genocidal issues. My Quaker acquaintance greatly inspired me to take part in the cutting edge work that she and her colleagues were promoting.
My Involvement: After much contemplation and communication with the African Great Lakes Initiative (AGLI) I decided that my time and effort would be best suited to volunteering in Bujumbura, the capitol of Burundi. In the poorest part of the city is an HIV/AIDS clinic for women and children established by a group called Friends of Peace. The community’s need for treatment has outgrown the facility. This summer’s workcamp will involve building an additional wing to the preexisting clinic. I will be living with a host African family and working 6-8 hours a day 6 days a week for 4 weeks assisting the African crew with erecting the much needed facility. I feel strongly about seizing the opportunity to give and facilitate the flow of resources to this effort. Even though the prevalence of AIDS in Africa is much publicized the stigma involved, especially in the ultra-conservative country of Burundi, strangles resources from being allocated to the infected. Part of the clinic’s mission is to broaden its primary care to the surrounding community.
The Need: Part of my commitment to AGLI is the promise to fundraise the necessary resources for the trip. This includes $1800 for airfare from D.C. to Burundi and $3200 for building supplies and compensation to my host family. I will also be collecting 50 LBS of over the counter drugs, children’s clothes, children’s books and school supplies to carry with me.
Fundraising! Here’s where the fun begins. Though I will gladly and appreciatively accept any dollar amount at any time for any reason, along the way I am going to offer donation incentives to make the process even more interesting. I have several ideas so far both are works in progress:
Salt Lake City Marathon Money: Run for Burundi
As part of trying to get fit for the hard physical labor that awaits me in Burundi and in an effort to raise money I have registered to run the Salt Lake City Marathon! This is a first for me and a definite challenge. Training has begun in earnest as I prepare for the big even on April 18th.
· Sign up to donate $1 (for example) for every Marathon Mile I complete. Assuming I finish the entire run your donation to the women and children served by the clinic will be $26.
· If that sounds like a good start but you would like to up the ante I challenge you to challenge me to run the marathon in under 4 hours. If this seemingly insurmountable feat is accomplished you contribute double the Marathon Mile amount-$52.
AGLI has set an initial fundraising deadline of April 1st for the first $1800. They do this to secure the cheapest flights possible to Burundi.
Please check out my blog created specifically for this trip. There you will find more information about the AGLI organization, the country of Burundi, current events stories relating to AIDS in Africa and correspondence about preparation for the trip including a fundraising tally. Once in Africa I will continue to correspond through blog posts to whoever is interested in the day-in day-out operations and experience.