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.

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