Friday, 31 July 2009

Playing with the Boys

Yesterday it was an American called Tom (also known as Chief)’s birthday, so I bunked off work early in the afternoon to go to Bora Bora and play beach volleyball with the marines and other US Embassy staff. Which I’m pretty sure I’ve never played before, but which was actually pretty fun. Considering that I have more or less the worst hand-eye coordination in the world, and avoid ball sports like the plague, I was also less awful at it than I expected – definitely an experience to repeat! I also just about managed to avoid making any gratuitous Top Gun references… until now, that is!
The evening ended at the marine house watching movies and staring open-mouthed at their utterly sweet house – huge pool, gym, massive TV, playstation, airconditioning etc. At one level I was jealous, thinking grimly of my cold hand-held shower, but at another, it highlighted for me one of the big problems with expatriate living. They had everything shipped in from home, and really only talk to other Americans – with some honourable exceptions, they interact with Burundians so little that they might as well have stayed home. They have cars and drive themselves – so no need to get their heads around the local public transport. They never go to the market. They have their own hangouts and talk to each other (partly due to different tastes – I seem to like totally different places to my Burundian friends!).
The expatriate scene can be all-encompassing, fuelling its own assumptions and prejudices about the host country, and is a major problem when it comes to international agencies staffed by foreigners who never really interact with locals – causing a lack of understanding that can derail projects. Even when people want to get to know local people and the local scene, it can be difficult – they don’t know where to start, and anyway, there’s always another party to go to. This is definitely something I’ve experienced – when I lived in Uganda my HQ was very definitely Bubbles O’Leary’s, the Irish pub frequented by expats.
Here I’ve had the opposite experience – for the first month or so I didn’t have any bazungu friends, and instead I’ve made some great Burundian friends who I hope I will stay in touch with and maybe one day see again. Lack of transport and a determination to demonstrate my independence forced me to take on the mighty beasts of the local buses and the marche central – encounters that left me flustered, but more or less victorious. I’ve lived in Africa in a way I haven’t before – and I hope that I won’t go back.
Having said that, my month of total immersion did drive me slightly crazy, leaving me escaping to Rwanda for weekends. I realised that I do need to speak English, make jokes that I don’t have to explain, and, occasionally, laugh over Burundian idiosyncrasies (personally I still find the way they talk about Rwanda hilarious, but of course I can’t say that to Burundians!). In the last week I’ve finally made some bazungu friends, and jumped into the expat scene feet first – making up for lost time. Everyone is great, and I have fun with them. But I’m starting to feel claustrophobic already – obligations every night, and always the same people. And the guilty feeling that I’m neglecting my Burundian friends has crept into the pit of my stomach. Next week is my last week, and I think it’s time to leave expat land for Burundi.

Thursday, 30 July 2009

The Guinea Pig Who Lived

Bujumbura's star tourist attraction (read: only tourist attraction) is the musee vivante, billed as a reconstruction of a Burundian village with some animal exhibits. Really the village reconstruction consists of a couple of huts in a compound, and the visit mostly consists of visiting snakes and imaginatively-named crocodiles of varying sizes as well as a couple of antelope (the guide, who was not the most knowledgeable I have ever met, was unable to tell me what kind of antelope), some fish, a leopard, and some chimpanzees.

Now, those of you familiar with African Zoos will have guessed that the standards of animal care leave something to be desired in comparison with Western Zoos. To the extent that Lisa dubbed it
the 'musee torture' The leopard's cage was a bit on the small side, but at least had a tree in it for him to climb - and apparently until a few weeks ago he was in a cage that was literally about 2 metres by one, so they're improving. The antelopes had enough room, and it's not too hard to provide for a snake, but I had mixed feelings about the chimps - on the one hand, they were able to climb in the their enclosure and were interacting with all sorts of people from their position near the gate - but on the other, and maybe because they're so human, it hurts to see them locked up.

All that said, I've been saving the best till last. There are about a dozen crocodiles in varying sizes (the largest named 'Lacoste'!). The enclosures aren't too bad - but the zoo's star attraction is to allow you to feed the crocodiles with live guinea pigs! Unfortunately when we went they'd just been fed - but the guide made up for it by poking them with sticks until they woke up! One of them seemed to get off on it, but the others made up for it by lunging and snapping at the guide and stick. But when my friend Morgan and two of the marines went, they were luckier, able to enjoy the star attraction to the full. I'll let you read it in her own words, but here's the crucial bit:

The last attraction was the baby crocodile pen. The guide jumped in and, with swiftness and confidence, grabbed the baby crocodile, which was about a foot long, by the snout and tail, securing its jaws firmly shut. He passed it to us to hold, giving us careful directions about how to hold it so as to not lose a finger. We each took hold of it (it urinated on one of the guys…it wasn’t his lucky day) and felt its smooth underbelly and rough skin.

The guide then asked us if we wanted to feed it. We did, and he brought back a baby guinea pig (the regular ones were too big for him). This was my Achilles heel, and I should have known it. The baby he brought back was adorable, and fit in the palm of my hand. I made the mistake of holding it—of building rapport—and gave it a little kiss before passing it along. Unlike the others, I couldn’t watch this one.

Meanwhile, the boys were yelling at the crocodile, making it seem like a speedy end had not befallen this little guinea pig. I went back to the pen to see the crocodile snapping, but missing every time. He went for it no less than five times, and failed. Finally, the crocodile gave up, swimming away.

We decided that this little guinea pig had earned his stripes. We retrieved him from the water, and, cupping him in my hands, where he was trembling violently from cold and fear, we decided to keep him. The guide told us that he was injured, that he wouldn’t live—but in fact, he hadn't suffered so much as a scratch. And so we carried him out of the Musee Vivant, and he will live at the Marine House, with endless quantities of carrot shavings and lettuce. We named him Harry Potter—because he was the guinea pig who lived.

Harry has now been adopted by the marines, given a bath, found a little box to live in, fed and watered. He (actually, we've decided, probably a she) seems to be thriving - updates to follow.

And as if just the story wasn't cute enough, here's a picture of Morgan with Harry

Disarming Burundi

UPDATE: I have now uploaded two videos of the ceremony, which you can see here.

Last week I was fortunate enough to be able to attend a disarmament ceremony in Muramvya Commune, Rutegama Province, in the middle of the country. Getting there was pretty stressful - found out I needed to be at the Gare du Nord while still in bed and about half an hour before I had to be there, so got a taxi there, and found Amable, CEDAC’s youth coordinator, waiting for me. We got a share-taxi up to Muramvya, where we arrived half an hour before the ceremony was due to start, and an hour before it actually started; Burundian time. Amable was very apologetic but I didn’t mind at all - it gave me time to take pictures of the weapons being handed in, watch the performance of traditional dancers (as well as the ubiquitous drumming group, they also had a women’s dance group, who were very good, even if the dance did involve a slightly-incongruous blowing of whistles).

Dance Group
Dance Group
Women's Dance Group
Women's Dance Group
Drumming Celebrations
Drumming Celebrations

I was impressed by the number of people at the ceremony - the whole town had turned out, dressed in Sunday best and patiently waiting for the ceremony to begin. When it finally began, we had speeches from Amable, a local dignatory, and a man from the Disarmament Commission. All the speeches talked of peace - I could pick out the word amahoro - and were greeted with cheers and dancing by the drummers at dramatic moments in the speeches. The speech by the representative of the Disarmament Commission went on for some time - he name-checked the President a few times and, although the crowd started enthusiastic (the CNDD-FDD are strong in this area), they were waning a bit by the end. But on the whole it was an occasion filled with celebration and hope.

The weapons being handed in
The weapons being handed in

After the ceremony, I had the opportunity to talk to the representative from the Disarmament Commission. Speaking in excellent English, he told me that they had up to 4 of these ceremonies a week, but that they are concentrated at the end of the month, so that there are 6 or 7 a month. He also told me that this will be one of the last ceremonies, as at the end of next month a new law will come into force making possession of a firearm illegal, meaning that the country will effectively move to a system of forcible disarmament.

This is something that in many ways makes sense - there has been a transition period, and it seems like a good idea to minimise the number and legitimacy of weapons before the election - but I also have serious misgivings. If people are holding on to their guns, they often do so for a reason; this is particularly the case in Burundi, where the army has often been a participant in intercommunal violence and, despite the peace agreement and integration of the army, many people still feel that they’d be wise to be cautious. Even more worryingly, there are risks of selective disarmament; the government can only check up on areas that politically oppose them, thus giving their supporters a monopoly of violence by the election. Finally, and less concretely, I have a knee-jerk reaction against anything that seems authoritarian; what I like about this country is precisely that it has not gone down the authoritarian route in the way that some of its neighbours have, and it would worry me if this changed. I have yet to discuss this with any Burundians (I know that Adrien and Claver are reading, so I’d be interested to know what you think!) but hope to do so later in the week, and will update with any insights they are able to give me.

Wednesday, 29 July 2009

A Trip to Congo

(Reposted from an earlier version here)

So while I was in Rwanda last weekend, I was able to follow up my long-held ambition to visit DRC – mainly so that I can say I’ve been (already added it to the facebook ‘where I’ve been’!), but also because I’ve always thought it would be really interesting to go and just have a better image of what it’s like than you get from the news (even if only a little bit better). And I’m really glad I did – I’m still having a little trouble processing, but thought I’d post some of my reflections, and I’d be interested to know what people thought.
The first point is one made well by Richard Dowden in his new book, but which I’ve also picked up from reading fellow Peace Fellow Walter’s blog from Uvira; Congo doesn’t function like a state. You have to pay a lot of bribes (Walter to get his passport back from a random guy, and on our trip Parker paid a $20 bribe to get out after forgetting his yellow fever certificate, and that was only within about 4 hours), and even in the centre of town there are barely the modicum of services; things like piles of trash EVERYWHERE, no need to change money because no-one uses anything but dollars, etc*. Then there’s the usual war-zone stuff – but taken to a whole new level. Normally there are a lot of NGO cars and a lot of UN air-conditioned vehicles. Here there were barely any NGO cars and barely any UN civilian cars – but a host of UN military vehicles, petrol tankers, and the like, and a massively fortified base complete with airstrip. Proof that the development enterprise has yet to hit – just too dangerous to work effectively.
A UN Truck in Town
There's also obviously massive poverty - even in the centre of town, the standard of housing is poor, there are a lot of ragged and malnourished street children (we spotted one chewing an electric wire), and almost no cars except those owned by the UN. Also, as you would expect, there is lava everywhere and are a lot of houses in various states of disrepair. Interestingly many of them had pretty new-looking roofs, which would presumably have been nicked had they been there long; this suggests that they’re being built – but who would build big fancy lakefront houses in Goma?
A street in Central Goma
A kid chewing a bit of electrical wire
That bit was the depressing stuff – but the real reason I’m glad I went was that it made it more three-dimensional than what you see on TV; Congo isn’t just warlords and fighting and women getting raped; it also has towns where, despite everything, people cope. They use matatus and moto-taxis like everywhere else in the region. On Sundays they get out their best outfits – well made out of beautiful pagnes – and go to church – we visited one that had an altar cloth using a cut up ICRC badge for the cross. When they need to transport stuff they build wooden push-bikes that they attach dozens of jerry cans to; the technology is medieval, but it works and they can build and fix it themselves. There were also signs of 21st century Africa, with adverts for mobile phones everywhere - but unlike everywhere else, they take up all the shopfronts, showing how utterly the Congolese economy has collapsed. Visiting Goma is depressing and in the context of Congo's vast mineral wealth it is a monument to war and the resulting poverty. But it is also a testament to human ingenuity; it made me realise how people are adaptable; being born Congolese is a pretty bum deal, but people cope, and do everything they can to help themselves – to put it crudely, they don’t need saving, they need a little help, and if they get it they’ll use it imaginatively to get the most they possibly can out of it.
A Red Cross altar cloth
One of the wooden push-carts
Lastly, there was the element that was simply weird; Bujumbura is, at times, faintly threatening. Congo takes it to a whole new level. The whole time we were there we were followed by a guy with a rock, which slightly scuppered our attempt to walk out of town. He didn’t try anything, he just followed us with a rock; at first we thought he was going to rob us, later we wondered if he was going to claim to have been our protector and ask for money. But he didn’t ask, so we have no idea; he just followed us with his rock for three hours, occasionally throwing the rock at a passing UN vehicle and choosing another, and foiling all our attempts to lose him by going to church.
Our follower. The rock is in the hand away from the camera
I apologise that this post is a little rambling; as I say, haven’t quite managed to put it all together, but I’d be interested to hear any responses!
*As an aside, my father always makes me that $1 bills with me when I travel on the basis that they're useful for paying for stuff. I've never once found this to be true, and am pretty sure that the $1 bills I brought with me this time are the same ones I took when I first went travelling, in 2003. But here there were pretty useful, so I guess I should thank him!
And lastly... the volcano warning board. We were on Yellow
Update: my friend Lisa’s thoughts on our visit to Goma. Reposting them because they're different to mine, which I found interesting.
The DRC’s Goma, and Rwanda’s Gisenyi, situated right next to one another, could not be farther apart. On Sunday morning, we - Bryan, Laura, my housemate Parker, and I - crossed over the border into the Congo.  The city - if you can really call it that - is covered in dried lava, litter, United Nations vehicles, and poverty.  As we walked through the town, we quickly learned that there was not much to see or do other than avoid being attacked by the guy following us carrying a large rock (he threw the rock at passing UN trucks, but each time retrieved it and continued his stalking of the four muzungus).
I have done policy and advocacy work for the DRC, studied its history and current events in grad school, and have always wanted to visit.  But, perhaps I had not given enough thought to the widespread poverty and the deteriorating security situation.  It wasn’t until I returned that I got an email from Walter, the AP fellow living in Uvira, who told me that “visiting Goma would not be a good idea, especially since there are civilian massacres going on up there.”  Our short time in Goma was not only scary, but depressing.  As Goma is only one small town in a massive country experiencing these symptoms throughout, is there any hope for recovery?
There are some organizations doing great work in and on the DRC.  Women for Women, which I visited in Rwanda, is also in Congo (which is where I sponsor a sister).  My old organization, ENOUGH, has a bunch of interesting advocacy campaigns going on (and I have been hanging out with the coordinators of the Congo campaign this weekend, learning more about what they are doing).  I will continue to support these efforts, and I know that they are making a difference, but walking through the wasteland of Goma and seeing its children with the bad fortune of simply being born there, left me feeling quite hopeless.

Visiting Rwanda

(Reposted from an earlier version here)

After Bujumbura, Kigali came as a major culture shock. Rwanda’s roads are well known among old East Africa hands, but it still comes as a shock every time. Riding the taxi-moto, I kept bracing myself for the potholes that didn’t come. Walking to the restaurant in the evening, I kept noticing new things – like street lights and pavements – that in some ways seem so natural but in others are downright weird. I found the whole thing very disconcerting, but it was good to be in a country where everything works for a change, and good to see Lisa again and meet Bryan.

We spent the first evening in Kigali, where we had a great Chinese meal with some of Lisa’s friends, who were mostly American but some Europeans, then the next morning up early to get a bus to Gisenyi. We got there in the early afternoon, found a hotel recommended by one of Lisa’s friends, and checked in. Then waited hours for lunch. Lisa, Parker (her housemate in Kigali) and I had all ordered pizza – which turned out to be a mistake, as it resembled nothing so much as a hard bread base with pasta sauce on top like a layer of soup. I actually didn’t find it that bad once I scraped off the pasta sauce, replaced the cheese, and ate the pasta sauce separately, but I was in the minority!

After lunch, we headed to the beach to lie in the sun for a few hours – we used ‘muzungu power’ to walk purposefully into the Serena Hotel, to use their private beach, which was stunning and avoided inevitable uncomfortableness on the public beach next door. The beach was stunning, and the lake great to swim in – a little cold at first, and a bit of a rocky floor in a band just off the shore, and a little bit of an undertow, but that was made up for by the lack of salt, and the waves to play in, bringing out my inner three-year-old. We stayed to watch the sunset, and when the most spectacular rays had passed, wandered back into town – and on the way found a performance by the most incredibly talented acrobatics group. Unfortunately none of us had our flip camera with us, but I got one picture and I think Lisa and Bryan took some photos, some of which will hopefully come out. They were amazing though, leaping and tumbling over one another and forming the most amazing pyramids. Embarrassingly, after the performance they came over and shook hands with Lisa and I; but if you’re ever in Gisenyi on a Saturday night it’s worth wandering down to the park by the Serena to see if they’re there.

For dinner, we followed our hotel’s recommendation and headed to White Rock, a restaurant by the lake. This turned out to be a Good Decision – one of the best meals I’ve had since I got here, delicious Tilapia in a butter sauce, with potatoes and vegetables, and a crepe with lemon and sugar for desert (the Americans found my pronunciation of ‘crepe’ very amusing) . Then off to bed – slightly challenging as it was a pretty dark night and none of us had a torch – spotting the glowing red of Goma’s volcano on the way. Went to sleep hoping that there wouldn’t be any eruptions or mudslides in the night that might cause Lake Kivu to explode and kill us all, then up in the morning to follow my long-held ambition of going to Congo – on which, a separate post above!