At least once a week, I sit back for a moment, take a deep breath, and wonder how it is that I got to this place. The place could be less-than-pleasant, perhaps inhaling a tactile cloud of black soot as a sickly Chinese-made truck rattles past on the road. Or, in the case of my moment last week, perched on the top of a hill in Burundi, the spread of Lake Tanginyka below, the surface dotted with the lights of fishermen seeking a nighttime catch and the cosmos above, diamond stars scattered over an inky blanket. I’m sitting on a bench, surrounded by the staff of Village Health Works, drinking warm Amstel. How did I get here?
Hills [even further] from home: Upcountry Burundi by day
It’s a more metaphysical question, as the logistics are easy enough: 2 hour bus to Kigali and 35-minute flight to hop the Southern border (in a small airplane with propellers that would impress the pants off my 3 year-old nephew). It took more time to wind down from the north of Rwanda to the capital city than it did for the plane to pop up, whirr through clouds for a few minutes, and touch down at the Bujumbura airport, a fantastic architectural wonder that looks like a cross between a carton of cement eggs and a memorial edifice to the death of the Soviet Union. My heart ached a little for Poland’s cement urban landscapes as I walked the tarmac to the terminal marked arrivée. Unlike Rwanda, which summarily rejected francophonia in 2008, Burundi is still heavily mired in français.
Emulating the hills, or perhaps eggs: A touch of brutalist beauty at the Buja airport
Inside: Arrival hall presided over by President Pierre Nkurunziza (“Avocado President“)
My country guide was Renee, border buddy and English Language co-Fellow, currently working a university in the capital city. Will Paxton, in an article for Prospect, rather heartlessly describes the country (exemplified by its capital) as one that “reeks of decay.” There is some truth to it, though. The roads are a patchwork of potholes and dirt patches, making driving a sort of urban rodeo meets Mario Kart adventure, dodging motos (no helmets) and other taxis. The country is in the midst of a fuel crisis, evident around the gas stations where lines of cars with drivers standing outside, leaning against doors, wait their turn. It’s hot. Much hotter than Kigali, and infinitely hotter than my cool mountain paradise. The air feels heavier somehow, full of dust and humidity, but weighted too by the prospect of coming elections. Politics are discussed here, a contrast to the guarded nature of many Rwandan conversations, and people seem to be bracing for coming chaos. One common topic is escape routes. If something bad goes down, what are you doing? How are you getting out of the country? Do you have a go bag? I’ve heard talk of it in Rwanda: NGOs are preparing for an onslaught of refugees. It’s a different world here, a reality different far from my own, despite the many similarities these two countries share.
Back in the heyday of Belgian colonial overlordom, Rwanda was joined to its southern neighbor in a compound called “Ruanda-Urundi.” The reasons for this marital union, beyond the usual simplistic reductionism practiced by the European colonialists (who were the initial authors of the “Africa is a Country” idiocy) are many: the two countries share topography (each christened as the “Switzerland of Africa” by different observers), similar ethnic/social organization, language (Kinyarwanda and Kirundi are very similar and mutually intelligible), even land size and population density. Arrange their statistical geography side by side and it’s even more stark. Rwanda: 12 million people. Burundi: 10.6. Rwandan currency: Rwandan Franc. Burundian: Burundian franc. Rwanda’s motto: “Unity, work, patriotism.” Burundi’s motto: “Unity, work, progress.”
But Rwanda and Burundi share a deeper, darker strain: nearly fifty years of conflict between Tutsi and Hutu groups, one which culminated in the hundred-day 1994 genocide in Rwanda that saw nearly a million Tutsis, moderate Hutu, and other collateral peoples massacred. Burundi, in contrast, didn’t have such a large, singular outbreak of violence but suffered 40 years of armed conflict, with the most recent, defined conflict a civil war from 1993 to 2005 that left an estimated 300,000 dead. Today, Rwanda has managed to foster the growth of a middle class and begun a heartening trend of reducing poverty. Burundi, though, is still working to rebuild and sadly ranks among the poorest nations of the earth, with 80% living on less than $1 per day.
Renee and I left the Buja chaos to journey upcountry, bumping along the road that winds south along the shores of the lake. At some point, the driver pulled a left and we began a descent up into the hills, occasionally coming out on broad cliffsides (hillsides?) that opened onto increasingly spectacular views of the lake with the blue mountains of Congo to the west. Our destination came at the end of a jostled 2.5 hours: the Village Health Works (VHW) compound in the hills of Kigutu.
The trees, the lake, the mountains: Maybe Switzerland is the Burundi of Europe
VHW was founded by Deogratias Niyizonkiza, whose story of escaping violence in 1994 Burundi and Rwanda is chronicled by Tracy Kidder in Strength in What Remains. Deo’s experiences in school spoke the loudest to me- suffering the humiliation and abuse of corporal punishment, environments so foreign to those that language teachers try to provide today. He recalls his long walk to school, stopping to get a eucalyptus switch, knowing he will be late and for it, he will be beaten. He excels, nevertheless, and begins training to be a doctor when 1994 dawns, bringing with it bloodshed in both Burundi and neighboring Rwanda, where he flees and barely survives a rebel-dominated refugee camp, hiding his Tutsi identity. He escapes to New York, where the life of a poor immigrant refugee, one who speaks no English upon landing, offers little respite from past trauma.
Deo’s biographer Tracy Kidder previously trotted after Dr. Paul Farmer, co-founder of Partners in Health (which has a hospital in Rwinkwavu, Rwanda), to write Mountains Beyond Mountains. Farmer makes an appearance in Strength as Deo begins work with Partners in Health, seeing the organization’s mission of offering quality healthcare to those forgotten by the rest of the world as the model he seeks for his own nation. I read half of the book on the porch overlooking the compound and the lake, the sounds of the breeze flapping palm fronds and cicadas buzzing as ambiance. His compound is a model, offering a holistic view of health services: teaching gardening and farming for nutrition and providing quality medical care, along hosting visiting health professionals, and, in our case, educators.
Renee at work
The compound is also home to the Burundi Access Microscholarship Program, a U.S. Department of State offering that provides (fun) English classes for youth. Because of this connection, we are at the compound to run a training for local teachers. Renee, such a natural storyteller, wrote a brilliant blog entry about our experience with this local group, and I’ll let her words describe our experience. It was a pleasure to work with a Fellow from the program, to bring our diverse experiences to one class to augment and assist each other. In my past life, back in the U.S., one of my closest friends was another teacher at my school, and we would conquer classrooms together, an ease building the longer we worked together. I love co-teaching. Or co-training.
We stay for two full days: on the second day, after training, our contact invites us to visit the local hot springs. Two soldiers jump in as we reach the base of the Village Health Works complex, something our contact tells us is common. One soldier takes the front seat (shotgun riding shotgun) directly ahead of me, wearing a green beret and a small mustache. His Kalashnikov is propped between his knees, so I can see the muzzle and nose of the gun pointing up at the roof of the car. It’s a little worse for wear, with the wood panels on the gun’s body and handle shabby, the finish peeling off. In Rwanda, you see the same: navy uniforms of police or green camo of soldiers, all toting AK-47s with casual authority. And now, again, in Burundi, with a driver, two muzungu English teachers, a Burundian and two soldiers, crammed into a mid-range SUV. AK-47s and Toyota Prados: two constants in this side of the world.
And some weeks, this is just my life: a patchwork of otherworldly experiences, laced with beautiful scenery and conversations, different places and different cultures.
Amohoro (peace) and love, yesterday from Burundi, today from Rwanda ~ L