Thoughts and Struggles from Burundi

On Tuesday, I traveled to a rural area of Burundi to conduct another focus group with a Belgian organization called Village Imuhira. They work in education and community development in one part of rural Burundi.  As we drove to the village, my thoughts turned towards the value of human life.  Our driver was going ridiculously fast, weaving through traffic, and barely missing cyclists carrying huge loads of bananas and charcoal.  After 3 months in Africa I’m used to crazy driving, but it’s made me think whether drivers really care about other people on the road.  They probably wouldn’t even face legal action for killing a poor villager.  Compare that to the States where you could go to prison for years if you killed someone for reckless driving.  There just seems to be a different perspective on the inherent value of human life here.  It reminds me of one of my favorite films, The Constant Gardner where they ask the same question: Are African lives less valuable than our own?  I even did some more research and found an articleabout lives being valued differently from a life insurance perspective in the United States.  I understand why it happens, but it’s still an interesting thought to consider.

I’ve found that one of the most exhausting and difficult things is the inability to communicate effectively.  Burundi has been challenging in that respect.  I would say my translator is learning English but definitely not fluent.  I repeatedly have to say things louder, slower, and use different words to say the same thing.  Eventually we’ll find a French cognate that he understands or something he learned in school.  It’s frustrating when you need specific information and you’re having to pry really hard to reach it.

Of course I have to remind myself that the difficulty of communication is nothing compared to the hardships these people face every single day.  Yesterday I saw a naked kid crying in the dirt with flies all over his face.  I have to admit it was uncomfortable.  I just can’t imagine being a Burundian my age, earningsomething like 2 dollars a day and looking ahead to the rest of my life.  What will it look like?  Would I be able to hope for the future?  I really believe the problem with poverty is not being poor; it’s the hopelessness that comes from having no other options.  Provide opportunity and people will endure hardship for a lifetime, even on the simple hope that their children will have a better future.

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Bujumbura

Bujumbura is way off the beaten track. It seems more like a big village than a capital city. Even in downtown you hardly see buildings taller than a few stories. And it is seriously hot. I chose the cheaper room with no air-conditioning and have been regretting my decision ever since.

I arrived in the afternoon a couple days ago and decided to walk down to the shores of Lake Tanganyika. It’s Africa’s longest and deepest lake, holding it’s largest supply of fresh water. I found an abandoned pier that used to be some sort of market and decided to have a little adventure. I sat on the pier, watching the sun set over Lake Tanganyika with Congolese mountains barely visible in the background. This is way better than Kigali.

Burundi’s people have suffered immensely, yet their struggles are relatively unknown. Would you be able to identify Burundi on a map, let alone tell me something intelligent about its history? A civil war started by events in Rwanda ravaged the country for a decade. Hundreds of thousands of people have died or fled. Only recently has it regained its footing but still remains the poorest country in the world (According to the CIA World Factbook). I realized today that I withdrew a hundred dollars from an ATM and had in my hands what the average person would live on for the next four months. It’s a sobering reality.

Other than feeling extremely blessed and thefore humbled, the hardest part about being in Burundi is not speaking French. I try to fake my way through short conversations by saying bonjour and merci but eventually I have to admit that I don’t speak any French. And no one speaks English so we resort to hand gestures and pointing at things. There is always an adventure to be had in Africa.