This past week I traveled first up to central Burundi on Monday and Tuesday to work on the goat project, including to Ruyigi province in the northeast, which I have never been to before. Then for five days I traveled the other side of Lake Kivu, in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, to visit Quaker activities in Uvira and the small town of Abeka. More about the latter trip to come, but starting with the goat project, to summarize, committees to oversee the project have been created, and we were traveling to discuss the project with groups of 60 participants. These last two communities we are working in are geographically more distant, but we managed to make it everywhere we needed, so that the communities are all ready to begin distributing goats in the next few weeks.outside_Gitega

This meant a fair amount of traveling from place to place, but this is no mere downtime; I have an important task on these occasions – waiving to each group of people that we pass every hundred meters or so. I find, as no doubt the Queen must, that it’s best to do a bit of calisthenics before such a session to warm up the muscles of the wrist and upper forearm. But though somewhat rigorous, these efforts do not go unrewarded. As we pass people tending their fields, or thrashing rice, or cooking over charcoal fires, I receive smile after smile, friendly waves, and, among young kids, pure excitement that often includes jumping up and down, yelling, and running after the car.

This response is quite remarkable when you think about it, considering that, though our HROC car is just an old Toyota station wagon and not a fancy Landcruiser like most NGOs drive, it still represents more monetary value than all the belongings of the average peasant farming family. Many people upcountry have never traveled in a private car and don’t know, for example, how to open the door from the inside. So if you try to imagine it from their perspective, perhaps midway through hoeing your field all day, such a car represents a foreign element, appearing out of nowhere and disappearing as quickly, containing unknown elements that you are not sure whether they represent forces for good or bad, though analogous elements have passed in one form or another the land of your parents and your fore-parents. And indeed a few people return mere blank, curious looks, or even the odd cold stare, but this is by far a small minority.

This always strikes me, coming from the city, where as far as I know in just about any culture, one adopts a distant, reserved posture with respect to one’s fellow citizens. What is it about cities that we feel forced to withdrawal into our individual selves? Are we afraid that if we shared a friendly smile with everyone we pass each day that we’d have too many friends? Do we believe our greeting resources are so meager that they must be reserved for a more limited number of encounters? Or are we unconsciously downcast from years of unrequited smiles? And if so, how many have learned not to share friendly greetings from our own, withheld demeanor?

And so I was asking myself, as I traveled the rolling hills of Burundi, as we might ask ourselves anywhere, when the stranger comes into your life, with unknown origins and unknown ends, perhaps a disappearing spectre of another world or perhaps your future neighbor, do you mount a stolid pose or venture a broad, hopeful, open-handed smile?


2009 05 May Goat Trip 007

I’ve been upcountry – in central Burundi – for the last couple days meeting with three groups of 60 people who will be taking part in a goat project for a grant I wrote a while back.  Like any good change of scenery, this has been a chance to reflect, in this case on the year that I have been here in Burundi.

The first thing that struck me is how gratifying it was to see some of my work becoming real, as actual flesh-and-blood people were sitting around preparing a project that, as was clear from their enthusiasm, actually meant something to them.  And I was struck again by my co-workers, including the facilitators that we work with all across Burundi, but especially by Adrien and the staff of HROC and FWA, who are some of the most wonderful, dedicated, caring, and capable people I know.  I wish I could do more to help them, I wish for example, that I could figure out how to raise the funds to cover their salaries, in addition to the money for specific projects.

Ah, but a year is hard to sum up.   So instead, here are some assorted highlights:

- Taking part in a two-week training in Kigali with 7 Burundians, 8 Rwandans, and 7 Congolese, on trauma healing, reconciliation, and Nigerian soap opera-appreciation.

- Transcending culinary frontiers: learning how to make ugali (a doughy paste of cassava or other flour mixed with water), and then exploring its possibilities.  For example: ugali and peanut butter -  I consider this African American fusion to be breaking new culinary ground; others might esteem it as having busted clear through and coming out the wrong end.  Or, perhaps more respectably (after learning that the less-than-inspiring cheese available here comes from Congo, primarily areas controlled by Laurent Nkunda, and therefore possibly supports a militia involved in terrorizing citizens), I decided to try my hand at making my own cheese.  This has spawned (or rather, curdled into) mostly mozzarella, being easy to make.  On one ambitious occasion though, I made my own Burundian version of Monterey Jack, aged 2 months.  Alright, I can’t say that it tasted like any Monterey Jack I’ve ever had, but it was definitely the most delicious cheese I’ve had in the past year.

2009 March 104

- Traipsing about the rural southeastern part of Uganda helping to distribute scholarships to orphans and teaching at Bududa Vocational Institute with Lisandro.

- Meeting and spending time with many delightful friends, from the workcampers, to Gabe (three months my roommate and to be much longer a friend), to Anna, Ian and Sarah of AFSC, to a recent visit from my brother and HROC-Rwanda volunteer Angela.  That leaves off, of course, countless Burundians, whose stories and lives are more than inspiring, and both nearly-unbelievable and not-to-be-forgotten.  I have shared with these fellow travelers but a tiny part of our lives, and yet in this short span there has been great loss, with two friends that are no longer with us, and also great joy, as we travel together the journey that is, unswervingly, unfalteringly, the narrow path of our brief, sunlight lives.

 2009 05 May Goat Trip 014

Now that I’ve been here a while, perhaps some readers are beginning to wonder what I have to show for my time here.  Well, for starters, I wrote a successful proposal for $9,000 to do a goat sharing project to encourage cross-ethnic reconciliation (based on our previous work with such projects, such as I described in Rurengera).  And we recently discovered that a grant that my co-workers and I wrote to the US Institute of Peace has been approved.  This program will build on our Healing and Rebuilding Our Communities (HROC) workshops to create grassroots community networks to monitor and prevent violence in the 2010 elections in Burundi.  The follwing describes the thinking behind the project. buj-at-dusk

The upcoming Burundian elections in 2010 will be a crucial test of the state of social and political relations in Burundi and will determine whether the fledging peace process will be consolidated or whether all progress achieved to date simply dissolves.

Burundi is at a crossroads.  We have worked so long to get where we are.  My hope is that the upcoming elections will be peaceful and will not return us to the cycle of violence and chaos that engulfed the country.  – Adrien Niyongabo

Among the issues affecting the process are the demobilization, disarmament, and reintegration of ex-combatants and the return of hundreds of thousands of refugees from Tanzania.  But the challenges are also rooted in the post-independence history of elections in which manipulation of “ethnic” differences between Hutu and Tutsi for political purposes has created deep tensions and led to violence.

While some efforts have focused on working with political elites and party leaders to work for a fair and peaceful election, but such high-level gambles are also risky strategies for achieving peace.  This was demonstrated in 1961 and 1993, where a candidate with broad and inter-group support was assassinated, which eventually led to mass violence.  An alternative strategy is to address violence on the level at which it is carried out, building trust and relationships at the grassroots level that would weather possible calls for violence coming from political elites.  Such relationships have prevented violence in communities in the past, as is evident from the regional variation in levels of violence as well as from the stories of the prevention of violence by local leaders and citizens who refuse to take part and encourage others to do similarly.

Such interventions are only possible, however, where people have been able to reconcile “ethnic” differences and healed the trauma in their hearts that is the basis of Hutu-Tutsi animosities.  Otherwise, the “ethnic” division stirred up for political gain in an election falls on receptive ears and ready hands, motivated by frustration and anger or fear.

Some in Burundi also associate their trauma with elections themselves, with the idea of casting a ballot associated with the traumatic violence that followed the 1993 election.  For this reason some refuse to vote and many have symptoms of trauma provoked by hearing political discussions on the radio or in their community, casting a ballot, or other things associated with elections. These traumatic symptoms need to be addressed to so that elections can positively impact communities and all can take part, and also so that people can heal from trauma in the midst of divisive times when politicians are playing on peoples’ fear and ethnic identities.

Of course, elections need not be viewed as only a source of trouble, and they have the potential to help deliver good governance and peace to Burundi.  To do so, however, the roots of a participatory, informed, and liberal democracy must be more deeply embedded.  As many have argued, the act of voting itself is not enough to ensure that democracy promises anything more than a destabilizing census on ethnic affiliations.  For elections to help create a stable governance that is supported by popular will, citizens need to be involved in addressing ethnic-based political appeals, observing the entire election process, from vote-counting to media content to the use of police power, and acting as community leaders to demand effective response to community problems.  This grassroots civic engagement is central to the long-term viability of democracy and good governance, and if it is rooted in joint participation of Hutu, Tutsi, and Twa, it will be a strong foundation on which to prevent future violence.

The challenges to the creation of such non-ethnic civic groups include overcoming significant mistrust between identity groups rooted in traumatic experiences of past violence, a tendency towards deference towards political and other leaders, as well as a lack of knowledge about democratic practices.

– Later on, I’ll describe more of our plans for this project.

There are words that qualify as interesting because, to translate them, it requires a phrase rather than just the equivalent word in the destination-language.  Then there are words, such as the Kirundi word “kujijuka”, which is, in the first-person plural of the verb — “tujijuka,” the name chosen by a group of women living with HIV/AIDS in Gitega, many of whom faced considerable stigmatization in openly admitting they were HIV positive.

“Kujijuke” means…hmm, it means when you are courageous in the sense of being willing to ignore the negative things people say about you by, for example, openly admitting that you are HIV+, or illiterate, etc.  It means to be awakened, to pass through difficulty into the light.

I like that it seems to have a whole process wrapped up in it, the progression of coming to realize that people’s stereotypes, stigmas, etc. are not really worth being bothered by, and being willing to stand out in the open, come what may. Now if we just had a better way of saying that in English…


This week we have been morning the death of my dear friend Odette, who passed away last week following complications from a pregnancy.   A memorial service was held for her on Friday attended by hundreds of people, an outpouring of support that showed the depth of her connection to those around her.

Odette was highly engaged in her community, leading a weekly support group for women in Kamenge Friends church for the past eight years, raising four wonderful children, and being a very loving companion to her husband.  She had also recently completed a degree in Christian leadership and had begun facilitating workshops with the Friends Woman’s Association on trauma healing and HIV/AIDS, for which seemed to have a natural gift.

I remember many happy memories of the time we spent together – meals, conversations, traveling, her teaching Gabe and me how to make ugali.  I also really admired her deep commitment to integrity, which she put into practice even when, on perhaps the most important exam in her student career, many of the other students were cheating and encouraging her to, and when the outcome would have serious consequences for her education and job prospects.

When I was at the AVP International Gathering with Odette last fall, in one workshop we were asked to wander aimlessly around a room and then, suddenly, to find someone we identified with and admired, and as it happened Odette and I instantly found each other and stood with our arms around each other.  The facilitators asked us to explain why we choose each other, and I remember talking about how I had seen the joy with which she lived her life but most of all the deep love which she held for her family and her husband Adrien.  Like so many others here, I will greatly miss her, and will continue to be inspired by her example and spirit.


16 Feb 09 Garden 018

Tune by body and my brain

to the music from the land.

- Dave Mallett

It was back in November that our gardening youth group began clearing an overgrown plot of unused land, strewn with popsicle sticks and fading wrappers.

At the time, some were cynical, thinking that we should just plant ilengalenga, a quick growing leafy green that we could harvest in a month.  I admit I too had my moments of doubt.  Some of the soil is pretty lifeless, largely compacted clay that has been serving well to house termites but is not so kind to roots wanting air and nourishment.

But this week the eggplants were ready for harvesting, looking like heavy, dark purple balloons that no longer belong in their parent’s slender green arms.

16 Feb 09 Garden 007

Those that find it inefficient for me to spend my own muscle power growing food when I could eat food produced in a factory, or produced by the very inexpensive labor of others – perhaps they haven’t recently sat down to a dinner grown and cooked by themselves.  To know where your food comes from – not just which continent, but to have known it from birth, having seen it through its struggles, to maturity, and then having paired it with spices and heat to draw out its flavor, texture and nutrients – how else am I to spend the finite strength of my physical being?  In using my body I care for it and make it stronger, and tune my mind to the community and earth around me.

16 Feb 09 Garden 020

Sometimes, on hot sunny days when I have other things to do, I admit I don’t really feel like taking the bus over to Kamenge, sweating, and struggling to interact across barriers of language and culture, being outside of my comfort zone.

That’s when I need it the most.  That’s when I need to be drawn out of my little ethereal bubble.  I’m not, in fact, an unconnected consciousness or a node in the internet.  My mind is nourished, dependent on nourishment, through the working of my nerves, muscles, tendons; by the consumption of food which must be grown in the complex diversity of the soil and the rays of a distant sun.  Today’s rain was stirred up by currents — created by the earth’s rotation and a swirling complex of temperatures — that bring oceans to fall from the sky.

The sun rises, sets, rain falls, evaporates.  At dusk bats begin to stir in the trees and then make crooked paths for Congo, then return before I awake.  Migrating birds pass high overhead.  While I sleep, termites build their elaborate subterranean castles.  While I read the news, colonies of ants set forth, conquer, enslave, battle torrents of water, collapse.  I have not looked to see.

I’m connected to the earth, to an earth I’m drawn to all my life by gravity, by material needs, by a sense of belonging.

20 Feb 09 Garden 011 

Community gardening is people coming together, organizing, planning, uniting their actions and dreams.

As Hannah Arendt suggested, the power that really moves mountains is not coercive force, which breaks down and constrains, but the constructive, collaborative power of people finding a common purpose and orienting themselves towards the realization of that goal.  Not a quick, destructive power, but a slow, cultivating one.

A plant will bend to force, but it does not thereby produce fruit.  You have to ask it.  Ask it with your action.

At times in my life I have gotten a little too drawn into the seeming vast expanse of the internet, a little too comforted by the straight lines of spreadsheets and graphs, a bit too enveloped by stories told on paper.  Back to the rough ground!  To clearing the overlooked, overgrown spaces of our lives and bringing them under deliberate care and nurturing.  Communities are not built with bricks; they are formed by the creating and pulling taut of a web of relationships that can support understanding, acceptance, and love.

For those in the northern hemisphere, despair not!  Spring is on its way.  Go ahead, get a little dirt under your fingernails.  If your neighbor gardens as well, she won’t hesitate to shake your strong, calloused hand.

20 Feb 09 Garden 017

Today I’m writing from Kigali, Rwanda, where for the past 9 days I have been at a training for Burundians, Rwandans, and Congolese to become facilitators of Healing and Rebuilding Our Communities (HROC) workshops.

At the same time, I’ve been reading Rethinking the Trauma of War, a book critical of programs that intervene in post-conflict situations for trauma healing.  The effect of the juxtaposition has been to strengthen my appreciation for the approach I was learning in the training, and to highlight the strenghts of the HROC program.

kigali-soccer-fieldThe critique is aimed primarily at the trauma healing programs that were deployed after violence, such as in the Balkans and here in Rwanda after the genocide, in which large humanitarian NGOs supplied Western-trained psychologists/psychotherapists for short 6-month or 1-year stints.  During this time, they conducted individual counselling sessions to help people deal with trauma, and then after a year or two the whole program was wrapped up.

To summarize briefly the critique, such a program:

1. imports Western (culturally relative) ideas and values, such as individualism and a focus on trauma as a mental/cognitive state.  In brief: yesterday they brought the church to Africa, today they bring the doctrine of PTSD.

2. disrupts and displaces local resources for psycho-social healing

3. is attractive to donors because it implies no long-term commitment to changing the situation on the ground as is the case with other development projects

4. aims at a need that doesn’t exist, or at least which is unimportant relative to other material needs (a point I have responded to in previous posts).

I think that all these critiques are correct, as far as they go, but what’s interesting is how the book completely misses the possibility of a trauma healing project like HROC.

Our workshops are faciliated by local people, not just from the same country but from the same region of that country and, often, from the same community.   The workshop structure has been adopted by each local culture and continues to be revised to match the needs perceived by those at the community level.  And as far as the content goes, it is not presented in lecture format by the leader but is rather elicited from the participants themselves, so the possibility of importing foreign values is minimalized.

Such a program cannot be said to displace local resources, since it is precisely built around creating such resources — rebuilding communities by connected family members to each other, neighbors to neighbors, and communities to their own members who have experience facilitating trauma healing — as well as the ongoing process of healing from trauma themselves.  And the program is also aware, and is constructed so as to capitalize on, the long-term approach that such a community-based approach requires.

Of course, you might object that a rural peasant farmer with a little training cannot provide the sort of care that a highly trained professional can, even if the latter suffers from disadvantages of language, culture, and context.  Perhaps this is true in some circumstances, still I’m not about to start promoting a change in our program.  I am reminded of an empirical study that compared different therapeutic approaches (Freudian, cognitive, behavioral, pharmacological) with respect to their effectiveness in treating various psychological troubles – schizophrenia, depression, etc.   Although there were some minor differences between approaches, the outcome for all methods was roughly similar, as was simply having a friend or pastor who was a good listener.  Oh, and did I mention that each workshop includes a session on good listening, and that we also refer to our facilitators as “healing companions”?

Of course, I don’t claim to be unbaised; I just spent the last 9 days with some of the most inspiring people I’ve had the chance to meet, who have no book learning in trauma, but whose own journeys of healing give them a unique personal strength and a compassion they hope to share with others.2009-feb-tot-028

Kisumu-boatOne idea in vogue in some development circles is the idea that development projects should be run like financial investments. After all, if the invisible hand keeps factories producing things that people actually want to consume, couldn’t a similar model also keep development funds going to projects that actually produce benefits? For example, if a workshop benefits its participants, shouldn’t they be willing to pay to participate? If so, then this payment can be used to provide access to others for the same workshop. And to oppose this view, by contrast, would seem to entail throwing money at projects that don’t have tangible benefits.

But that’s the side I want to come down on. I think the comparison with the private sector can be fruitful, yet I think it is flawed as a model for all development work.

The reasoning behind this became a bit clearer to me last week at a meeting of the Quaker Peace Network for Central Africa, which brought together peacemakers from Rwanda, Burundi and Democratic Republic of the Congo (perhaps more about that later!). À propos of this post, I was presenting on monitoring and evaluating projects, and after the meeting was over, there was an additional workshop on development projects and income-generating activities.

Kenya-landscape The leader of this latter workshop helped me understand why such projects cannot be simply self-sustaining and supporting on a simple economic investment model. As he put it, work aimed at socio-economic improvement necessarily involves sensitization and awareness raising. The example he gave is that if you go to a village to start a school, but the community believes that the proper role for children is to help raise cows, not to be in a classroom, you cannot simply expect to ask them to pay for the construction of the school and pay school fees, even if it is in their economic (and social, and cultural) interest to do so. That suggests that outside funding must play a role.

Or at least, I might clarify, it suggests that outside funding must play a role until the point that one can use the testimonies from one community to convince their neighbors of the value of a program (though this in turn presumes that one works methodically within an area over an extended period of time building up relationships…not a bad idea anyway).

kakamega-forest Even so, there could be a tricky role to play between the newcomers, who are expected to pay for a program that their neighbors got for free. And then of course there is all the programs whose benefit is not so tangible, so that the information problem persists even after others have successfully completed the program. And finally add to this that even good programs may have instances of failure, making the whole evaluative process even more murky.

So for all these reasons, participants/recipients will be unable to judge the value of the project, making them unable to pay for it, and the whole model can’t get off the ground.

Perhaps this all strikes you as obvious, but to me it’s an important caveat in response to the mantra that projects should be self-sustaining. It suggests why a program may be both useful and effective and yet require outside funding, even in cases where the benefits are calculable in monetary terms. That is not, of course, to say, that programs that are able to take advantage of a self-sustaining model are bad, in fact I think they’re quite neat, but we should also realize their limitations (just as the invisible hand theory is only applicable in so far as its premises are valid in a given real-world context).

Burundi_July08 036This week I was upcountry in Rurengera for an advanced HROC workshop.  The three day advanced workshop is for those who have already attended the basic workshop, and goes into greater depth on the topics of trauma healing and reconciliation.

The workshop was somewhat dark – taking place in the crumbling remains of an old Friends Church, with only the door and one window for light.  And dark because many stories were shared of people’s struggle to cope with loss, anger, and mourning.  But there was also the light of hope and the transforming power of rememberance and reconnection with one’s community.

The sessions opened and closed with song, of which one session on the second day stood out in particular.  One of the facilitators started the singing and then began to draw people into dancing in the center of the circle.  One participant began beating a table, alternately with his fist and palms, improvising a makeshift drum.  And everyone folded into the center, kicking up dust that rose in a swirling cloud cut through the window’s rays of light, all vibrating in four part harmony.  The slow regular trickle of time swung out into an arc, then a swirl, and then caught itself in an eddy, swallowing individuals into a small community.  Then suddendly one finds oneself downstream, slowly drifting away, finding it hard to comprehend what took place a few moments ago but knowing too that one will not soon forget it.

So too was the workshop as a whole, as a space opened in which people shared their raw inner lives and emotions that are so often submerged in day-to-day living.  They spoke of their struggle to find meaning in the lonely night after the loss of a loved one to violence, to live together with those who have caused one suffering, to make sense of the mechanisms that shape one’s community and of the aim of remaking them into forces of good.

At the end of the second day, participants envisioned how to remake their communities.  People expressed not just a general desire to go back to their communities, listen to others, help them heal, and to love them, but also the newfound realization that this could truly be done jointly among Hutu, Tutsi, and Twa; that they could reclaim for themselves an undivided human community.

As an outsider I’m often curious how people will respond to the audacity of putting together victims and perpetrators together for three days to talk about some of their most personal challenges, as if they were old friends.  Yet the participants seemed to reach to a point at which they recognized “yes, of course we should come together to mend the rent fabric of our community, and it is only natural that we would do so step-by-step, working together across the very barriers that we have created.”

Perhaps one of the moving moments came on the last day.  In the workshop, participants discuss how to escape the cycle of violence in which victims seeking revenge become perpetrators.  The alternative discussed was for victims to allow themselves a period of mourning, to accept the wrong that has been done, to learn how to deal with their emotions and to remember and share what they have lost with others in their family and community. 


Participants were asked to write on pieces of paper the obstacles to their own ability to escape the cycle of violence – their anger, their doubts, their loss.  Then each person was to consider these challenges, and as they felt empowered to do so, to throw them on the ground and liberate themselves from them.  So that the 20 participants were sitting in a circle around perhaps 80 or 100 crumpled scraps of paper, the collected pain, cynicism, uncertainty, and powerlessness of a community.  And finally these scraps were gathered and burned in a small pile, releasing them in a rising chimney of smoke.

This simple symbolism of this was powerful.  I watched in particular one participant who turned a scrap of paper over and over in his hand, past the point that facilitators suggested that we might be done, the pull of its weight on his soul turning over and over in his mind, until he was finally able to cast it off.

That we all may be so unburdened!  Which reminds me of the the Fall 2008 edition of AGLI’s PeaceWays newsletter, which I had a hand in putting together and focuses on Burundi, and is now available online here.

Cooking-w-Florence Like a number of people from the US, Thanksgiving is probably my favorite holidy, since it is focused around being together with family and giving thanks, with little material focus, except for on food of course.

And at least according to the mythology of Thanksgiving, it was from the start a multicultural event, so while I could not be with my family, I was able to give thanks to some Burundians who have helped me find my feet here.  Though actually we had 9 Burundians, 1 Kenyan, 1 American living in Kenya, 1 Brit, and myself.

We had a hard time finding a turkey, so we went with chicken, which is a little easier since we don’t have an oven and most of the meal was cooked over charcoal, though I made use of an electric hot plate.  So fried chicken it was, with garlic mashed potatoes, green beans with thyme, honey glazed carrots with ginger, soda to drink, and for dessert a fruit salad with pineapple, mango, passion fruit, banana, and itunda (“tree tomato”).

I gave a small speech in which I explained Thanksgiving and thanked them from coming, and then in traditional Burundian fashion, one of the guests thanked me for the food and drinks and politely pointed out that if there were more drinks, they would be able to stay longer and further enjoy each others’ company.  I love this practice – it always makes Burundians, and then me, laugh – the tradition is that guests cannot ask for more food but they must ask for more beverages. 

So while I missed being back home with my family, I enjoyed the opportunity to share this time with others, and my secret hope is that it will inspire Burundians to revive their own tradition of harvest festivals from pre-colonial times.


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