Thursday, 18 August 2011

“This Area Is Not Yet Secure”: A Visit to the World’s Poorest Country

Hotel Keva, Bujumbura

A couple of days ago Tim and I left for a vacation at a Burundi resort. We travelled on the “New Yahoo Express”, on a 26 passenger bus. This company should not be confused with the “Yahoo Car Express”. Both companies run a Kigali to Bujumbura service in white 26 passenger busses and both leave at the exact same times.  Both too are located next to each other at the bus stations. And both also have the exact same “Yahoo Express” logo, but one company has a little “New” in the front and the other has a little “Express” at the rear.

We made arrangements for the “New Yahoo Bus” to stop at Kivumu as this would save us an additional two hours on the already seven hour trip to Bujumbura. The driver saved us two of the best seats near the front and we were off and running. And run we did.

Back in my high school days, and still popular with today’s youth, the game of cat and mouse was considered great excitement. That is if you were an adolescent male with access to cars and with more testosterone than brains. The game involves one vehicle acting as the mouse and at least one vehicle acting as the cat. The mouse tried to lose the cat and the cat tries to keep up to the mouse. Both vehicles try very, very hard to avoid the police. The more daring and innovative the maneuvers involved the higher the adrenaline rush and the greater the bragging rights. If there were ever to be an official Grand Prix cat and mouse circuit, and I were to set up a team, our driver would be hands down my first hire!
On the Canadian government`s travel advisory website it states in bright red letters: “OFFICIAL WARNING: Foreign Affairs and International Trade Canada advises against non-essential travel to Burundi. Furthermore the site states: Foreign Affairs and International Trade Canada advises against all travel to Bujumbura Rural province, on the outskirts of the capital city, and to Bubanza province, where banditry, small arms trafficking, and clashes between the National Liberation Forces (FNL) and the Burundian government continue to occur. Attacks on civilians by former soldiers, rebels, and youth gangs are still occurring in these regions…”

“No part of Burundi can be considered secure. Carjacking, purse snatching, pickpocketing, robbery, and theft from vehicles are common. Valuables, travel documents, and cash should be kept in hotel safes. Travellers should keep separate copies of important documents, including passports.”
“The use of public transportation, particularly taxis, is discouraged, as drivers often operate within a criminal network. If the use of a taxi is unavoidable, a recommended taxi should be identified. Public buses should not be used, as vehicle and road conditions are the cause of frequent serious accidents.”

While Tim and I knew this already, indeed the warning was the same two years ago when we last visited Burundi, Jayne was a bit concerned. In a series of phone calls and emails she made clear her concerns and provides us with a plethora of a motherly advice: register with the consulate, stay inside at night, keep photocopies of all you documents and most importantly wear clean underwear in case you get in an accident. It was a good thing that she didn’t know about the cholera outbreak in Bujumbura!
I realize that some people may at this point be questioning our sanity or the more polite person, questioning our judgement but the truth is we both love this country. Burundi is a stunningly beautiful. Rwanda may the land of one thousand hills, but Burundi should be known as the land of a thousand and some more really high, steep, and colourful hills. The average elevation is something like 1,700 metres. The country has Africa’s second highest population density with around 315 people per square mile but even this seemed uncrowded compared to Rwanda’s 600 people per square mile.
The countryside is a mosaic of colour made up of thousands of small plots of banana, tea, coffee, sorghum, cassava, or other crops. Bordered by Rwanda to the north, Tanzania to the east and south, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo to the west, Burundi is just under 28,000 km² with a population of about 10 million. The capital is Bujumbura.

As with Rwanda, the Twa (pygmies), Tutsi, and Hutu peoples have traditionally occupied Burundi. The area was ruled as a kingdom by the Tutsi for hundreds of years. Germany and Belgium took possession of the region in the late 1800s and the colony was named Ruanda-Urundi. With independence in 1962 the country was split into the present day Rwanda and Burundi.

Not surprisingly the two countries share a similar tragic history. The 1994 genocide in Rwanda spun Burundi in a downward cycle of ethnic-based civil war that officially ended in January 2009, just a few months before our last visit.

The war left perhaps 300,000 deaths, forced 50,000 refugees into Tanzania, and displaced 140,000 others internally. Other statistics are startling: only one in two children go to school, one in 15 adults has HIV/AIDS and less than 2% of the population has electricity in its homes. Medical care, medication, and prescription drugs are extremely limited. Hospitals and health facilities are constantly deteriorating.

There are few traffic signals and signs. Roads are not marked and even in the capital streetlights are almost non-existent. Most roads are in poor shape and during the rainy season, many roads are only accessible with four-wheel-drive vehicles. Service stations are rare and not available outside the capital. The Canadian Foreign Affairs advisory gives the helpful advice that in the event of an accident you should leave the scene without stopping and go to the nearest police station or, if necessary, to the hospital.

Political stability and the end of the civil war have improved the flow of foreign aid and economic activity in the country has increased. However, underlying weaknesses such as high poverty rates, poor education rates, one of the world’s highest birth rates, a weakened legal system, poor transportation infrastructure, and an out-dated and overburdened utilities, threaten any economic reforms.

The end result is that Burundi is now one of the poorest countries in the world. Despite the fact that it had an impressive 4% annual growth during the period of 2006-10 in its Gross Domestic Product, it still has the very lowest per capita GDP of any nation in the world – about $300.00 per person. (Canada’s GDP is around $40,000.00). Depending upon which economist’s advice you use to determine the world’s poorest countries, Burundi comes out at or near the very bottom of the list. I think it was George Bernard Shaw who said that if you took all the economists in the world and laid the head to toe in a band encircling the equator – they still wouldn’t agree on anything.
Something like 2% of Burundians live in urban centres, most farm small holdings. Coffee and tea account for over 90% of Burundi’s foreign exchange earnings; coffee alone generates two-thirds of its exports and the industry is the main source of income for about 800,000 households, according to the International Monetary Fund.
Two days before we arrived in Burundi a military officer was killed and three people were injured in an attack 30 kilometers north of Bujumbura. Two cars and three motorcycles were also burned in the incident. Two days prior in Bujumbura there was an exchange of gunfire and hand grenades between government forces and insurgents and three were killed.
These attacks may be linked to the start of an armed rebellion said a representative for the opposition party. The opposition boycotted the last presidential election and some of its leaders fled into exile into the neighbouring Congo and ever since Burundi has experienced intermittent threats to political stability and security. Much of the disturbances have been blamed on the ruling party trying to silence the opposition by any means. Burundi could well slide back to open warfare after its brief period of peace.
That is my brief and somewhat sanitized overview of current Burundian politics.
There is a huge contrast between the Rwandan side and the Burundian side of the border. Rwandan officials all sat at computers scanning your passports and bringing up screens filled with information. Burundian officials sat in front of old yellowed ledger books where they wrote down information from your passport. I am not even sure if they had electricity in their building. There was also no disguising their true objective in allowing someone from the western world into Burundi – hard cash. Rwanda and Uganda tries to disguise the fact that the visa process is just money grab but Burundi is at least honest about it. You pay $40.00 in new American bills and you can stay three days. The only thing I was asked was of my occupation so they could fill in that category on their ledger book. On the way out all I was asked was to produce the receipt for the visa.
The process of crossing the border took about one hour. We would have been there even longer if it were not for our driver who expedited some of the waits by taking us to the back door of the various Burundian officials as the visa stamping and money collecting peoples were in different buildings.
From the border it was a couple of hours to the capital Bujumbura. The roads tended to have very steep grades and never seemed to go more than a couple metres before making a sharp turn. The roads themselves were in reasonable condition but there were a lot of broken down vehicles. Only rarely do any of the vehicles carry the red safety triangles to warn of a large broken down truck sitting dead centre behind the next blind corner.
Broken branches thrown onto the road act as African warning symbols of an obstruction on the road. There are no shoulders to park a vehicle and if there were shoulders a market place would likely break out anyway. There are probably no private tow vehicles and certainly no garages outside the capital, so vehicles stop where they break. Teams of mechanics come to the vehicles and it is not surprising to see three or four sets of legs jutting out from under a broken down truck. Motors are overhauled, transmission replaced, and oil is changed right on the roads.
After arriving at the bus station in Bujumbura we tried to contact Jean Bosco who we had met briefly two years ago. Jean was expecting us and planned to accompany us to our lodgings. Jean was an ex-Franciscan and had just finished legal studies. He had not as yet found work as a lawyer but kept busy chairing a peace and justice working group sponsored by the Franciscans. Since we could not call we decided to take a taxi to the hotel where we were planning to stay.
In hindsight we should have wrote down the name of the hotel or at least had a map of Bujumbura. A bit more knowledge of French also would have been nice but I managed to remember that there was a Tanganyika Resort quite close to the hotel we were seeking. A deal was struck with a driver and we were off.
Unfortunately it was the wrong place. Who would have thought that in a country with a handful of functioning hotels there would be more than one with similar names and named after the lake on which most of the hotels are located? After walking down the road a few kilometers it became apparent that we were on the wrong side of the bay and were miles away from where we should be. Changing our strategy we walked over to a kiosk to see if we could get a new Burundian SIM card for the phone. They didn’t sell any but suggested we try down the road a hundred meters or so.
As it turned out we stumbled on the location of the Burundi National Trade Show. We had to pay a 90 cent admission to get in to buy a SIM card. The card itself cost another 90 cents but it was promotion and you got two SIM cards for the price one, so it was really 45 cents for the card plus 30 free minute’s airtime to anyone on their network. Now when you are sitting in the world’s poorest country paying 45 cents for a SIM card what are your expectations as to how well it functions? In a word: flawlessly. Another $5.00 and we had over an hours’ worth of long distance to Canada, a few more minutes to Rwanda, and oodles of local call time.
Whatever failings some of these countries have they can sure teach us a thing or two about cell phone networks. In the world’s poorest country we (Jean Bosco) even paid for our taxi ride with a cell phone money transfer!
We gave Jean Bosco a call and he said he would come down and meet us at the fair and then he would take us to the hotel. Tim and I walked around the site. I bought some Burundian tea and coffee and we splurged on a passion fruit juice. Everyone was extremely friendly and helpful.
 It turned out that the Hotel Keva (Keva means beautiful in Burundian) that we wanted to stay was exactly on the other end of city and a fair distance away from the town on the main road to the Congo 20 or 30 minutes further to the west. The hotel lived up to its name as it was beautiful, at least in a faded beauty kind of a way. Most of the lights functioned, the paint was a bit chipped, and the sink had a pretty bad leak that was “fixed” with the addition of a five gallon pail underneath. I imagined that Graham Greene would have set one of his novels in this place should he have come across the hotel.
The hotel costs $50.00 a night which was about $10.00 more than we expected, but with the tropical beach setting and breakfast included it was reasonable. This was after all our tropical resort component of our trip. After settling the three of us went down to the shore of Lake Tanganyika to have a cold Amstel beer and a bit of dinner. Jean had to leave early as he had family commitments and had to go up-country early in the morning.
We were not the only ones at the resort; there were also three female university students from the United States. They were working at foreign aid projects as interns: two in Kenya (Nairobi and Navisha) and one in Kigali. They were from Tennessee and Indiana and were involved in forestry, nutrition, and tourism type projects. They like us came for a resort reprieve from their work.

The lack of customers on Friday night was a bit of a surprise as two years ago it was absolutely dead in the day with only UN and humanitarian agency workers around. At night it picked up a bit as there are three or four bars and disco-type areas to the resort. It appears however that: “This area was not yet secure”. There were signs around the perimeter of the resort informing you to leave after 6:00 pm. The perimeter, indecently, was easy to ascertain as someone conveniently laid down a few coils of razor wire. The coils were for the most part pretty small and you could easily step over the wire in most spots and it probably did serve as a deterrent for very tiny insurgents. I suspect however the many soldiers patrolling the beaches and the big barrack sized military tent full of anti-terrorist soldiers at the edge of our resort helped deter a few troublemakers.
About 9:00 pm Tim and the girls had all gone off to bed. I stayed at the bar, bought another beer and did some writing for an hour or so. I must say the service was good as there were 12 very efficient and polite resort staff and I enjoying that tropical breeze. There may have been a few more staff over at the other three or four bars and restaurants scattered around the resort but I couldn’t see those areas.
After a tropical breakfast of breads, omelets, fresh fruits, and coffee Tim and I decided to walk the beaches. There were hundreds of Burundians about the beaches. Almost all the resorts that lined the beach were closed down. Our resort was the only one that extended down to the water. A few others had little areas where it looked as if there was recent activity but it was hard to tell. After walking a couple hours along a few kilometers of prime resort beach front we did manage to see about three muzungus (white people).
A lot of people came up to greet us, shake our hands and talk to us. Some spoke only Kirundi a Bantu based language very similar to Kinyarwanda, most spoke at least a bit of French, and a few spoke English. Every single Burundian we met was extremely friendly and polite. Well maybe not everyone; the one who opened Tim’s pack and stole his sunglasses perhaps wasn’t the world’s most polite individual. He was very quick and stealthy though!
After being in Rwanda for an extended time you start to get a bit suspicious of people’s intent when they offer help. As often as not people ask for a wide variety of things from you. You can hardly blame them for a muzungu (white person) represents immense and unimaginable combination of wealth and power.   Sometimes its money that is asked of you but sometimes it is to ask you to secure a spot at a Canadian university or to get them a work permit for Canada.  In Burundi, not a single person asked for a thing. People delighted in going out of their way to help you and took great personal interest in making sure you were having a good time and helping you resolve the particular problem.
Even the staff at the resort or businesses would come up to you, introduce themselves and welcome you. Some of this likely is due to the rarity of tourists and especially younger tourists such as Tim. Too, some of it was the old tradition that a younger person should never let an elder carry anything by his or herself. (This had the opposite effect and just tended to depress me and make me feel old!) Mostly, though people just really wanted to make you feel welcomed to their country and for you to feel comfortable.
Later in the morning Tim and I thought we would head off to town to go to the craft market. We had no idea where it was and indeed we had no idea where was the downtown area. Nonetheless we set off and walked past the potholes (which resembled the excavations for very large buildings and were not navigable by wheeled vehicles of any sort. We walked past the UN compounds which looked the most lavish and well-guarded facilities in the country. We walked past the UN storage facility which had large thoughtful signs stating that it was a no weapons zone. For the illiterate there was a beautiful painting of guns, pistols, rocket launchers, tanks, and bombs with little crosses painted over the pictures. You just have to admire the balls that someone must have to even contemplate sneaking a loaded tank and a handful of rocket launchers and bombs past armed security guards!
Eventually we found a taxi driver who understood that we wanted to go to the craft market and he drove us to town – or I should say- we found a taxi driver who we thought understood our request. We ended up at the Saturday public market but not too worry, we had the day to kill anyway. We spent a few hours just walking around the town taking in the sights. The downtown area was many time more lively and interesting than the town centre of Kigali.
Eventually we decided to have a concerted effort to find our craft market and decided we should ask for help but before that happened someone came up and asked where we would like to go and insisted that he accompany us to the market. He like every other person we talked to in Burundi had relatives in Toronto and Montreal. He also suggested that before we buy anything we should check all the prices and negotiate. After about 15 minutes he apologized sincerely and said he had to leave for a previous appointment and that he could find someone else to help us more if we needed.
We bought a couple of baskets and then took a taxi back to the Hotel Keva. We had an early night after a delicious dinner of goat brochettes and grill chicken and French fried style bananas. Again after dark we were almost the only customers. There were a few guests from elsewhere in Burundi as Saturdays is the day for weddings and the lake is the place to go for wedding photos. It seemed strange to us to see a wedding party pose in front of the lake, and with a hundred or so observers, stand on a non-descript litter-strewn beach sandwiched between a brewery and warehouse, across the road from a beautiful park full of exotic flowers.
The next morning Jean Bosco met us and we started to walk towards town and the bus station and trying to find an unoccupied taxi. All the taxis we saw had passengers and were heading the wrong way. Jean saw a private vehicle that was carrying no passengers and signaled that we wished to catch a ride. The driver pulled over and proceeded to go out of his way and drove us right to the front of the bus depot. He only asked of us to have a safe journey. The kindness of the driver was not the exception but the rule in Burundi.
The bus ride back went quickly. We dodged bikes, trucks, people, cars, motorcycles, goats, and other assorted livestock. The border crossing went quickly. At Burundi’s exit control point all they asked was for us to show the receipt showing we paid for our visas. Rwanda officials just asked for our passports and stamped us in without asking anything. The Rwandan custom official asked us to open our packsacks to show that we were not smuggling in plastic bags. In fact when I opened one compartment (out of a total of six) of my pack and the official saw a cloth bag, he said that was fine and I could go.
The first time the bus stopped I knew we were getting close to home as I heard the familiar “Muzungu, give me money”…

Thursday, 11 August 2011

Small Threads Bind US Together

Our actions make the world small, bound tight by the threads of connection. Even small actions can shrink the world, at least in small increments. Inaction triggers stagnation, isolation, and estrangement.  This in turn breeds fear and hostility.

In Africa I am constantly reminded just how small the world is and how wonderfully connected we really are to each other. Be it the Alberta Café we walked past in Burundi or the boy in the Olds team shirt we saw a while back while waiting for a minibus. Those are just a couple examples that I noticed and there were undoubtedly many times more that I failed to see. I think most people would be surprised at the connections that exist.

A few weeks back my niece had mentioned to me that the nuns at the health clinic were distributing vitamin A supplements to children and to HIV patients. She had mentioned her surprise at the sight of little “Product of Canada” signs on the containers of pills. This jogged my memory about a newspaper story a year or two ago featuring Banner Pharmaceuticals in Olds and the Canadian Micronutrient Initiative celebrating the production of the five billionth pill. A bit of investigation confirmed the pills at the clinic in Kivumu indeed were made by Banner.

I was struck by the thought that such tiny things as the pills produced a few hundred metres from my home in Alberta could have such profound effect half a world away in the centre of Africa. I too wondered if the workers of Banner back home truly appreciated the significance of their labour.
The Canadian-based international vitamin A supplementation program helps boost the immune systems of children in 70 countries. The vitamin A capsules manufactured in Canada are donated primarily to UNICEF, which then distributes them through national child health programs in Rwanda and 70 other countries around the world. With enough vitamin A, the child mortality rate drops by as much as 25%. It also reduces child blindness by up to 70%. High-strength vitamin A supplements are one the most cost-effective ways there exists to improve child survival rates.
The program is elegantly; it takes only one dose of vitamin A every six months, from age six months to five years to help save a child’s life. It works to boost children’s immune systems so that their bodies are less susceptibility to malaria and diarrheal disease. Each capsule costs something like two cents to make – that works out to 24 cents to save a child’s life.

Canada has provides 75 per cent of the developing world’s need for vitamin A and this program has contributed to saving the lives of as many as a million children every year. Banner produces about ½ of Canada’s contribution. I don’t know how many people at Banner in Olds are involved in some capacity in the production of the vitamin A supplements, but using the figure of one hundred people, by my calculations that means that for every hour one of those employees work they save the lives of 3 or 4 children around the world.

There are almost certainly many children in our village alive today because of the workers at Banner and I have met many appreciative parents who I am sure would sincerely like to thank each one of those workers for their contribution.

It is a rather sobering thought that due directly to the actions of one hundred people from my town the lives of 375,000 children, in 70 different countries, are spared each year. Millions of connecting threads encircling the world have been spun over the last few years of vitamin A production in Olds. In a few years, there will be scientists, statesmen, and artists spread around the world who will owe their very existence to the actions of a few nameless workers from my hometown.

We are surely all connected. Some by threads we see, some by threads unseen. Sometimes it is our simplest deeds that have the most profound outcomes.