Monday, 12 September 2011

Ameza Ya Babaji Yimbyeyi: The Big Boss Workbench

Jean Paul in Canada

Jean Paul, or Paulo to his friends, is a remarkable individual. On first introduction you will immediately notice two things: he has the most charming smile and secondly, he has only one ear – a result of a highway bicycle crash that killed his best friend, almost ended his life and sent him into a month long coma and a year in hospital. Not noticeable are his other exceptional qualities such as honesty, resilience, humour, and determination. Even the trauma of the 1994 genocide and his family’s two year exile in a Congo refugee camp, that effectively  halved the six years of education  available to him, failed to wear down his resolve.

Visiting Drumheller, Alberta

In 1998 he was granted entry into a carpentry program established by Vjeko Curic, a Franciscan missionary from Croatia. Later that year Vjeko was assassinated, most probably as a consequence of his role in saving thousands of lives during the genocide. A few years back a movie, starring John Hurt, was released that is based upon Vjeko’s life.

Next year, near the end of his two year carpentry program Jean Paul was in the accident that placed him in a coma and almost took his life. After recovery from the coma, and with the help of his mother, he had to learn to read all over again. A year later the scar tissue became badly infected and the missionary, Ivica Peric who had taken over leadership of the school, drove Jean Paul across the border into Uganda for treatment. Father Ivica was a fellow Croat and long time friend of Vjeko.

After months of treatment in Kampala, Jean Paul finally came home and was employed as a helper at the school. A few years later due to his hard work, honesty and resolve Jean Paul was offered a position as an instructor.

While working at the school two years ago we became acquainted with Jean Paul. He was unquestioningly faithful to the school and we were immediately charmed by his intellect, character and integrity. When we returned to Canada my son Tim convinced his friends at high school to raise money to enable Jean Paul to come to Canada for four months of study at Olds College. Through their Interact Club (a Rotary affiliated service club for youth) and with the support of students, staff, and community, an art auction and banquet was held to raise the funds.

A visit to Jean Paul's house. A video by my son Tim.

Olds College Campus

Although I am a teacher at the same high school that my son attends I teach out of the Olds College carpentry labs. Our school is unique in that it is located on a college campus and many facilities are shared and the carpentry lab is a natural fit for me as I hold a journeyman’s level trade certificate in carpenter and a B.Ed in Vocational Education.

The carpentry lab is located on the other side of the campus and I often joke to my superiors that I have a shop teacher’s dream job. They ask: “Is it because you have the largest shop in the country?”

“Or is it because you have access to millions of dollars worth of tools and equipment?”

Jean Paul with carpentry instructor Chris
“Neither”, I reply “It’s because at any given time I’m a half mile away from administration!”

The other part of my job during the last four years has been to establish and pilot dual credit programs whereby high school students may take college courses and receive both secondary and post secondary credit. In implementing such programs, the level of support and accommodation I have always received from both institutions has been remarkable and the level of support we received for Jean Paul was no exception. Setting up a specialized training program was near child’s play. Jean Paul took a combination of apprenticeship level courses, high school courses, and individual tutoring. He studied teaching methodology and honed his carpentry and woodworking skills.

At the end of his four months of studies Jean Paul returned home. On the same day as I finished teaching, my son Tim and I accompanied Jean Paul for two months of volunteer work at his school. We would return the day before school started in the fall. My wife, Jayne, was unable to come with us this time as she had to work but she had gone to Rwanda last Christmas to teach English and will return again this November for a month.

Workbench at comercial furniture shop, Gitarama, Rwanda
One of the many projects Jean Paul and I took on this summer was the “Big Boss Workbench” – Ameza ya Babaji Yimbyeyi in Kinyarwanda. In many parts of Africa workbenches are almost unrecognizable as such; sometimes they are as simple as a couple logs nailed together and usually no more than a four legs haphazardly attached to a few old planks. The benches at CFJ are of no exception. In fact around here I cannot recall seeing any workbenches made much better.

For the last two years I have been trying to convince the carpentry instructors at the school to start building better benches. Two years ago we had the first carpentry instructor from Rwanda to come to Olds College in Canada for further studies. While he discovered that flat workbenches were much easier to work on, he had either no desire to change or no idea as to how to implement the change. Jean Paul, the Rwandan instructor we brought over this year, was similarly impressed with the benches at Olds College but was even more impressed with the two Roubo-style benches that I had made for my home workshop. He also had the desire, drive, and self-confidence to initiate change.
Typical school workbench

For the school benches we selected what is locally called cypress (pronounced here, “Sip – rus”) as it was by far the cheapest wood available. It is also very durable and hard – in fact, too hard to drive in a nail without pre-drilling. The wood grain is quite decorative; it is very wavy and has a strong contrast between the heart and sap woods. This leads to some difficulty when hand planing but the end result is a very impressive finished wood.

One thing everyone had to learn was how to hone a blade.
Plane irons were never honed and always resharpened to
the primary angle. This resulted in short blade life and
well worn stones. Banana stones, I called them.
In Rwanda the very concept of furniture is of recent introduction by European colonialists. Under the guidance of Belgium master carpenters the Rwandans were renowned in East and Central Africa for their craftsmanship. During the 1994 genocide a generation of craftsman and teachers disappeared. Their voices silenced, the collective knowledge gained from untold years of hard won trade experience was lost forever.

Trade training literally had to start from the beginning. Vocational teachers generally had at best the six years of state education plus from a couple months to two years of training in the trade. Some trade schools had no more than three or four tools in total and their graduates may never have had actually used any tools during their “studies”. Instruction was often in French, a language neither the instructors nor students spoke. Words would be written on a blackboard, the students would dutifully copy the words and memorize the answers – all without really understanding what was written. Most of the instructors I have met in Rwanda try hard but their lack of training is a hindrance. A high ranking Rwandan official confided to me that such is the state of the trades in Rwanda today that he had to hire workers from the Congo just to paint the trim on his house; he couldn’t find Rwandans capable. If I had the time and resources, I would establish a training facility for vocational instructors.

Nothing is wasted. Even the shavings are
collected and sold. One bag of sawdust
sells for the equivelent of a days wages.
As a result of a generation's worth of lost knowledge and the subsequent poor training, sturdily built furniture is rare in Rwanda. Straight and square furniture is rarer and when a workbench is constructed with more attention to detail and finished to much higher standards than is any other item of furniture in the village, it is sure to attract attention. And so it was that the students decided that the workbench was suitable for use as a table or desk by a very big and powerful boss, hence “the big boss workbench”.

The construction of the workbench, and its accessories, were perfect examples of project based learning. Many new tools and techniques were introduced to the staff and students. New tools such as jointer planes, tongue and groove planes, winding sticks, block planes, and card scrapers were introduced, demonstrated, and tried out by anyone brave enough to fight through the crowds. Techniques such as honing a blade instead of completely re-sharpening each time, saw sharpening,  truing the top by planing diagonally or cross-grain rather than always parallel with the grain, and drawbore joints were taught.

Dancilla varnishing the
second bench.
The No. 48 Lie Nielsen tongue and groove plane was a special hit. Jean Paul had seen and used mine at home and immediately saw the potential for such a tool. Without power, the joint was very tedious to make with a hand saw and chisel. Plywoods, apart from a cheap 1/8” Chinese import, are all but unavailable. Panels were made by butt joining and gluing with a locally available thick PVC glue of uncertain origins and quality. If the glue joints managed to hold, the differences in humidity between dry and wet seasons split the wood. Tongue and groove joints would greatly improve the durability and appearance of their work.

At the end of April I took Jean Paul to the Lie Nielsen Toolworks event at SAIT in Calgary. He was like a kid in a candy shop. Lie Nielsen’s team was accommodating; demonstrating the use of the tools and letting Jean Paul try all he wanted.

In Rwanda a carpenter or a teacher makes only about $40.00 a month but I am sure that if Jean Paul had the means he would have carted back the entire stock of tools in the room. In Kigali, even very cheaply made Chinese #4 planes go for three months wages; a Stanley #4 goes for about the same price as Lie Nielsen’s. However Jean Paul asked of nothing for himself, he only queried as to the possibility of getting the tongue and groove plane for the school. That, he decided,would be the single most valuable item in Lie Nielsen’s inventory. I ordered one to take over and also a Bronze edge plane that I would stingily keep for myself.

It was as if magic was preformed when Jean Paul and I demonstrated the plane to the students and staff at his school. Jaws literally dropped, and I suspect that some thought it was just a trick. At least an hour was occupied as we had to show and reshow everyone all the details of its use. The plane was taken apart and piece by piece it was examined. Over the next two months it seemed that every board that wasn’t nailed down suddenly had tongues or grooves cut into them!
A close scrutiny of the Lie Nielsen tongue and groove plane

As a carpenter schooled in North America I am quite naturally dependent upon power tools. I have always enjoyed using hand tools and my proficiency with such was probably greater than the average carpenter. Thirty years ago I used to sharpen all my own hand saws and circular saw blades. Carbide toothed blades and electric reciprocating saws left those skills somewhat on the sidelines. Cordless drills forced me to hang up my Stanley Yankee screwdriver. Biscuits replaced mortises, and routers and hinge templates replaced chisels. Although I left the trade as a means of full time employment, I have always kept busy renovating my house or helping friends.

About five years ago, through a friend, I got introduced to the school. She was a tailoring instructor and had developed that program for CFJ in Rwanda. She said they could use a bit of help with their carpentry program. As is often the case, one thing leads to another and I found myself in Rwanda.

Jean Paul with Chris Schwarz designed saw bench

After working in a setting without any electricity I came to realize that I would have to brush up on a few techniques. This is how I came across the works of hand tool guru Christopher Schwarz and his books, articles and videos. I quickly appreciated his skills, knowledge and ever-so-slightly offbeat sense of humour. Unrepentantly I expropriated his plans for workbenches, saw benches, layout squares and adapted them for use in Africa. I wrote him an email to thank him. He offered to put out a call to his readers for surplus tools. Once I work out the logistics of collecting and shipping the tools economically I will take him up on his kind offer.

Similarly, a chance email and photo sent to Lie Nielsen in reply to a confirmation of a shipped item resulted in contact by the marketing department and the possibility of a story about CFJ. I was a bit shocked by the interest from Lie Nielsen Toolworks and Christopher Schwarz, both of whom I hold in extremely high regard. I am more used to people nodding politely and half listening when I talk about Rwanda.

The most used tool in the school.
The English layout square.
Using Christopher’s Roubo-style workbenches as a base we adapted the plans to allow for local conditions and limitations. We decided on a leg vise on one side of the bench as I had picked up an old garage sale shoulder vise screw for a dollar. It lasted about two weeks before the casting cracked on front guide nut. We were not able to locate any vise screws in Rwanda. Luckily my tailoring instructor friend is heading over in a couple weeks and she lives very close to Lee Valley’s Calgary store where I could pick up a Veritas shoulder vise screw. I told my wife that the other bag I carried out of the store was just the instruction sheets for the vise! Experience dictated that she didn’t believe me.

In Rwanda, tools, vises included, generally cost two or three times what they cost in North America and they are usually of very poor quality. A cheap little 6 inch Chinese bench vise (not even quick release) was selling for over two months wages. I know China can produce high quality goods when it wants – take the iPhone and iPods for example – but the stuff they send to Africa is of extremely poor quality. I have had nuts from plumbing fixtures break as I hand tighten them.

Cam lever vise
Closing the vise
Opening the vise

Making dowel for the
drawbore pins.
Using spruce for the model I made in Canada it worked like a charm but with the resinous and oily cypress the wedge would just slip. A piece of sandpaper nailed on the wedge solved that problem. I don’t know how it will stand up to long term use but in the month of operation while I was there it became the vise of choice. Everyone much preferred it to the standard screw leg vise as they thought it easier and faster. A days wages worth of wood for a local carpenter now can accomplish as much as a few month’s wages worth of a commercial vise. To overcome the lack of affordable and decent quality vises, I designed a prototype cam operated leg vise that can be made entirely out of wood and made with the limited tools at hand. It was based upon I drawing I saw somewhere in an old book of a child’s craft bench.

No matter how many times I
see this, I still wince!

We also made three bench hold-downs. After a day’s search we had managed to find in the capital, Kigali, a supply of 15 mm round stock. With scraps of 2.5 mm by 15 mm flat iron welded together we managed to fabricate easy to make and functional hold-downs for the benches.

The hold-downs and the vises should expatiate a few operations. At least it should certainly be better than the usual way of chiselling out a dovetail joint which is to straddle the wood and chisel between your legs. I can only surmise that over the years Darwinian sexual selection plays a role in the acquisition of accurate of hand eye coordination.


Here is a short video, made by my son, highlighting the workbench. You can see the cam vise in action.

We also made a couple of sawing benches to compliment the big boss bench and to make the work more efficient. Add to that a couple of bench hooks, shooting boards, whetstone boxes and the school is now well on the way to having a functional woodworking shop.

Sometimes the Big Boss Bench was the only bench in the whole school that was being used.


Making lumber

Sunday, 11 September 2011

Starting my own blog.

I have been back in Canada now for a couple weeks. I arrived about a day before I had to start work.

The last month in Rwanda was incredibly busy. I had just finished re-designing the school’s two year carpentry program and then was asked to work on establishing one year programs in welding, plumbing, and electricity. At the moment I am attempting to catch up on the last few months of Canadian life and commitments that I have ignored while in Africa.

Re-establishing my life here has kept me busy enough. Catching up on my lesson planning, course organization, and school commitments for the next year has kept me busier. The first few days’ jet lag further slowed me down and the cold or flu that I picked up at one of the airport layovers or during one of our flights on the 34 hour trip back really provided me with a good excuse to procrastinate.

Now things are slowly getting back to normal (busy but manageable) and I am finally getting around to establishing a blog. Ideally I would have done this during the summer if: (a) I had enough free time, (b) I had reliable internet access and speed, and (c) if I didn’t get distracted by some other pressing project, or (d) all of the above…

I have been somewhat taken aback and humbled by the interest generated by my work in Rwanda. I originally became involved with CFJ School because they needed help and I had something to offer. I didn’t go to change the world or impose my knowledge on others. My philosophy has always been to plant seeds; some of which will grow and some of which will die. Some seeds will mature on their own, most however will be dependant upon the care and nourishing of others.

Keep in mind as you read these entries that these thoughts and observations are mine alone. I speak only for myself. We are at best a grassroots venture. My travels to Africa are entirely self-funded. The tools and supplies I bring over are bought from my own resources. We have no charitable status and get no tax receipts for our donations.

We have a very comfortable life in North America. We take for granted our opportunities of education, freedom, and security. Of these, most in the world cannot but dream. Though fortuitous accident of birth I was born here and I help because I can.

I too, gain as much as I give. I truly believe that not many people laying on their deathbed think: “I wish I made another dollar during my lifetime”. I believe it rather more likely that one will reflect upon the time they spent with their family and loved ones. I think that one will reflect upon their good deeds and how these added purpose to one’s life. I think that one will reflect with pride the beauty and utility created with ones’ own hands.

To have the opportunity to go to Africa with my family, to teach, to help others, and to build a few things, comes at a very cheap cost – a few dollars that ultimately will never be missed.

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.

Wednesday, 27 July 2011

The Kivumu Junction on the Kigali-Butare Highway

On July 25th, a Kigali-bound truck loaded with 14 tonnes of sand overturned just west of the Kivumu junction leaving its two occupants with serious injuries. The junction lies at the bottom of a long steep grade of about 4 kilometers in length. Just past the junction are a couple sharp turns. This area has been the scene of many past accidents but this last week had been exceptionally bad.
A few meters away a Kenyan national died on July 21st after he lost control and the transport truck he was driving veered off the road before it overturned. On the same day a few kilometers to the west another accident, involving a bus and three people riding on a bicycle left the three with serious injuries.
On Sunday (July 24th) morning, a truck loaded with charcoal lost control and rammed into an abandoned church building about 400 meters past the junction. The church was abandoned for the past three years due to one too many similar accidents.

The Kivumu Junction on the Kigali-Butare Highway

On July 25th, a Kigali-bound truck loaded with 14 tonnes of sand overturned just west of the Kivumu junction leaving its two occupants with serious injuries. The junction lies at the bottom of a long steep grade of about 4 kilometers in length. Just past the junction are a couple sharp turns. This area has been the scene of many past accidents but this last week had been exceptionally bad.
A few meters away a Kenyan national died on July 21st after he lost control and the transport truck he was driving veered off the road before it overturned. On the same day a few kilometers to the west another accident, involving a bus and three people riding on a bicycle left the three with serious injuries.
On Sunday (July 24th) morning, a truck loaded with charcoal lost control and rammed into an abandoned church building about 400 meters past the junction. The church was abandoned for the past three years due to one too many similar accidents.
The last accident at the abandened church.
View from the road.