Pardon Our French

(and Kirundi)

Rainy rainy season

This time of year is really the heart of the rainy season. It’s supposed to be raining. Just not this much. This is actually a very rainy rainy season.

Sure there are some annoyances about it: trying to dry clothes, go for a run, and the incessant darkness. However, it’s pretty easy to look over those as insignificant when you see what’s going on around us.

Last week there was a mudslide in Burundi where 40 people were killed. Houses and fields were wiped out as it seems the entire side of a hill just let go and slid down into the valley.

Many of the people around us live in pretty rudimentary houses, so when it really rains, the drips through their roofs become constant.

Yesterday Susan was at the house of a woman who finally just removed a brick from her wall, and made essentially a small channel right through her house for the water. She couldn’t keep it out anymore, so at least she could try to control it and get it out the other side.

As I write this, it is pouring outside…actually…let me show you…

Jonah has been receiving texts and pictures from friends who live in Kenya. Houses flooded, belongings destroyed.

Probably the worst that we know of is from our Serge team in Bundibugyo, on the far western edge of Uganda.

Last week they had a series of mudslides with devastating effects. BBC even reported on it.

A woman we know who works in the area just barely made it through as mudslides full of massive boulders came down both in front of her and behind her.

Behind us “after” photo of the road
In front of them
Ahead of us
behind them!

Our Serge team there is stepping up and trying to do what they can.

We have water engineers on that team who are currently trying to restore water since all distribution pipes to the area were wrecked.

Josh getting deeply involved in his work.

You can read more of that whole story here, and please – please – consider helping them out with the fund they have set up to bring emergency response to those most affected. They are gathering disaster response aid and distributing it to those who lost everything.

As has been pointed out to me – this feels even more frustrating as the effects of climate change seem to often be unevenly felt by those who have played such a small role in creating the problem.

We are fine here, just a bit damp. Please pray for the situation across East Africa right now. If crops continue to get destroyed, it could cause a massive problem in the area come harvest time.

What a difference a decade makes

{PART OF THE MEA CULPA SERIES OF POSTS _ where I post things I should have written a long time ago… yeah…that’s on me.}

{{{ Apparently, this was something I wrote almost exactly 9 years ago in 2010 after we had moved back to France. Not sure why I never posted it…but here it is just as I found it in my drafts folder.

Several things struck me while reading it: 1) we had only three kids 2)what must this kind of comparison be here in Burundi. Even in the four and a half years we’ve lived here, we’ve seen some significant changes) }}}

The last time we moved to Grenoble it was August 1999.  We had been married just over three years, no kids.  We could easily pack up most of what we owned, put in in storage in our parents’ basement, take the rest in a few suitcases, stop renting the apartment we were in, and go.  We found a cheap apartment in the city where I could walk to school. We were planning on being here about 12 months or so.

This time we have 3 kids going into school – one starting school for the first time here. We had a house and cars to get rid of. We had to sell a lot of stuff, just to get down to having a storage shed left.  We had to rent out our house. We had to base where we lived more on where the kids would go to school than anything.  We plan on being here for 4 years or so.

The other HUGE change is the way technology affects your ability to stay connected over long distances.

Last time we had a phone at our apartment and expensive long distance calls to Canada. Very expensive. We probably called home a few times a year. We had dial-up internet at home.   In order to get music we would buy a few CD’s whenever we were back in Canada and physically bring them here.  In order to get shows from North America we became part of a rather large and organized international television smuggling ring.  Friends of ours had some contacts back in California who would tape shows onto VHS cassettes, then they would either be mailed over – or more often, saved up and brought over en-masse when someone was back in the US. Then there was a systematic passing of the tapes around a small and organized ex-pat community.  Occasionally one of the tapes would go missing and we would be left in the lurch – not knowing what happened on the season finale of Alias!

 Email was our primary form of communication with people back in Canada.  In order to show what we were up to – we could attach a few pictures that we took on our 1 MegaPixel digital camera.

This time we have a package at our house that gives us (for €39 a month) broadband internet, tons of digital tv stations and unlimited phone calls to all over France and North America.  We can buy our music the exact same way we did back home – online.  We can watch streaming TV, post essentially unlimited photos, videos and whatever else on this blog and other places.  We can use skype to have free video calls anywhere in the world. I can use Google Translate to make a (usually) incredibly accurate instant and free translation of any document, webpage, or text of any kind.  Facebook & Twitter allow us to keep up with friends dispersed all over the globe.

Yes, we had these things back in Canada – but somehow the power of them to give some sense of being less disconnected did not really occur to me until we were living here.

I’m not sure what the point is.

 I guess: “living in the future is pretty cool”  

Well, that and “No, it does not make it feel like we’re still back in Canada – which is at the same time unfortunate and fantastic”

Katavi {Pt.II}

{PART OF THE MEA CULPA SERIES OF POSTS _ where I post things I should have written a long time ago… yeah…that’s on me.}

The second day we got the same guide and saw some new things, some of the same things…but it was great.

{again…almost all these pictures were taken by Jonah…}

Also…I suppose we should have figured that the one tube available at the one open-air tire ‘shop’ in town …would not last super long.

He took us to a spot along a river where there is a spring, so there is always mud, so there is always hippos. Dozens and dozens of hippos, all squished in together, nose-to-tail.

We drove back to Kigoma, and overnighted there again, and then headed back across the border and home.

hammock&mosquito net makes a good night sleep

Katavi National Park {Pt.I}

or: How to see amazing African animals without the normal crowding and cost.

{PART OF THE MEA CULPA SERIES OF POSTS _ where I post things I should have written a long time ago… yeah…that’s on me.}

In August we decided to take a road trip that we’ve been talking about for a few years. Katavi National Park in Tanzania. We took two extra passengers along – Kayla our teacher and Lauren our intern.

Katavi is about 560km south of us – according to a map. Now, if you are more familiar with the TransCanada Highway, US-Interstates, or les Autoroutes Français (like we were when we moved here) that doesn’t sound so bad. Maybe 6 hours tops, depending on how much you stop.

The boys getting the truck ready for the journey
Adding on what we think we might need: heavy-duty jack, sand tracks, tools, etc.

It takes a few hours to get to the Tanzanian border, which is maybe 130km (but that’s not bad since the 130km to Buja takes closer to 3 hours). It then takes 2 hours to cross the border. {insert lesson in patience}

lining up for Ebola screening at the border. Step 4 of 7.

Then we’re close to Kigoma, down on the shore of Lake Tanganyika. By that time we’re already too far into the day to make it to Katavi, so we camp for the night.

made it to Tanzania… {it may be a bit warm here}

The next day we start off on the beautiful paved highway, but at one point, we turn south and are on a dirt road for the rest of the trip.

The road actually is not that bad, but what is more concerning is the absolute lack of people. Especially coming from Burundi where there is a constant stream of people, bicycles, animals on the highway, and little clusters of homes every few kilometres…it was almost a bit spooky.

We knew this – so we did try to prepare the truck as best we could.

About 30 min into what we were told might be an 8-hour drive – we got a flat tire.

YAY for Matea’s good ear that could hear the flat over the noise of a Land Cruiser full of people bouncing over a dirt road with the windows open
yeah…that will do it

So…that was a bit concerning.

However, we got it changed, put on the spare, and then prayed that this would be our only flat as we now were hours from our destination, and without a spare.

We got to the village that sits just outside the park and checked out the first of the two lodging options available. Not exactly overwhelmingly nice. So we drove across a small bridge to the other place. After a long wait, and asking multiple people, they told us they don’t have any room. Well, they have room, it was essentially empty, but some people had just left, and they wouldn’t be able to have those rooms ready for a few days.


view of our ‘hotel’ from the river….by the hippos and crocs.

SO back to the first place. By this time, apparently the only other tourists had arrived and had taken the available rooms they had shown us 30 minutes earlier. However, after some back and forth, they cleared out some other rooms, found some keys, and we were set.

This ‘hotel/campground’ had….shall we say…character. We needed three rooms for all of us: the toilet didn’t work in one, the shower didn’t work in another. There was some running cold water. Power was only on during the day…and then only for a few low wattage lights, no plugins. They were able to scrounge up some plastic chairs and a table so we could set up a place to eat outside, looking over our truck to at least 2 dozen hippos. We got some veggies and fruit and bottled water from some stands in the village, and it worked out great.

Fun Fact: hippos make INCREDIBLY loud grunting noises. All night long.

Katavi is an enormous park, the biggest in Tanzania at 4,500km2! (so driving around aimlessly by yourself is not a great solution) However, due to how incredibly remote it is, it gets fewer visitors in an entire year than Serengeti Park in Tanzania does….in a single day.

Now, the next day actually started out pretty frustratingly. We found the main Park office, paid the fees and paid for a guide since it’s a HUGE park. What they didn’t tell us was: our guide had started a day or two before we got there, he knew essentially nothing about where animals were in the park. After SIX HOURS of driving in incredibly hot, incredibly dusty terrain, where we HAD to keep all the windows shut since the swarms of Tse-tse flies were unlike anything I’d seen before, turning around many times, missing turns, going down wrong paths….we essentially were done. We went back to the office, where the main guy asked us if we saw lions.


OK, but lots of buffalo. nope

Giraffes and lots of elephants for sure? nope

OK -but at least the hippos and the crocks?

Actually we saw more hippos at our campsite.

hippos shared our sleeping quarters

He immediately got us a new guide and said we had to head back out. There was a lot of skepticism in the Land Cruiser. So we went back, got lunch, took a break from sitting in the truck. Then I went back and picked up the new guide and we headed out very late in the afternoon.

regrouping back at the ‘hotel’

What a difference a good guide makes.

In the first 6 hours, we saw almost nothing. Then from 4-7 pm we saw the following:

[essentally all of these pictures were taken by Jonah…]

end of a good day
game of cards while supper cooks
supper at the end of a long, great, day

How Low Can You Go?

One of the strange things we have found living up here in Kibuye is that our perspective has shifted.  

A lot.

When we first arrived in Burundi, we lived in the capital, Bujumbura. As we explored the city we saw a place that was very economically underdeveloped. It felt almost quasi-rural at times, with herds of goats grazing along the main roads and cows being herded down busy streets. After having spent over three years in Kibuye, we now go to Bujumbura and are shocked at how much traffic there is, how many women wear pants and other western clothes. How almost everyone has shoes, and people drive their own cars. There are grocery stores and restaurants, and now even traffic lights. In short- we’ve become more used to the very rural, very underresourced people who live and work in and around Kibuye hill.

This week we glimpsed into the world of someone for whom the small brick houses with old clay-tile roofs around Kibuye village probably feel to her like what we feel when we go back to the capital. 

This is a woman who lost her husband just over a year ago and is left with two small children. Her youngest is a girl, just over 6 years old. This girl suffered from a severe, severe, burn which rendered one of her hands essentially useless. She fell in a fire when she was only a baby, and never received any medical attention for it.

Since the mother simply cannot get enough food for her family she comes to our malnutrition program. She carries her daughter on her back every Monday and Friday to Kibuye. 

It takes her two hours to walk. She has no shoes. She carries her six-year-old. And she walks.

Two hours there.

Women wrapped in their Kitenge cloth – waiting at our malnutrition program
photo: Scott Myhre

Several hours at our malnutrition feeding program.
Two hours back.
To get a bowl of porridge, some dry porridge to take home and a hard-boiled egg.

Two times a week.

She does it because there is little else that she could do with a half-day that would help feed her children that much.

Susan has been helping her out extra because our surgeon said he should be able to do some operations that would significantly help her get some mobility and utility back to her hand.  However – she is far to undernourished for surgery.  So Susan has been helping the mother, giving her an extra kilo of porridge every week, giving her beans, trying to help her get her little 6-year-olds weight up so that she is strong enough for surgery.

She told Susan that she borrows a Kitenge cloth (the bright printed cloth that women here wear) from one of her neighbours to come to the feeding program.  

Let that sink in.

This woman does not have clothes that are nice enough to come to a program for parents who cannot feed their own children in one of the poorest, hungriest regions, in one of the poorest hungriest countries in the world. So she has to borrow something from her neighbour.

Getting out to walk the last few hundred meters

She also told Susan one day that her roof leaks so badly, that it’s very hard for her and the kids during the rainy season.  The rains have just returned a few weeks ago, and sometimes it comes down so hard that we get some drips through our 1-year-old metal roof. It’s hard to imagine what she means when she says “leaks a lot.” So last week, after the feeding program we drove with her out to her house.

decided this bridge was unlikely to support the Land Cruiser

We asked her how she could see enough to do anything in the house. She has no lantern, no light. She says she holds a burning stick in one hand while she does things. Suddenly a toddler falling into a fire seems to be more of an inevitability instead of poor parental supervision. 
The mother’s parents are both dead, as are the parents of her deceased husband. She has only one remaining brother, but he lives very far away and has some serious mental health issues of his own. Her husband had some family, but they won’t help her, even when she tells them there is no food for the children. And from looking around the mud-brick hut, it was pretty clear that when she means no food, she really means it.

We asked her if none of the people in the village have reached out to help her. Why don’t any of her neighbours help her with her leaky roof? She said that a few of the men have offered to help her.

the path leading to their house – beyond the small bridge

Their house is made of mud-bricks.  Essentially there is enough clay in the soil around here that if you find a good pocket of dirt, you can cut out large blocks of it, let it dry in the sun, and they will hold together for quite a while. Her roof is dried banana leaves woven over some branches. The interior of the house was pitch black when we were there in the middle of the day, with spots of sunlight pin-pricking through all over the roof. You could see how rain must pour through.

the inside of their roof

On condition that she sleeps with them.

If I think of vulnerability – being susceptible to harm, being exposed, unprotected – this is who I picture. In a culture where men have more rights, more priveledges, more respect, and better options than women, this widow really is at the bottom of a social pecking order.

So – what’s the point of me relaying this story?

To make you feel guilty? Not at all.

To just get it off my chest? Maybe a little.

To honour her in some small way by making her story known? Perhaps

Partially, I suppose it’s for all of us – definitely, me included – to be more aware of what we have. To be thankful. To not begrudge those who have more.

To not be jealous.

To be content.

Also not to look at someone who is materially and socially less well off than I am, and think “well, at least I’m not THEM!” But to realise that having food, and clothing, and a supportive family &/or community is A LOT. It really is.

And I suppose the other thing I need to remember is that instead of looking for those few who have more than I do, I should be more aware of the others. Instead of looking at the 1% or so of the world’s population that appears to have more than me – to be more mindful of the other 99%. I think, at least for me, that helps to nurture generosity and kindness while looking at the 1% breeds jealousy and unrest. And that’s something that I definitely need to work on.