Sunday, March 30, 2014

Life below the Equator

Bujumbura, Burundi

I finally made it out of West Africa! (Other than Tanzania, but that doesn't count because I was only there a week)

Sorry this is blurry! But you get the idea.

Never heard of Burundi? Well, neither had the obnoxious missionary from Texas that I was sitting next to on the way to Nairobi, who told me all about his charity that flies around the world to deliver bibles to other missionaries, and in the same breath told me that Africans should massacre all of their leaders as a way of addressing corruption. Needless to say, I moved to the empty seat in front of me at the first opportunity, aka, as soon as the plane leveled off...

But don't feel bad if you've never heard of Burundi, Even Google thinks I'm in Rwanda. 


The google home screen on my laptop.

The journey itself, DC-Amsterdam-Nairobi-Bujumbura, was actually more tolerable than I was expecting. It was a lot of connections but I didn’t have any terrible layovers (like my 9 hours in Paris on the way to Abidjan, or the 11 hours in Ouagadougou on my way to Niamey), so it didn’t feel like it took that much longer than usual. 

Let me start by saying: this country is BEAUTIFUL. It’s a little hidden oasis in the middle of Africa. So much greenery and sunshine and mountains and sparkling Lake Tanganyika! If this country didn’t have so many armed political factions and rampant government corruption, they could really make a buck or two off of tourism. But before anyone gets worried—no, the armed political groups are not dangerous to me, unless maybe I walked up and kicked some of them in the shin, but the conflicts are all inter-political party.

On my walk to the office

View from a cafe downtown

Before the rainstorm.

A brief little snapshot of conflict in Burundi—
Burundi gained independence in 1962, and suffered instability, ethnic clashes, and civil war until a peace and power-sharing agreement in 2006, officially ending the conflict. Modern day Burundi is one of the poorest countries in the world per capita and also has one of the highest population densities in Africa, which is feeding the current main source of conflict -- over land! About 95% of the population relies on agriculture as a means of survival, and there is very limited land to go around. Burundi is roughly the size of Massachusetts and has a population of around 9 million (whereas MA is about 7 million) which when you consider that everyone needs land to farm and feed themselves, you can imagine how tense the situation is. To make matters worse, there are a lot of Burundians that fled to neighboring countries during the conflict that are now returning to Burundi, expecting to still own whatever land they had before, but finding that their land has been sold to someone else (particularly by the government). Meanwhile, the government is only concerned with staying in power, and has made little to no effort to bolster the economy. 

The President, currently in the midst of trying to review the constitution to give the executive more power, is busy repressing the opposition and restricting the freedoms of Burundi’s people. For example, I’ve recently heard that Burundians are not allowed to walk in groups larger than 10, or they will be suspected of demonstrating and subject to arrest. I mean, what is this, Stalinist Russia? (or modern Russia..bahdumchhhhh). But it’s really baffling to me that this seems to be such a cyclical story. I mean, just 5 years ago this happened in Niger—President tries to rewrite the constitution to give himself another term in office, and how did that end again? Yea, a coup. Is it really that difficult to learn from history? And I’m not just talking to Africa here. This is more of a “Dear World Leaders” comment. 

But enough of that, let’s be selfish—what am I doing here? Well, since you asked, Heartland has a lot of projects in this region, which is called the Great Lakes region. (Not to be confused with the US great lakes region. So, no, I am not writing this from Michigan.) There are no projects right now that are specific to Burundi. They are all Burundi and the eastern region of Democratic Republic of Congo. One of the coolest projects, I think, is an anti-human trafficking program that rescues trafficking victims, provides temporary shelter/food, and then provides vocational training. There is also a mental health integration project that trains recent psychology grads at universities in trauma-informed psychosocial care. Because there has been so much conflict in this region, there are a lot of survivors of violence (especially sexual violence) that are suffering from PTSD, depression, and anxiety, and are not receiving the care they need. The mental health project integrates these psychologists into local hospitals and conducts outreach, to try and identify those who need to be referred for services. We also have a labor rights project for women in the mining sector and a women’s empowerment program, but I haven’t learned as much about those yet as those project are DRC only. 

My role out here is to provide a lot of general support, since there has been a lot of management staff turnover, and to help with communication. None of the Burundi staff speak English, and unfortunately the Chicago-based director for these projects does not speak French, so communication has been difficult. They are about to hire someone to serve as Deputy out here, and if he’s able to come soon, I might have to lead the onboarding process, but that remains to be seen. I have only been in Burundi so far, helping with a large proposal that ultimately was not submitted, but I will be travelling to DRC this coming week to start diving into some of the other programs. 

And now for fun stuff!!

Food here is really good and fresh. Fish is a staple because the lake is right there, and vegetables appear a lot more frequently than I’ve seen in other African dishes. One of the local delicacies that I tried is called ndagala, which are little minnow-like fish that are only found in Lake Tanganyika. These little fish are fried whole, and then served with sautéed onions and lime. It’s pretty tasty. I’ve also tried many other types of fish and rice and vegetables. Everything has been good.As for the weather, I actually think its a bit cooler than Accra was, even though Burundi is right below the equator, maybe it only feels that way because it's currently the rainy season, which keeps things slightly cooler.


Plate of ndagala.

Last weekend, one of my coworkers at the office took me to a resort on Lake Tanganyika, about an hour from Bujumbura, to spend the day lounging in the sun and swimming in the crystal clear lake. Lake Tanganyika is not only the deepest lake in Africa; it is the second deepest lake in the world! Nestled between Tanzania, Burundi, DRC and Zambia, Lake Tanganyika is home to more than 250 different species of fish, most of which are only found in this specific lake, making it a prime spot for conservation biologists—get on it, Becky! But what is really interesting, is that the majority of African cichlids that are found in aquariums, like those that my brother had growing up, come from Lake Tanganyika. So I got to swim with them in their nature habitat!

Lake Tanganyika! The land in the distance is DRC.

You can kind of see the fish swimming around. Although right after I took this pic I dropped my sunglasses in the water, and decided it was only a matter of time until it was my phone, so I stopped trying to photograph the fish from the pier.

The water is really clear, and my friend brought a pair of goggles for me to use, so I spent a lot of time hunting down the brightly colored fish and watching as they chase each other around, trying to defend their territory. African cichlids are notoriously aggressive and territorial, preferring to have their own little rock-enclave to defend. There are a lot of rocks underneath the pier pictured below, so naturally there were a lot of cichlids hanging about. I had a good laugh sticking my feet under the pier, scaring some of the fish away, and watching the domino effect as other fish out of my foot range then chased the other fish away again. Yes, I know I’m a terrible person.

Little pier out into the water, on which I was standing while taking photos of the fish above.


The face all fish should fear!

So, despite the heavy workload, I am managing to find ways to amuse myself! I only have two more days left in Burundi, and will travel over to Bukavu, in DRC, on Tuesday, which is where the bulk of Heartland’s work takes place. I’ve heard it’s just as beautiful as Burundi, but I’ll have to wait and see! It's hard to imagine a place as beautiful as this...



  1. Great to hear your news, Giz!! - and see these wonderful pictures! Safe travels to DRC tomorrow! Love you, Rachel

  2. This sounds amazing!! I am all for a family field trip to Africa. Or "Beach Week- Africa" if you will. Safe travels!! -- Kate