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Published: February 3rd 2012
After almost five months in the US, I've finally found my way back to Burundi for more research. Hooray! My favorite bit of news so far is that there's an "Acid Bug" (also known as "Nairobi Fly") infestation in Bujumbura. While they don't bite, they do secrete acid onto your skin if you touch them. Fantastic. If I develop blisters all over my body, at least I'll know where they came from. August
As it turns out, I never blogged about my last month in Burundi. So, I will quickly catch everyone up. Most of August, was spent working in the prison, which I can only describe as both fascinating and emotionally draining. Mpimba prison is a rough place. One year, food shortages prompted the prisoners to riot and set the front building on fire - I don't know if the story is true, but I was told this is why the director does his work at a little plastic table in the front yard. Each day we passed through the gates with nothing between us and the 3,000 prisoners inside, except our escort. Weeks went by before I realized that he was, himself, a prisoner. He
Juliet. Mom, can I keep her?
said he joined the rebellion in 1996 "to kill Tutsis." He didn't know how many he'd killed. Yikes.
During my last visit, we found that one of the women was in isolation for hanging her newborn. Why would someone kill their own child? Maybe she was she crazy or sick. Perhaps she realized she couldn't sustain three lives (she had another son) on 700g of food a day. All of the above? The male and female prisons are only separated by a door, and resources are scarce. Women often end up trading the only resource they have to gain access to extra food and money: their bodies. For a maximum of about 500FBu per 'transaction' (which could buy a few oranges or a can of tomato sauce at the market), women risk pregnancy! contracting HIV and other STDs, and giving birth with almost no access to medical care. I sat around an old wooden table with the female prisoners during one focus group, only to find out that the table doubled as a place for the women to give birth. Still listening, I tried to nonchalantly take my hands off the table. And my notebook. And my bag. And
as I left that day, one of the men tried to sell me a child for 50,000 FBu (about $40). Yes, Mpimba is a rough place.
While I somehow loved working in the prison, I couldn't stay long. Tensions escalated between the government and opposition parties, and the director of the NGO decided it would be best to scale back on the prison programs in order to keep a low profile. So, my work ended. August was full of surprises.
During my last week in Burundi, I visited one of Buja's more peculiar attractions. Musée Vivant has crocodiles, snakes, a jaguar, a monkey, and a chimpanzee, amongst other animals, all for your viewing pleasure. However, the opportunity to go into the crocodile's cage and touch it was definitely unexpected. Juliet was the sweetest crocodile I ever met, and since she had just been fed, I took comfort in knowing that she wasn't hungry. I figure it couldn't have been a bad decision, because I made it out alive. Don't fight the logic. It's flawless. We also got to hold lots of snakes, though I thought it was strange when our guide put a viper on the ground in
front of us. The chimp is wonderful and loves sweets, but she's also strong enough to break out of her cage every once in a while, which is made of metal. Strangely enough, no one seems to think this is a major problem. I suppose Musée Vivant is most notorious for feeding guinea pigs to the jaguar and crocodiles for a small fee. We didn't ask them to do it, but when a family near us on our tour did, we bore witness to a depressing spectacle. Did you know jaguars like to play with their food? Finding My Way Back
Before returning to Burundi, there was a lot to do. Back in the US, I defended my qualifying exams, defended my dissertation proposal, completed grant applications, and applied for IRB approval (the ethics committee for human subjects research). I also taught a middle school theatre class... not my best idea, in retrospect. I went home for the holidays, where I managed to make a new and improved packing list
for my trip back. Unfortunately, not everything on my packing list made it in my bag. I prioritized my time with family, friends, and grant applications over my time spent packing. While
For some, the trucks speed up an otherwise very long uphill hike. But they were slowing us down.
I don't regret this, I do not recommend packing for a 5 month trip in 40 minutes. Eh, it's a trade-off.
After a week in DC catching up with friends and buying everything I forgot to pack, I boarded the plane to Bujumbura. The trip was 40 hours in total, with a stop in London just long enough for me to get out and see the city for a bit. I met up with two of my professors, Julian and Emily, who gave me an efficient tour: fabulous Indian lunch, Covent Garden, "the bridge that Bridget Jones walked across in the movie," and Trafalgar Square. There was even time for an academic/research pep-talk. After that, it was back to airports and airplanes until I arrived in Burundi.
On my first day back, I took the bus into the city, changed money, bought a phone (my fifth in Burundi - I'm hoping not to lose another one), and got home in under two hours. I felt (feel) so much more at home than the girl who came to Burundi for the first time last June, grasping for the words to ask about where the bus stop might be. I
also spontaneously accompanied my housemate to the country's interior to observe prenatal care in health centers. We traveled to Ruyigi and Cankuzo, where I found that introducing yourself in Kirundi can break the uneasy gaze of a skeptical group. Nothing stops people from staring, but I always choose laughter over silence. That weekend, the exchange went something like this:
Me: Mwaramutse, nitwa Adrienne. (Good morning, my name is Adrienne.)
*Laughter* Some respond; some leave to tell others that the 'muzungu' is speaking Kirundi. One man, named Adrien, tells everyone who will listen that my name is Adrienne. He's thrilled.
Someone: Urazi Kirundi? (You speak Kirundi?)
Me: Oya! Ndagerageza, mugabo biragoye. (No! I try, but it's difficult.)
Personally, I don't mind it all that much. If they think I'm different, that's because it's true in many ways. Besides, I often catch myself staring back. I find it funny how many people get bothered by people calling 'muzungu' at them - especially when so many of the same people perfectly happy to snap photos of children with distended bellies and women with huge jugs of water on their heads (who hasn't seen an album like that from one
of their friends who went to Africa?). These photos capture things that we, as Westerners, don't see every day - something different from our own lives. Each snap of the shutter says, "African!" about as loudly as I've ever heard anyone yell muzungu.
I think we all have our ways of marveling at what's different and interesting to us. People back home aren't above it - they just have a different way of doing it. And, by the way, curiosity is not the worst quality you can come across in people.
While it definitely gets old at times, I welcome the laughter. I once got on the T in Boston, and I tripped over my own two feet and fell on my face (those of you who know me well know that this is a common occurrence) - and not one person on the entire train acknowledged that it happened. You know what's worse than everyone laughing at you? Everyone looking at you sideways, underneath their sunglasses, and pretending they don't notice. You try to dust yourself off and give a chuckle, and everyone sniffs and turns away... thank you, Boston. Here, when I run after the bus on
See? People living life. I take these pictures, too, sometimes.
my way into town, and everyone is laughing and yelling muzungu and yelling at the driver to wait for me, I'm somewhat thankful that at least I'm not the only one who notices how I look. Life is more fun that way.
More on Ruyigi and other travels later. I've begun doing my interviews, and I'm taking a trip this weekend to Tanzania. So, there will be more to write about soon. For now, let me just say that the blog is back (however infrequent my posts may be)!
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