A pic Priya gave me from Brenna’s birthday in November!

A pic Priya gave me from Brenna’s birthday in November!

Belgian Slang

Burundi and Rwanda were formally colonized by Belgium between 1924 and independence in 1962 (the DRC was a Belgian colonial possession between 1885 and 1960). For better or for worse, at this point, my French is definitely infused with some serious Belgian slang. I think it would be fitting, therefore, to pay that "français familier" a brief tribute.

Burundias/Congolais (Belge/bara barani) expressions that have majorly entered my otherwise "correcte" (oh those linguistic snobs) français:

1) nonante/septante=90/70 (instead of the French “quatre-vingt-dix” and “soixante-dix.” Definitely makes counting easier in Belgium)

2) “En tout cas”: a classic Burundian vocalized pause that is friendly and amusing, followed by “enfin”, a close second. Love it when Francissimo says this one.

3) “C’est (comme) ÇA”: a way to describe pretty much everything, especially frustrations with life and difficult situations. Literally means “It’s like that,” although I would translate it more closely to “That’s life!” Either way, I love being able to decisively conclude a point by just saying, yeah, “C’est comme ça (DUH).”

4) The use of "savoir" au lieu de "pouvoir": That is to say, “tu saches dire l’heure” instead of “tu peux me dire l’heure” to ask what time it is. Amusing, if you are inclined to appreciate such things (as I, a lame word-nerd, clearly am).

5) vidange = empty (plastic) bottle (Not a word I’ve ever heard in French before. Def a Belgian thing, rather like how Americans say “truck” and “trunk” and Brits say “lorry” and “boot”

6) The use of "au niveau de" to mean “as far as…is concerned,” (ex. “au niveau de la justice, il faut lancer beaucoup des sensibilizations) instead of “quant à” or a myriad of other similar ways to get a similar point acorss.

7) The use of “un peu” the way I use “real quick” or “for a sec” to diminish the significance and duration of an action. Example, instead of saying “Viens voir pendant une minute” (come see for a minute), a Burundian might say, “Viens voir un peu,” i.e. “Come check this out for a sec?”

Funny quote from Dennis

This doesn’t always apply, but vintage Dennis humor and also made me wistful in a silly way while Dennis, Scho, and I were waiting in BJM for my flight home (they were heading to Nairobi and Kigali, respectively).

Me: “Do either of you guys know where the bathroom is?”
Dennis: “What, do you not have a proper nose?”


Somewhere in Amsterdam at an ungodly hour.

Somewhere in Amsterdam at an ungodly hour.

Re:Miss Burundi 2012 Pageant

Bellyse asked: Whoa I thank you for sharing this! Not a lot of people mention the fact that Miss Burundi candidates are Tutsi girls. Mais bon I’ve seen a lot of critics on FB saying the girl didn’t deserve that 1st place. Why is that because I really don’t understand.

(In response to one of my followers:)
First of all, my friend Yvette explained to me that while the girls are theoretically from Rutana and Muyinga and Bubanza and Kirundo, they’re all actually from Bujumbura. Their parents are from those provinces. You’d have to look pretty long and hard to find Tutsi girls in rural areas, because basically all of them are wealthy enough to live in the capital. So to find the girls that look like what they want for the pageant, the rules allow for girls to “be from” a province even if their parents are simply from there and they live elsewhere. In Yvette’s words, “do you really think they actually go recruit in the countryside? No. Those girls are all, ALL from Bujumbura.”

As far as who won, the girl that won was actually my favorite simply because they said at the very beginning that she is a mother. A Burundian woman has, on average, 6.5 children in her lifetime. Therefore, I thought it was representative that Miss Burundi be a young mother. I was also just extremely impressed that she could be that beautiful and poised while taking care of a young child, working to support her family, and also competing in pageants. I don’t know if there’s a financial prize for being Miss Burundi (as there is for Miss America), but she certainly deserved it, which is one of the main reasons I liked her. She was also extremely beautiful.

That being said, all the girls were pale-skinned, narrow-figured, tall, and slender with prominent European features and bone structure. The were all graceful and poised. I don’t know much about how beauty pageants are judged, but the girl who won (#11 from Muyinga, if I recall correctly) was my favorite from the beginning. My friends’ favorite, however, was #8 (I forget where she was “from”…maybe Rutana or Kayanza?), and she was without question the stand-out beauty among all the contestants. She was arrestingly, stunningly gorgeous.

However, the contest is run in French and Kirundi. This girl (#8) who evidently lives in Uganda (and has for some time…!?), answered all her questions in English. Like really? REALLY though? I’m confident that her refusal to respond in either of Burundi’s national languages was pretty decisively disqualifying. I mean, can you imagine if a finalist for Miss America lived in Montréal and answered her questions in French? Exactly.

Miss Burundi Pageant 2012

   On Saturday night, I went to this Miss Burundi 2012 Pageant at the Club du Lac with Hemal, Brian, Béttina, and Brian’s dad, who runs Alchem, a pharmaceutical company here in Buj (the family is in Indian, and has lived in Bujumbura for 36 years).  The event was extremely troubling, largely because the girls were kind of paraded around like pieces of meat, not to mention the fact that all 11 of the candidates were Tutsi.  

     It’s like, really, are we going to blatantly reinforce the normative conception of European, colorist beauty and the ideology of racial superiority that has fostered such tremendous suffering throughout this region of the world? Really? And of course the whole audience was (me included, obviously, I’m not innocent here) kind of muzungu/Tutsi upper-crust (who can afford a 60,000-90,000 franbu ticket), getting their(our) backs patted for looking like the girls on stage.  It was really nauseating.

    But then again, as Yvette pointed out, first of all, who created these standards? White colonialists.  If everyone with money and power looks a certain way and everyone who is oppressed and poor looks another way, obviously value judgments are going to become associated with physical features.  This racism didn’t just spontaneously appear, it came from specific people and their historical legacies.

     Furthermore, it’s not as though the West has eclipsed these patterns, they’ve just shifted and become less institutionalized. Sure, we let all women compete in American beauty pageants.  Hutus are theoretically allowed to compete in Burundi’s pageant. But do short, plump girls ever win? How often do short-haired girls win pageants? Has there ever been a lesbian Miss America? Has there ever been one who is under 5’6”? Exactly.  

     Well, Burundians want a tall, thin, European-featured girl as Miss Burundi, not strictly out of racism, but largely because they want someone who can stand with all the winners from other countries on the world stage (and compete in the Miss Universe Pageant).  To some degree, normative definitions of beauty, infused with racism and prejudice as they may be, are global, not Burundian problems.

    I won’t go into more detail because I don’t have time and the whole event kind of just upset me.  At least I had a really good conversation comparing Belgian and British colonial rule with Brian’s dad, whom I was seated next to. Our analysis basically fleshed out the following: Belgians, with a population (at that time) of 4-5 million, couldn’t possibly colonize a territory so big as the Kongo/Ruanda-Urundi mandate that they were accorded from the Germans in 1924. (This territory is the size of all western Europe.)

     The Modern DRC has about 80 million people and is still very sparsely populated. This is partially because King Leopold's ivory and rubber extraction regime killed an estimated 40-50% of the Congolese population, or 8-10 million people, i.e. a Holocaust-sized decimation of a single country's citizens, between 1885 and 1908. (In 1908, the Belgian government took over responsibility for governing the colony from King Leopold II himself, and it transitioned from the Congo Free State to the Belgian Congo).

    So since the Belgians couldn’t effectively administer the colony themselves, they created an upper-class, the Tutsis, to rule it for them.  Anyone within those three territories owning 10 cows or more in 1930 was issued a “Tutsi” identity card, and they became the ruling class.

    Whereas in British East Africa (Uganda, Kenya, Tanzania, for instance), there was no binary ethnic system available (such as Hutu/Tutsi) to exploit for efficient implementation of laws, since there are so many thousands of splintered ethnic groups across that area. (Not to mention how caste systems, which the British famously outlawed the administrative use of in India, were not the Brits’ style.)

     So instead, by offering a myriad of financial incentives and promises of political/social influence, the Brits’ imported a ruling class to administer their African colonies…from their other colonies.  This is why Indians and Pakistanis, even to this day, run basically all technology, science, mining, commercial, and business interests across East Africa. (I can think of about 99999999 million examples from Bujumbura alone, and that’s just spillover since Burundi wasn’t even a British colony!) [Note: there is considerable East Asian, particularly Chinese, investment in this area today.  However, almost everything here is still owned by Indians.]

     The advantage of this style of colonial management is that while it creates a wealth differential, and possibly oppression/resentment between the local population and the colonist muzungus, it doesn’t foment hatred between people from the same country, à la brilliant Belgians.  

    So then I asked Brian’s dad, “Well how did it work in India, then, if the British discarded the caste system and, since India was one of the earliest domains of the British Empire, they didn’t have people from other colonies to send there yet?”

    His response was simple: they used religion. The small minority of Indian Christians (2% of the population) were catapulted to the top of colonial society, favored by the British because they shared the same religion: making them “civilized” and “not savage,” and thus capable of managing (except for the most senior mountbattens) the enormous colony. In a similar way, however, the emphasis on religion also brought faith to the fore as the convenient replacement for caste differentials to determine social status and rivalries within Indian society.  

   Hindus accounted for about 80% of India’s population and Muslims for about 14% (does this break-down sound EERILY familiar to anyone else?!?!!!), the rest being Christians, Sikhs, Jains, and Buddhists. The violence following the Partition of India, which was based on religious demographics, resulted in the deaths of almost 1 million people. Which is not to draw any decisive relationship between the two colonial circumstances, but rather to note the numerical similarities and to remark that in both cases, the divisions emphasized and exploited by colonial authorities were the same ones along which blood was shed after the colonies’ independence. En tout cas, the Pageant was kind of interesting, I suppose.

The roads you need to know in Bujumbura

(Context: I needed my parents to wire me a little money to pay my phone bill, because Scho was a little behind on the payroll for this month.  They responded asking for the address of a Western Union office in Buj.  This is my response.)

     Dearest Parents,

     Um…so there aren’t really addresses here…maybe you can try for one on Avenue Uprona? Or if you can find/give me the address of one I will probably be able to find it…it’s just that if you ask someone the address of any building, everyone will, almost undoubtedly know where it is. But to describe it to you in such a way that you can get there without their help? Almost impossible. They give you “small shopping center”-esque directions (my friend’s grandmother once infamously described a place off Route 27 in central New Jersey using that epithet) at best and no one, neither Burundians nor expats, knows the actual name of more than 4.5 roads in this country. And these, for the most part, aren’t even the real names:

Uvira Road. (Def not actually called that, so it only counts for a half.) Leads straight west from town to the DRC border. Goes along the north coast of the lake, passing three beach cabanas: Saga Plage, then Bora Bora, and finally le Club du Lac Tanganyika. Within five minutes you’re in Gatumba and fifteen more you’re at la frontière.

The Airport Road. (Also only counts for a half because I don’t think that’s the proper name even though it’s the only one used.) This is the road that leads from Bujumbura northwest to the airport. Our office is on this road, then the airport on the left, then you enter Mutimbuzi, then Bubanza Province. I think this is the road you use to get to Rwanda or Bukavu, although I’ve never driven to either.

Avenue de Large. (This is one of three actual street names that anyone knows.) Goes from town south towards Kinindo (my neighborhood) and eventually to Makamba Province, right along the lake. Once you leave the city it’s referred to as Makamba road. UNHCR headquarters is a few kilometers past the turn for my house. At the northern end of this road is the Buja Zoo, or Musée Vivant, from which the crocodiles recently escaped. Next to that is Yvette’s church and the President’s private soccer field.

      Additionally, the neighborhood just northwest of Kinindo (longitude-wise between Avenue de Large and Lake Tanganyika, latitude-wise between us and la ville) is called Kabondo. This is where the Belgian School (where all expat kids go) is. It’s otherwise undeveloped though, with a lot of nascent construction projects, and looks kind of like Community 25, Tema. I learned to drive a stick shift with Scho on the beautiful beachy dirt roads of Kabondo that hug the lake.

Rue Rumongé. (Not sure where this one got its name, but I know it is both the only name anyone has ever heard of in history for the road and also not the proper name. Rumongé is probably a town in the southeasterly direction? This runs parallel to Avenue de Large but about 300m east.

     Once you pass Kinindo, Rumongé veers east, no longer parallel to AdL. I live near the Egyptian Embassy in between the two roads. Scho and the Ethiopian Restaurant [live] slightly north of me on the other (eastern) side of Rue Rumongé. If you follow this road out of town, you hit Musaga, where the women’s shelter that prints amazing curtains and bathrooms and other fabrics is. Musaga is also the central bus depot for all matatus travelling “up-country,” i.e. out of the capital.

Avenue Uprona. This is the real name of downtown Bujumbura’s main drag. Begins at the bottom (not sure which compass direction, maybe southwest?) with Novotel, which is an indistinguishable concrete block. On the right side (going up) you have Face à face, where you change your dollars and euros for franbus. Next is Havana Bar/Club, where basically every expat in the nation of Burundi (not to mention quite a few Burundians as well) spends every weekend night from 9pm to 1am. Across the street is Aroma Café.

     Going up Uprona on that side (the left) is Botanika, the organicky B+ vaguely European restaurant run by a Burundian Harvard Grad. Just past that is Baobab, a good-quality Burundian restaurant where you can get a huge traditional buffet lunch for about $2. Across the street is Oasis, Buj’s only theoretically Greek restaurant. Next to Oasis is Toxic, Buj’s best club, where people head after Havana. Toxic is only fun between 2:30am and 5:30am. Seriously. Otherwise don’t bother. Farther up is T2000 (known as tay-deux-mille), the Chinese bad-quality-cheap-versions-of-everything-you-could-ever-want store.

    Farther up is the French Embassy and then the road is blocked off because, about a half kilometer past that, is President Nkrunziza’s sprawling compound/mansion. Uprona continues on the other side of his house, leading out of the city to the northeast, but the two halves of the thoroughfare are not connected. Vivek’s Indian Restaurant, Tandoor, is on the other half of Avenue Uprona.

Le Boulevard 28 novembre. This big four lane road is divided in two halves by a thin line of palm trees. “Vingt-huit nove-om” serves as a de facto beltway for Buja’s downtown, even though the “mairie" i.e. the city-proper, technically extends far beyond it, particularly to the south (where I live). Vingt-huit nove-om begins with la Cathédrale de Bujumbura, the biggest church in the country (I’ve never been, since a: it’s Catholic…ok this is not the real reason but rather b: services are held entirely and exclusively in Kirundi).

    As you go up, you hit Bon Prix grocery store, a few blocks behind which is le Jardin Publique, which Priya lovingly calls “jay-pee.” Across from Bon Prix is Gatoke, the neighborhood where Béttina, Jurij, and Adeline live. Further up, vingt-huit begins to curl west, climbing a bit into the foothills of Buj Rural’s mountains. This neighborhood is called Kiriri, and is by far the wealthiest/safest/most expensive in Buj, mostly because its elevated view gives you a stunning view of the whole city, lake, and Congo mountains beyond. The American Ambassador lives on vingt-huit in Kiriri, as does our country director, just a few doors down. All the US Marines have their houses there too. The Burundian President’s mansion is also technically in Kiriri, at the intersection of Uprona and vingt-huit.

     Now you know all the (named) roads in Bujumbura, so you have no excuse not to visit me! But seriously, I’ll probably just post this to my blog since I have gotten so carried away haha. Anyway, en tout cas, now you see my problem. I can think of two or three Western Unions in town, but none are on the aforementioned roads.

    I know there’s one WU for sure in town near Kenya Airways and the Baguette Magique, which Google Maps suggests is on a road called “Le Boulevard Lumumba Patrice.” If you can find one on that road, I bet I’ll be able to locate it. Thank you so much, and sorry for the geography ramble.


I miss this already.

I miss this already.

Goodbye dinner at the Mille Collines w/ David and Yvette!

Goodbye dinner at the Mille Collines w/ David and Yvette!

Ruhengeri, Rwanda: majorly muddy from the mines and the downpour

Ruhengeri, Rwanda: majorly muddy from the mines and the downpour

Finally in Gisenyi, at Alida’s house on Thanksgiving.

Climbing up/exploring artisanal mines with the Australian geologist

Climbing up/exploring artisanal mines with the Australian geologist

At the coltan mines on the DRC/Rwanda border on Thanksgiving

At the coltan mines on the DRC/Rwanda border on Thanksgiving

IRIN news: A New Rebellion in Burundi?

     Irin News is the number one source of recent news affecting humanitarian work, and this article came out on their website yesterday. Kind of freaky, but then again, there’s been a “new rebellion” in Burundi for over a year, and at least in Bujumbura, things remain pretty comfortable.

BURUNDI: A new rebellion?

(FNL leader Agathon Rwasa fled Burundi in 2010 for eastern Democratic Republic of Congo, where he has reportedly been remobilizing.)

BUJUMBURA, 30 November 2011 (IRIN) - Amid growing concerns about a wave of political assassinations in Burundi, a former police officer has announced the formation of a new armed group, with the aim of overthrowing a government he accuses of numerous killings, rampant corruption and economic incompetence.

The army quickly denied a new rebellion was under way and a news blackout has been imposed.

Some 300,000 people are thought to have died during a civil war that raged in Burundi between 1993 and 2005 and whose aftershocks continue to be felt in the form of frequent violence and political instability.

"Our men are on the front in Cankuzo and Ruyigi [in the east of the country],” said Col. Pierre Claver Kabirigi, naming his group during a 25 November interview on Radio Publique Africaine as the Le front de restauration de la démocratie (FRD) Abanyagihugu.

Kabirigi said his group carried out attacks in the provinces of Cankuzo and Ruyigi. On 21 November, clashes were reported between government security forces and a group of armed men in a locality in Cankuzo.

In a statement, he said he formed his group in reaction to the misappropriation of public funds, as well as a wave of extrajudicial killings allegedly carried out by intelligence operatives and police at the instigation of the ruling Conseil national pour la défense de la démocratie-Forces de défense de la démocratie (CNDD-FDD) party, in an operation codenamed Safisha, which is Kiswahili for “to clean”.

Kabirigi further alleged that state agents were behind the 18 September massacre of 40 people in a bar in Gatumba and the 8 October execution of two university students.

"Oddly, as far as the Burundian authorities are concerned, all is well. [But the] Burundian people are feeling abandoned and to deal with this situation, they have decided to take up arms." 

In keeping with previous official reactions to armed violence, on 28 November, army chief Maj. Gen. Godefroid Niyombare dismissed Kabirigi’s supporters as mere “criminals” and “bandits”, insisting no new rebel group had been created. He said Kabirigi was a fugitive from justice who had already served prison time.

But Kabirigi’s claims of government complicity in widespread killings have been echoed by Burundi’s human rights community.

According to the Observatoire de l’Action Gouvernementale (OAG), a watchdog comprising 18 organizations, as well as journalists and members of parliament, at least 300 members of opposition parties have been killed by security forces or the youth wing of the CNDD-FDD.

“We have observed with dismay that in all parts of the country, a diabolical machine has continued killing opposition party activists,” OAG chairman Onesphore Nduwayo told a 21 November press conference. 

“Since May, at least 300 [civil society] activists or former demobilized FNL combatants have been killed,” he said, referring to the Forces nationales de libération, one of the main armed groups during the civil war, which is now a political party. FNL leader Agathon Rwasa fled Burundi in 2010 for eastern Democratic Republic of Congo, where he has reportedly been remobilizing.

“The people were arrested by the Imbonerakure [the ruling party’s youth wing] or by police elements or the secret service and taken to an unknown location and later found dead, executed,” said Nduwayo.

At present, the violence and political assassinations seem directed towards members of the Movement pour la solidarité et la démocratie (MSD) party, whose leader Alexis Sinduhije is also in exile.

“[The MSD] today seems to be in the eye of the storm,” said Nduwayo.

Photo: Désiré Nimubona/IRINBullets close to the scene of the Gatumba killings (file photo)

The president of the Association for the Defence of Human Rights and Prisoners’ Rights (APRODH), Pierre Claver Mbonimpa, added: “I know that there are people who were killed because of their political [affiliations] and I say this loud and clear, they were political assassinations and if I should die because I have spoken the truth, I accept [that].” 


A government report on security over the past two years, released this month, acknowledged numerous killings had taken place but attributed them to score-settling, land disputes, banditry and the prevalence, despite several post-war disarmament campaigns, of weapons across the country.

Playing down charges of an orchestrated campaign against the opposition, government spokesman Philippe Nzobonariba told reporters that numerous government officials had also died in the violence, especially in the province surrounding the capital, Bujumbura.

The report said several police and military officials were among 223 arrested for crimes including murder or attempted murder, rape or attempted rape, robbery, fraud, embezzlement and corruption, illegal possession and sale of weapons and complicity to escape.

But according to APRODH’s Mbonimpa, only a few people have been arrested and jailed in relation to extrajudicial executions.

Time to talk

The European Union, through its representative in Bujumbura, Stephane de Loecker, called on the government and all political partners to sit and talk to avoid bloodshed.

“The European Union is concerned by the current situation especially the executions and the extrajudicial killings,” said De Loecker, noting that it would not be easy to bring parties to the negotiating table.

According to Pacifique Nininahazwe of the Forum de Renforcement de la Societé Civile, a grouping of civil society organizations, the government should meet the exiled opposition politicians to enable a return to peace and security.

“We do not want any more war in the country. The bloodshed since independence is enough,” said Nininahazwe.

Media under pressure

There are also concerns over increasing pressure on journalists. 

On 29 November, Radio France International (RFI) said its Kiswahili service correspondent, Hassan Ruvakuki, had been arrested the previous day while attending a regional summit in Bujumbura because of his alleged links with Kabirigi, whom he is accused of meeting in Tanzania. RFI said it believed Ruvakuki was being interrogated in a military camp in the east of the country.

Explaining the development, National Intelligence Service spokesman Télesphore Bigirimana appeared to contradict the official government position that no new rebellion existed, telling reporters: “[Ruvakuki] was arrested with others, not as a journalist, but as an individual, for investigations. He is suspected of lending support to a rebel group. If he is innocent, I think he will be released quickly.”

Reporters Without Borders, which works for press freedom around the world, criticized the authorities for carrying out the “abduction-style arrest” and for failing to disclose Ruvakuki’s whereabouts, even to his family.

Meanwhile, the National Council for Communication has banned media from reporting on Kabirigi and his group, or even commenting on its existence.

A few days earlier, Daniel Bekele, Africa director of Human Rights Watch (HRW), warned that “statements by senior government officials [with regard to journalists] have heightened the tension.

“On November 11, the National Security Council issued a statement, delivered by Defense Minister Pontien Gaciyubwenge, accusing certain members of the media and civil society of flagrantly violating [a separate] blackout on coverage of the Gatumba massacre and calling on the government to enact sanctions against them quickly,” said Bekele.