A tiny taste of Burundi

Although I have been in Burundi for nearly a week, I can’t say I have been to Burundi. All I have seen is the inside of a hotel in the capital city. During our lunch break yesterday I visited with some of my co-workers, an empty artisanat with unemployed woodcarvers listlessly working on yet another piece of statuary that no one comes to buy. It was kind of depressing. I asked who bought their stuff and people looked expectantly at me. The tourists are not coming anymore since Burundi is in the category – at least in the minds of travel agents – of politically volatile places.

I had to disappoint these carvers. I don’t like the gleaming ebony-looking statues of women and babies, hippos or turtles. I am trying to remove such things from my house – the many gifts I have accumulated over the years. It’s time for them to find another home.

One of my co-workers had ordered, during her last visit here, two very large carvings of hippos. They must weigh quite a lot, being the size of 6 month old babies (each). She brought two empty suitcases for a fitting so that the hippos can return comfortably with her to the US later this week.

My only oter escape from the hotel this week was arranged yesterday by a team from Burundi that participated in the Senior Leadership Program we did a few years ago with ICRC. That program had teams from several French speaking countries across the African continent. They took on a big challenge of changing services, policies, access, or some other aspect of inclusion to benefit people with physical disabilities in their respective countries. ‘

I had alerted the team that I was coming and they enthusiastically responded that I should reserve at least one evening to join them. They came to pick me up at the hotel last night and took me to a popular open air restaurant. Open air here means mosquitoes, hordes of them – Bujumbura lies on the edge of lake Tanganyika – a breeding site for mosquitoes; and mosquities means malaria. Although I am taking malaria prophylaxis, I had forgotten to bring mosquito repellent. In the hotel I had gotten away without this because of the airco and elevation of the hotel and my room – mosquitoes don’t fly that high and don’t like the cold air. But the restaurant had none of that and the mosquitoes were thick – something the restaurant staff knew and so a repellent cream was brought to my table.

We had a joyous reunion. I asked the team to tell me how they acting as (senior) leaders now and to give me examples, and what had changed in their lives. It was so wonderfully touching and gratifying. I don’t claim to do much about health systems strengthening, which is MSH’s current niche. For me that is too big. I rather return to the orginal mission which is about helping people to bridge the gap between what we know and how we act. And so I prefer to focus on helping individuals be more joyful, less angry and feel more in control, despite being in places where there is little control over the circumstances of one’s live. We can always be in control of ourselves.

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