Thursday, November 16, 2006

My post from Tuesday - finally uploaded

Note: Because I had only 10 minutes to upload from an internet cafe with a terrible connection, I wasn't able to post this entry written on Tuesday. I apologize for this being out of sequence.

8:39am, driving in Ngoze, Burundi - Tuesday, November 14th

We crossed from Rwanda into Burundi at about 5:30pm last night. It was another incredibly long day of driving. We drove for a total of about 5 or 6 hours yesterday. The whole time, I was sandwiched in between John and Kent in the back-seat. Both John and Kent had no problems falling asleep on our drive, leaving my shoulders available for head-rests for my friends. We couldn't stop to stretch our legs after getting into Burundi since it was already dark. It was a great relief to get to our hotel, have a hot meal and fall asleep for the first time in a room that I wasn't sharing with anyone. At around 4am, I awoke to the sounds of beautiful chanting/singing that lasted about an hour. I don't know where it came from, but it was incredibly peaceful and really helped recharge me. Finally, this morning, I had a real shower and changed into my last clean clothes.

I worry that the above sounds selfish. It's my own account of my own experience but these luxuries are not available to the majority of people here in Burundi. I am doing my best to avoid the trap of feeling guilty for what I have, but as I write this, I am overcome with a feeling that I think I have been doing my best to suppress just tremendous sadness I feel for how much of a struggle life is here. It is then that I feel totally awestruck by the happiness and strength of spirit of the people I'm meeting. Burundi is one of the poorest countries in the entire world. Devastated by years of insufficient rainfall and civil war, since about 1992, the country has been sliding into worse and worse economic shape and now about 75% of the country live in extreme poverty (less than one dollar a day of income).

But I am incredibly excited to be in Burundi because of the tremendous faith I have in Food For The Hungry Rwanda/Burundi staff that are in charge of my itinerary here. As I mentioned, I received a wonderful debrief by FHI's country director before departing Kigali. Yves Yabumujisya (Planning Coordinator for FHI Burundi) and John Nibahubahr ( Coordinator for FHI Burundi) are amazingly well-informed, passionate and intelligent and have solid grasps of the problems per each province here in Burundi.

In the briefing document that Yves prepared, he spoke about the inequitable land ownership that almost guarentees that the poorest will remain poor. The amount of land a family owns also defines socioeconomic standing in the community, further marginalizing the poorest of the poor. As we were driving last night, I thought about the potential of farm co-operatives. Then at dinner last night, I asked Yves and John about the projects they were most excited about and the first thing they mentioned was their attempt at organizing a farmers co-op in Kirundo. Bingo! FHI Burundi is currently negotiating to lease 10 plots of 1 hectare each which would support 240 families. In the structure they envision, the co-op members would receive benefits such as health care, education for their children and of course, a share of the revenue. Furthermore, because of the pooled production of the co-op, it's likely the members will receive a better price for their agricultural output and better trading conditions.

As exciting as the economic empowerment that the co-op could provide is the cultural shift that might arise from a community cooperative. I share John and Yves' hope that a model of sharing could eventually change attitudes Burundians have about class structure.

FHI's current approach for their first co-op is to lease the land from the government in exchange for a share of the revenue generated from the co-op. This is not ideal given that there are looming land-claim issues with more than 700,000 refugees currently living in Tanzania (for the most part) who will understandably want their land returned to them, never-mind the loss of equity and the risk of the government seeking to increase its share of the co-ops revenue in the future.

Still, I support starting the first co-op with a strong lease agreement and then seeking to purchase parcels of land from the wealthier (a very relative term) land owners.

We're off to Bugabira to meet with the mayor of the community. It promises to be an interesting meeting.

I am so grateful to have my time in Burundi coordinated by the amazing FHI Rwanda/Burundi team. I have a lot of respect and admiration for this team.

Also, eight years of french immersion schooling is finally paying-off! French is the second language of both Rwanda and Burundi so I am able to converse directly with the people I'm meeting as opposed to relying on a translator. I am getting motion-sick typing as we drive but this is the only time to write an entry. The schedule for my time in Burundi is so jam-packed with meetings and visits that this is the only time I might have to write. More later.

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