Monday, August 30, 2010

Back from Buja. Back in the velvet prison.

Last Sunday around 430pm Raul and I came back from a weekend in Bujumbura; the capital of Burundi.


Burundi is a small country lying to Congo's east and Rwanda's south. Before gaining independence in 1962 it was - together with Rwanda - the German and (after WWII) the Belgian colony called Ruanda-Urundi with current-day Bujumbura as capital. Burundi is Rwanda's less-famous brother; just like Rwanda the Twa, Tutsi and Hutu are the country's ethnic groups, and - just like Rwanda - the latter two have been going at each other for decades. However, while Rwanda's 800,000 death in the 1994 genocide brought the country to fame, Burundi's 100,000s of deaths took place over a more extended period of time - and thus we don't have Hollywood movies about it. For example, a genocide took place in 1972 when Hutus attacked Tutsis and the Tutsi-dominated military regime responded with large-scale reprisals. In 1993, the Hutu Melchior Ndadaye, who had won the first democratic election, was assassinated by Tutsi soldiers, which starting more violence that killed an estimated 300,000 since. Currently, things are relatively ok. While the last major rebel group (the FNL - Forces for National Liberation) bombarded Bujumbura as recently as April 2008, they signed a peace agreement shortly after that. And while rumors of new rebel groups being created are surfacing since recently, Burundi has been relatively quiet and stable.


Why did we go to Buja for a weekend? One of the reasons was that we still needed some equipment for the evaluation that is difficult to buy in Bukavu (four digital cameras and some cables to be able to charge satellite phones, GPS devices and PDAs from Yamaha 125CC motorbikes). However, the most important reason was for Raul and me to take a break. We have been in Congo for two months without a holiday and both of these months were very intense. Moreover, Raul and I wanted to leave Bukavu's security bubble. In the last two weeks we started to feel we were living in a prison: we are not allowed to walk in the evening, one's movements are always tracked, if you want to go out of the small, predefined area of Bukavu you need to obtain a security clearance, etc. So, up to Bujambura where we have several friends: JB who works for UNDP, Sebastian who works for Burundi's ministry of finance, and Guillaume who works for Burundi's ministry of Social Affairs.

In three words: It was fantastic! Although we had preferred to take public transport (to get to know local people, learn more about the country, etc.) we were obliged (again for security reasons) to take an IRC car to Bujumbura. But once we were on the road Raul and I couldn't keep the smile from our face. The road from Bukavu through Uvira (via Kamanyola and Sange) towards Buja is about 4.5 hours and beautiful: hills, desert, towns. Once in Bujumbura we had the feeling we were in a different world. Bujumbura is located right next to Lake Tanganyika - which is the second-largest sweet-water lake by volume, the second-deepest lake, and the longest lake in the world. The city has incredible beaches (just be careful for the crocodiles and hippos after sunset), and is much more developed than Bukavu: there are bars, sophisticated hotels (see for an example here), and since 2 years (with the help of the Chinese an the European Commission) good roads. Over the weekend, we had breakfast with eggs, bacon and smoothies, went to the beach and swam in Lake Tanganyika, visited Bujumbura's central market, hang-out with friends, slept more than the normal 6 hours, and... (you're ready)... after two months in Eastern Congo I had a shower... with warm water! After all the luxury and several days away from Bukavu's security bubble, we're back in Bukavu with our batteries charged and we're ready for the very heavy weeks to come.


Banana anybody?

Buja's central market.

I'm from a family of construction builders and thus love this picture.

  • Man, I'm getting older. When 'young' you see those 'older people' that have cars, houses, proper salaries, etc. The guys in Buja had this - and I am of that age now. I never really notice it; I'm a PhD student and thus still study and don't really have a salary. I also live in New York where most people rent and live in small apartments. But people of my age are getting married, start making babies, getting mortgages, etc. I never really thought of that until Buja. Scary.
  • On the way to Bujumbura we drove through Uvira, a territoire of Sud Kivu in DR Congo. The car drove over 100km per hour on roads where one really should not do that. The reason was for security. I don't know how much of it is true but the driver told us that different groups (Mai-Mai, Banyamulenge from Uvira's Haut plateau, etc.) have a tendency to high-jack cars on that road. I am not sure what was more frightening the idea of being ambushed or the car being high-jacked, or the driver driving 100+ km an hour. :)
  • On the way to Bujumbura we also drove through the town of Sange, where about two months ago a truck caught fire and killed over 230 people (here). Congolese friends sent horrible pictures in the days after that. The burned-out truck was still there; as a horrible monument to the disaster.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Crows in the Congo.

Raul just ran out of the house screaming "whaaaaaaaaaaaaaa".

No, we're not going nuts. Raul and I work a lot at home. It's a bit unsocial but we are much more productive when we do not work at the office; at home there are no people around to shake your hand, there are no people that start talking to you, etc. However, in Bukavu there are a lot of crows; and they are noisy. They scream a lot. Moreover, we hear them walking/jumping on the roof; indeed, the tin roof-plates do not help with that. On average there are two of them in the garden and one on the roof and it's (really) annoying when you try to concentrate; something we do once in a while.

That's a small one. The big ones seem to be smarter and fly away more quickly.

In addition to being loud, those chaps are also really big, insolent and... scary. The reason why I think the latter is because of a great TED talk I saw about half a year ago. With the current internet connection I will have to wait for January to see it again, but for the people with a faster connection see

Monday, August 23, 2010

Training & Object #2.


I know; there haven't been posts in a while and doing a post on Object #2 is a very easy way out; i.e. nothing substantive. In brief, Raul and I are busy preparing a training. From September to August next year - so for over 11 months - there will be around 90 people working for the evaluation throughout Eastern Congo. All of them have to be trained. The first 22 will start training next Monday for six days; these twenty-two are the first wave for the provinces Sud Kivu and Maniema. Raul and I will be doing the training so we have been working hard on putting a training schedule together that includes:
  • Us presenting the project itself (goal of the evaluation, why a behavioral measure, etc.);
  • Preparing and training from hardcopies;
  • Training on how to use a PDA (most of the forms will be filled out on PDAs: saving literally 100,000s of pages and decreasing data-entry mistakes);
  • Training how to use the GPS devices we'll give them;
  • Training on how to drive a motorbike;
  • Training the supervisors on how to use the laptops we'll give them to upload the data;
  • And all of this should be combined with discussions, games, etc.
All in all, it's really great fun!

Object #2
Our house is not connected to the city's water system (which if it would probably wouldn't work well anyway). As a result, we have two 10,000 liter bags of water lying outside, right next to the house. Every so many weeks a big truck refills them. Interesting, I think. So hereby Object #2:

UNICEF? I do wonder whether a school somewhere in the DRC now lacks water (and yes, those are Converse shoes-footprints).

Friday, August 20, 2010

An afternoon on Lake Kivu.

Over the last few days Raul and I have been quite busy, and thus in need of a break. So the day before yesterday we asked two local fisherman whether we could rent their boats, got ourselves some beers, and enjoyed a great afternoon on Lake Kivu with some beautiful views:
Lake Kivu.

Random notes:
  • My hair was cut the day before yesterday by... myself. Because we don't trust Congolese hairdressers (we have muzungu-hair), we bought ourselves a 2-dollar scissor. Result? Well, there is a reason why you don't see me on the pictures above. ;)
  • I miss taking a shower. It is not that I miss the consistent flow of warm water over my body, but normally during those few minutes underneath a shower I have my best ideas. Unfortunately, these days I am too busy throwing water from the bucket over my head to think. Anybody a suggestion?

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Object #1

Over the last week I've often been surprised how ugly, ingenious, kitsch, old, broken-down or overly big certain object are here in the Congo. As a result, hereby the first of a weekly post called "Object". Hereby the ceiling lamp we have in our house's living room. Kitsch? Nice touch as well is the that one durable light bulb (which btw doesn't work).

Lamp in the living room.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Party and Conference (part 2).


Last Friday we threw a party at IRC Golf 8; our house. Grant would leave the next day; back to New York. After working together for over a month we are really sad to see him leave. I know this sounds lame, but it's true; Raul, Grant and I formed a great team. In addition, Macartan who had been in town for over two weeks would leave the Monday after the party. Macartan in town means hard work, but also learning lots. He is a really special professor. He gives Raul and me lots of responsibilities and as a result we're motivated and work hard. We (of course) also make mistakes, which he knows and then spends lots of time (much more than if he would have done it himself) explaining how things can be done better. We learn so much that way! Next to that it is great to have breakfast, lunch, dinner and drinks with one's professor and talk about other things than work. Finally, Grant had his birthday early August, Vera (our housemate) mid-August, and Raul and me have our birthdays the end of August. Reasons enough for a party, no? So we hired a Congolese band and with well over 60 people – from the IRC, different other NGOs, MONUC, the security guards, IRC drivers, etc. – we danced until early in the morning.

Great band.

Great people (fltr: Grant, Guillaume, Stephanie, Raul, me, Vera, Macartan, JB).

And the cleaning the next morning.

Conference (part 2)

Over the last few days I was able to get hold of a few more conference (August 6 & 7, see previous post) pictures:

Macartan and (part of) IRC's Sud Kivu TUUNGANE team.

Raul & Me. After a few busy days an evening off...

... and beating the professor in a game of pool.

Thursday, August 12, 2010

Conference & Fun stuff.

I just noticed that nothing has been posted since August 2; well over a week ago. The reason is that it has been a busy week. It has also been a great week with as one of its highlights a 2-day workshop we organized in Bukavu.

We're working on the evaluation of TUUNGANE - a development project implemented by IRC and Care in almost half of all the villages in Eastern Congo. The evaluation is one of the world’s largest (around 1,120 villages) and daunting (taking place in Eastern Congo). It is also the first of its kind; to get a true behavioral measure we’ll implement a development project in 560 villages. (Yes, much more on all this later).

The evaluation started in 2007 with a baseline, and for the last year we've been working on the final part. While we've been working closely with IRC and Care, we want to do everything to avoid a disconnect between the evaluation and reality on the ground. Thus, last Friday and Saturday we flew in IRC and Care field staff from all four province. We also invited local researchers. During the workshop:
  • IRC and Care presented their work
  • The Columbia Team presented the evaluation (yes, I gave a presentation in French)
  • We all went over the hypotheses
  • We discussed the quality (and the feasibility) of the measures to answer these hypotheses
  • The Columbia Team provided the timeline (which villages when) and together we discussed its feasibility
It was an extraordinary event. The discussions were of high quality and very open and honest. It was very warming to see how IRC and Care staff - both field and management staff - were engaged and thinking through how to get the best evaluation for TUUNGANE - the program they’ve been working for for the last years.

Macartan explaining the evaluation.

Raul and Grant discussing the pilot that took place a week before the conference.

Fun Stuff
I received this from a friend of mine via email (also saw it later on Chris Blattman's blog). It's really nice.

A PhD in pictures.

Also, I just read a post of a Yale colleague of mine on Facebook. He is busy grading exams and while doing that he noticed how he was thinking of the Infinite Monkey theorem (more here). In brief, the infinite monkey theorem states that a monkey hitting keys at random on a typewriter keyboard for an infinite amount of time will almost surely type a given text, such as the complete works of William Shakespeare.

Infinite Monkey-theorem.

PS. I received some fantastic comments on my previous post (the one that dealt with churches). I hope to post a follow-up on that soon.

Monday, August 2, 2010

Why do we need a church?

Monday I took some hours off from work to go to Bukavu's Cathedral Notre Dame de la Paix (Our Lady of Peace) – the largest church in Bukavu and also the Archbishop’s seat. I was invited by a friend - Amuli - who was ordained as priest the day before and Monday he gave his first full-fledged ceremony. It was quite a happening; there were lots of people, part of the ceremony was that Amuli baptized 3 babies, there was lots of music and thus also a lot of singing and dancing. I also tried the latter. I really tried; but failed considerably. Take clapping one’s hands. This should be easy; one listens to the music and claps along. Not so for a Dutch guy: I mechanically moved my hands sideways and then calculated how much time it takes before they need to be back again in order to clap at the same time as the people that were standing next to me. Anyhow, it was a beautiful ceremony, I had a great time and am very impressed by Amuli.

Bukavu's Cathedral Notre Dame de la Paix.

Amuli at the back.

Part of the ceremony.

Nice ceiling.

Church in general is extremely important for the Congolese. People spend much time in church and on church related activities - also on days that are not Sunday. In addition, if you ask people “What public good project would you like?” many will say “A church”. Why? Why would people want to build a church when they go to bed hungry and thirsty? Why not work together and spend time and effort on activities that increase, for example, agricultural production. I have a really hard time understanding this and seeing this issue from the perspective of a Congolese villager.

Two weeks ago, for example, we were in the village Cazi in Sud Kivu’s territoire Walungu where people had constructed the first part of a building that upon further investigation was going to be a church; this despite the fact that many other - more productive - public goods were absent in the village. In addition, after asking where the nearest other church was I received the answer "A three minute walk away". Needless to say, I then asked "Why build a church if the nearest one is so close by?" and "Why build a church at all?". To the first I received from several people the answer "The other church has a 'program' and we can only go there on Sunday". To the second I received the answer "It is a church".

This issue fascinates me and I am lucky to be here for another five months. In my opinion church is a very unproductive investment of time and effort. Am I that wrong? Am I too current-day Northern Europe raised? Possible. Do people find comfort and protection in the church and church related activities? Is church like a mental food and drinks that can substitute for the physical daily hardship? More to come.

The to-be church in Cazi.