Sunday, 23 June 2013

On the consumption of the Pea.

One week left of my first year in Burundi. I am spending a fair amount of time 'reflecting' about the past 10 months.
Needless to say, (but I will anyway) so much has changed!
Abby her hair all ready for her 2 month trip to England.
The most recent change being that of my capacity to chew. Yes, chew. As in teeth. When I left last August, I had unfortunately, been reduced to chewing on one side of my mouth. In June 2012, the crown came off on the right side and was promptly condemned by my dentist. At that point, that had been my chewing side. Because the other side of my teeth already had a bit of a disaster, in the form of a remnant root, left from an extraction a few years before. The fantastic NHS Dental system could not even begin to entertain the possibility, that I could have surgery to remove the remnant root and pathetic remains of a tooth, before my departure in late August. So I arrived in Burundi with a rather dodgy set of chompers. I have often had to turn down the offer of meat at meals, due to my feeble ability to chew. So, true to form in June 2013, my last crown decided to make an exit from my mouth. Now I have no chewing sides! Just an abundance of gaping holes in my gums! So it is mush for meals for the next few weeks. I am desperately hoping that the great British NHS Dental machine will be able to process me in the two months I have at home! If not.............. !!

My Year 6 class have changed enormously over the past year. It has been my first ever encounter of teaching, in a system that makes students repeat if they fail to make the grade at the end of the year. Of my 21 students about 1/3 are teenagers. The oldest is now 15. As we reach the end of the year, the teenage hormones really are kicking in, big time. It has confirmed my belief that I never want to teach in Secondary school.
Last week , we took the whole of year 6 to visit the Secondary school. We had a session of 'what do you want to be when you grow-up?' Of course we had a handful of footballers. But the range of aspirations was huge. Paediatric doctor and nurse, Architect, Designer, Worship Leader, Rapper, Statistician. Two Presidents! Who were duly asked to come forward and give an election speech. We were promised more comedians in Burundi and tougher laws on littering. My favourite, however, was a young man who has caused me some 'stress' announcing that his life's aim was to become a comedian! My first ungracious thought was, 'well you do anything but make me laugh!' He too was invited to the front to demonstrate his talents.  You can imagine my mixture of emotions when he proceeded to tell a string of 'You're-so-black' jokes. My English PC'itis, was turning cartwheels. I searched in vain, for someone to confirm whether or not I was actually allowed to laugh. Surely, not? But it appeared that everyone in the room seemed to think it was ok. As they were rolling around in stitches. So I am going to risk sanctions from the PC police and tell you my favourite of his jokes.
- You're so black, when you went to the charcoal merchant, a man saw you a said, 'can I have that big chunk there please!' !!!!!

Inevitably, my perspective on wealth and poverty has undergone the biggest change of all. As I have been pondering my return to England, it has been this, that has caused me the most angst. How am I going to deal with the wealth I know I'm going to face? How am I going balance what I have seen in Burundi with the lifestyles at home?
One of the things I love most about Burundi is the fact that, on the whole life is stripped back to the necessities. It has the potential to be so much more straight forward than life in the UK. The absolute poverty here, is not easy to face or understand. I am still very much in the early days of understanding what my role is, in acting to deal with the poverty I have discovered. But in a way there is a real sense of satisfaction in being in a position to actually face issues and have options of things to do. One conclusion I have come to, is this. The change in perspective has come because I am here and I cannot force that change on anyone else. I need to be sensitive in my expression of how I see things now.
And just to show that it hasn't turned me into a total zealot, here is my, 'Things I'm going to do when I get home.' list:
1. Have a fish finger sandwich (white, bouncy, sliced bread)
2. Go to McDonalds for breakfast/lunch/tea ( not all on the same day!!) with Katie, Robert, Evie, Bella, George, Megan and Andrew (not all together!!!)
3. Go to the cinema .
4. Go for a walk at Burbage common with Jake (( dog) if his mum and dad will let me.)
5. Eat at Cosmo's as many times as possible. ( I've not had a tiger prawn for 6 months)
6.Watch TV with Katie.
7. Potter round the garden, weeding and chopping and generally pottering.

I'll stop there. But I think it might get longer the closer the reality gets.

Another major change has been that of my ability to eat peas. When I left England in August 2012, I had very strict rules regarding the eating of peas. Yes, that is possible. Rules concerning the eating of peas were as follows-
- the peas must be small and bright green.
- peas must be moist and nicely rounded, never shrivelled.
- dull green peas may not be eaten under any circumstances.
- peas must not be mixed with any other vegetable, even sweetcorn.
- peas may be eaten with sweetcorn, but not mixed.
- ideally peas should not be touching any other food on the plate.
- the only liquid that can be introduced to peas is melted butter.

So have you got the picture? I know slightly, strange, but there you go, we each have our little oddities. It's just most people don't publish them! Let me tell you about the rules for eating peas in Burundi.
- peas are dull green, dark green, pale green, not really green at all, but never bright green.
- peas can be shrivelled, pasty, mushy, rock solid, but never moist and nicely rounded.
- peas appear in the middle of rice, floating in meat sauce, swimming in tomato sauce, next to carrots.
- peas never appear in isolation they are always accompanied by some other edible material.
On the majority of occasions I have sacrificed my 'Rules' and consumed any peas placed in front of me. I have however at one home, partaken in the ritual removal of all pea offenders from my meal. But as I explained to my hosts, that was because I felt very much at home there and hoped they wouldn't be too offended! On the whole I feel very proud that most of the time I can eat a pea from whatever situation I find it.

Well maybe that's enough pondering for now.
One last change. I used to only be able to eat 1 square of Cadbury's dairy milk at a time. Last week, I ate 6 squares one after the other. (The teeth situation, meant I sucked them, rather than chewed them!) It was from a bar I got at Christmas and realised needed to be finished by July 1st.
 It's still not gone, but I'm working on it.

Sunday, 9 June 2013

Liver, Lolly Pops and Life.

A slightly bemused Kenny.
Today, I went to visit Kenny. Yes, Kenny of the drowning incident 2 weeks ago.
He lives with around 200 other Congolese refugees in a camp in Bujumbura.
I had absolutely no idea what I was going to. I'd put in my bag a colouring book and felt-tip pens and my Tigers rugby shirt. I'd decided that it would be nice for Kenny to have the shirt, as the day he almost died, was the day the Tigers won the Aviva Premiership. And I got to watch both events!

The refugee camp is set behind high walls, all topped with coils of razor wire. It is a totally anonymous looking place. We rolled up in a battered old Bujumbura taxi. The guard on the gate looked a little wary of us. Three muzungus and a Ugandan. But he let us in anyway. It was all very quiet and peaceful. There seemed to be a few people wandering around, but not much going on. We told another guard we had come to see Kenny and his family.  The guard trotted off across the camp and we were seated on a bench near the gate.
What happened next was very much the same as what happens when you stand on an ants nest. Only it wasn't ants that appeared from everywhere. Children first and then women, just seemed to stream out from behind every prefabricated wall.  Within seconds we were surrounded. The children were desperately excited to have their photos taken, but didn't quite grasp the concept, that mobbing the photographer didn't actually make for a good photo!
 As with so many of my experiences here, it was like being swept up in a tidal wave. All of a sudden I was surrounded by little faces. So many with that deep look of need, etched into their eyes. Tiny children the size and age of my own grandchildren, being pushed and shoved in all the excitement. I went into photographer 'mode'. I have discovered, that the children love to see the photo on the camera screen after it is taken. So I went into click, click, show.
 These two photo's were taken before things got too lively.

These next ones, left me very little room to shoot. I was backed up against a flexible wall, that was giving way when I lent on it.
This little man got push over in all the rush to get near the camera. He must have been no more than 2 years old.

But even in a place like this teenagers exist! Most of the people were either young children, women or elderly people. But there were two teenage lads. Who felt it their responsibility to remind me of mine. Despite the language barrier between us, they managed to communicate to me that what the children really wanted was Bonbons. They were hungry, they said, they want food! It seemed so obvious at that point, how could we walk in here and bring nothing. So in my best kirundi I said 'ndagaruka' (I am coming back) and I set off with the taxi driver to find enough bonbons for, I didn't know how many children! Lots!!

Maybe I should answer a few questions you might be asking. These people are refugees from Congo. Generations ago they went from Burundi  and settled in Congo. There is re-newed fighting in Congo and they are being forced from their homes back to Burundi.
 I am now in the process of trying to discover more about the conflict in Congo. It has a very long history, but gets very little coverage in the worldwide news. I have just started reading a very interesting book 'King Leopold's Ghost' , it is opening up a history to me that I have never heard before.
The camp we visited is an 'Interim Camp' where the refugees should only spend weeks, to a few months. But because it is considered temporary it gets little, to no support from anyone. The people here have nothing. They sleep in a huge plastic covered tent area. They cook in another area. The photo can describe it better than my words.
Each family has to cook for themselves in this area. The 'cookers' are three stones with charcoal in the middle.
Having run out to get lolly pops and biscuits for the children, the question in my mind was, 'what do they really need?'  The answer from most was, 'food and clothes'. They have all had to leave their homes in haste. Only bringing what they can carry. They have no income and no prospects of an income, as they are 'temporary' residents in the area.
I managed to slip my Tigers shirt to Kenny's mum, at the end of the visit. I wasn't able to explain why I wanted him to have it and I'm not sure he will ever get it. But it's the giving that matters not what happens next. That bit is up to God!! The colouring book and pens stayed in my bag. They seemed a little 'far-fetched' when it came to the needs the children faced. After, the lolly pops had been handed out, I saw two children clutching the bags that had contained them. They were a splash of colour in the otherwise brown-grey surroundings of the camp. It was hard to believe what I was seeing, in 2013. Children excited by owning an empty, plastic, lolly packet.
 Another, 'impression' etched in my mind, will be the desperation of the children to receive the lollies and biscuits. The only way for it be done fairly and safely was for all the children to be sent into a prefab room. Then one by one they were allowed out with their lolly or biscuits. It was hard to see the guards having to use a rope whip to keep the children from mobbing them. My 'western mind' almost ran along the lines of thinking what bad behaviour it was. Until it dawned on me, how awful it must be to feel so desperately in need, that you would face a rope whip to get a lolly.
 Their behaviour wasn't 'bad' or 'rude', it wasn't motivated by 'greed' or 'selfishness'. They were 'desperate'.

Again, I am faced with the question.
What am I going to do with this experience? How is it going to change my life?

I wonder how it is going colour my thinking when I return home to England for two months (July/August).

I wonder what it is I can do for these people and the ones that are going to follow them. The conflict continues in Congo. The camp is ready for more refugees. The need will go on.

Perhaps most poignant of all, was the quandary I faced Saturday night when placing a plate of freshly cooked liver on the floor for our cat.
Should our cat really eat better food, than those children I met this morning?

Just to end on the usual slightly 'lighter' note. If you are wondering what happened to last weekend's Blog. It was lost in 'normality'. I was caring for my housemate, who had thrown herself down some stairs and rendered herself immobile for the time being. I was staggered to find that I actually found it hard work looking after one extra person! Me who has raised four children, struggled to keep up with the extra demands of tea and meals for one other!!
We did spend some time spotting the Blue headed lizard that had hitherto been illusive to my lens. We  also enjoyed time sitting, challenging our ageing brains with a Take-a-Break puzzle book!

This is also one of my favourites, the Sun bird. It is very hard to catch on camera. Most of the time it looks black, but when the sun catches it at the right angle and .........!