Sunday, May 31, 2015

BJM Bujumbura Report 6: The Root of Poverty and Fear

I've been back from Burundi for four weeks now, and the country is still deadlocked and shut down. The most puzzling thing to me, as a Westerner, was the deep fear I could sense in my students when we talked about the future. On the first day of protests, I was waiting for my ride to church on the library steps. A student I didn't know walked up to me and asked, "Are you out here because you're worried?" Actually, worry was the last thing on my mind, but I suppose my face might have looked worried to an African. Of course, my first thought on hearing that question was "I wasn't, but ... should I be?"

On that day, I decided I'd gauge the severity of the situation from the size of the protests. Bujumbura is a city of several million. If thousands protest in several places around the city, then I might start to worry that the situation is unstable. But if only hundreds protest, I figured there would be no reason to worry because they were such a small percentage of the total. (My context for protests was the WTO "riot" in Seattle, where I think a Starbucks got its windows broken.) I was pretty sure from talking to people that only hundreds would protest. Burundians are quiet people and don't protest recreationally.

I was right and I was wrong. Only hundreds protested. But they also protested the next day, and the next, and the next. Each day I looked down on an empty parking lot and knew my students couldn't make it to class. Yet couldn't they just go around a protest if they ran into one?

There are so many things I didn't know. I was the student here, getting a crash course in East African history and politics.  Burundi's civil war ended a little more than a decade ago. These students remembered unspeakable things. Even though we were behind a high wall and guarded by army and police, the students were still afraid. It was this paralyzing fear that I didn't understand. Yet it was entirely logical.

I didn't understand it, until my fellow university professor forwarded a TED talk about it on Twitter, that is. I know, TED talks are so, like, five years ago, right? But this TED talk isn't about technology. It's about the fears that lie behind poverty.

Poverty is not about resources anymore. It's about public safety and rule of law. The ability to feel protected so you can walk to the resources the Westerners have provided. And if that's not there, then the resources might as well not be there either.

You have to be able to walk to school to learn. Transportation is on the bottom of Maslow's hierarchy here.

As much as I would have liked to move past the fear I saw in my students' eyes, to inspire them to dodge the protests and the tear gas and not get caught running the wrong way down the street, I knew that it's not something I could solve. I could only make a few recordings for the future, for a time capsule to open when they could resume the class (a time still in the future), and rebook my flight to leave the country.

It's heartbreaking to be so powerless. I feel a twinge every day for being in my luxurious US middle-class life. But it's a real reflection of the powerlessness they feel. It's a strange privilege to be able to understand their world. I'm not sure what good it does, but it does remind me to pray. That may be enough.

Maybe this is what I learned in Burundi. You can only do so much, and sometimes you have to wait. In that waiting, as a Christian, at least I can still pray out of my powerlessness. And I pray that we see a work of power in Burundi that's like what we saw in South Africa. It did happen there. I believe it can happen again. Oh, that you would rend the heavens and come down.

Dear reader, I hope this for you. Not the fear and the danger, but the understanding of what it's like to live another life, in this case, to live in the second-poorest country in Africa. And to know that, behind it all, despite it all, and because of it all, my students have faith. Despite their fear, when this calms down, they will brush themselves off, hop on a bus, and learn. (After seeing the dedication of the African students I'm going to be a little more frustrated when my American students can't even put down their video game controllers long enough to study!)

If we can put our fingers on the real problems, then maybe we can apply pressure to change these real problems. Maybe we can push back the fear and make a country people can trust in. If Burundi can come as far in the next ten years as they have in the past ten years ... then maybe they can reach that.

Watch the talk, I promise you, it's worth it (I have a few quibbles but it's too important to list those right now):

And if you have thoughts, let me know what you think. I will shift this blog back to science now that my life has shifted back to science, but to my Burundian friends: I'm always thinking about you and praying for you from a corner of my mind. May the Lord bless you and keep you and give you peace ... and patience till it comes. Till we meet again. Yours, BJM

Thursday, May 14, 2015

BJM Bujumbura Report 5: Why Ears are Most Important in an Adventure

As I write this, 10 days after leaving Bujumbura, the airport is closed and the borders are closed. The country has essentially been closed ever since April 26. The protests are small, hundreds or a few thousand in the context of a city of millions, but the sentiment is deep and lasting. My primary concern is with all the people that need to work to eat, and recent word is that water has been turned off as well. This is not sustainable, so please keep praying for peace in Burundi.

The country's story is far from finished, but my story there (for now) is finished, because as I described in part 4, we (meaning "my wife on the phone for a very long time") were able to rebook my tickets. The trip was scheduled to last 35 hours from takeoff to touchdown, but the longest part was the few hours on Monday during which I had the sinking feeling that I wouldn't be able to get to the airport at all.

We decided to be smart about how I would get to the airport, so I moved away from the university where I had been teaching, which was on the border of a neighborhood with frequent protests, and stayed the night at a house up on the hills east of downtown. The protests had been frequent north of downtown, and very frequent south of downtown, but no significant protests had taken place east of downtown. The airport was northwest of downtown, so it seemed like it would be a straight shot to take me to my flight.

In mid-morning, about three hours before I would have to leave to go, we heard the crowd noise of protest below. During political unrest, the most accurate news about what's going on is your own ears. Noise is news. Protests and the measures taken to control them make noise, and with all windows open to the Burundi heat, it's easy to hear what's going on for miles around. The crowd noise sounds like a football game, and even has the same kind of chanting and cheers. I suppose both noises are associated with uncertain outcomes, too.

We all thought the noise sounded very close, too close, although on the hills sound can carry in funny ways. I was hoping that a temperature inversion was bringing far sounds near. But it wasn't an auditory illusion -- there was a big protest just half a mile away, at the bridge at the foot of our hill.

It seems the protestors were trying to keep the police off-guard by changing their tactics. Like an opposing force probing for weakness, they changed their direction of approach and were all coming from the northeast. In my efforts to avoid protests, I had moved next to the day's hot spot.

I couldn't do anything but listen. I thought that I might have time to work on my book or do a little reading, but I couldn't think about anything else but listening for the sounds of conflict below. As the minutes ticked by I adopted a mental posture that was half-waiting, half-praying, and half-listening. I was nervous. Too much conflict and the airport would close, and who knows how long it would take to get another ticket? All the planes were full.

Then the gunfire started. At first there were occasional shots that sounded like rifles. The crowd noise would ebb and flow, and maybe there would be a smoke plume of a burning tire barricade below (or maybe someone was just making charcoal, I couldn't tell). After thirty minutes of "is that gunshot or a hammer?" there came a moment with no doubt. We heard a barrage of gunfire, more than I had heard in my life all lumped together in a few minutes, dozens of guns firing again and again and again. I thought for sure that a tragedy had begun below.

But, oddly, the crowd noise quickly returned. We listened for sirens to pick up any wounded, but heard none. Then more gunfire, and more crowd nose. Both the gunfire and the crowd noise gradually decreased for an hour. The last gunshot I heard was 45 minutes before I needed to leave (I was timing it very precisely as if collecting data for an experiment). If the gunshots were blanks, or fired in the air, then the roads just might be clear, although bridges would very possibly be closed. But if they were live ammo ...

At the time I was supposed to leave, I had my bags stacked up at the door and had taken to waiting in the lobby rather than on the porch. But then a phone call came that my ride couldn't make it because our bridge was still closed.

That's when I received grace. My hosts risked their own car and used their own rapidly dwindling gas supply to try for it. There was one bridge far west that might still be open. We had no way of knowing if police closed roads or bridges, or if the airport was open. We took back roads and a roundabout route -- and when I saw occasional traffic coming the other way at normal speed, I realized that our prayers might just be answered yes on this day.

I am as grateful to my hosts for their own personal risk as I am for anything anyone has ever done for me. It was not an easy trip to make and we were all on edge. This is was adventure is. It's stress, pure and simple. I have no desire to seek out more of it at this time. If you want to know what it's like, picture a motion like Disneyland's Indiana Jones ride without any of the cool ride stuff and the possibility that you'll be turned back at any moment. This is not an E-ticket attraction.

At the airport, getting through ticketing and security took an hour and my plane had a two-hour delay, but I hardly noticed. After all morning sitting and listening, I was so shocked that I actually made it to the airport that I could only continue sitting and listening till I was on the plane. Those must have been blanks that we heard, and the police must have maintained their discipline in the face of approaching protestors. That is what I had specifically prayed for the night before (along with, of course, "getmetotheairport" about 50,000 times), and, that day, it happened.

The rest of the flight was long but relative to all that, it was easy. And I got to ride on a 787 for the first time. It's a nice plane -- but after 20 hours, you're still glad to get off.

And I'm glad to get home to my family and my country. Thank you to all who prayed for me. It was a close call, and all I can do is be thankful for the grace I was given that got me through. Now keep praying for all those still there. This has gone on for far too long, and the country needs healing and peace. It needs salvation -- as I heard the pastor say, "Burundi needs to be saved." Salvation in this case is tangible. So please pray with me for that, and let's watch and wait to see what grace will come.

Saturday, May 2, 2015

BJM Bujumbura Report 4: Know When to Fold ‘Em

The past week has been both quiet and loud at the university. A week ago Saturday, the President of Burundi announced that he is running for a third term. Burundi’s constitution contains ambiguity on whether a third term is allowed, which the Burundi courts are deciding. Opponents of the third term are protesting in the streets.

Although the protests are not large, hundreds of protestors in a city of millions, they are random, moving targets, and the city shuts down as a result. Shops must close, people must stop making money for food, and, closest to my situation, public transportation stops running so students can’t come to classes.

So I have not held class since Friday April 24 (and that class was relatively sparsely attended). Each day we wonder if the students will be able to come. Each day they can’t. The sounds of protest move near, then far, although the university and clinic across the street are guarded. Sometimes I hear gunshots, although I think they’re mostly far away.

So what is a professor of a three-week course to do when the last week of the course is cancelled? Keep calm and carry on and use your audio recorder.

I’ve gotten into a habit of recording all my classes, and posting them on iTunesU. When I started doing this I used a battery-operated handheld recorder for the audio. Since then we moved to a system involving processing the files  online, but I thought I’d grab the audio recorder for Burundi, just in case.

The biggest hindrance to audio recording is my own forgetfulness. Usually about every third class I forget to record. But here for some reason I remembered to record every class -- which means I can solve the age-old dilemma of how to be “here” and “there” at the same time.

I condensed my last three lectures into three hours of instruction and cancelled all remaining quizzes (no complaints about that have been logged as of yet). Since some students live on campus I let them know I would be recording the lectures in a classroom and that they could listen if they wanted. About 10 students showed up (out of a class of 170) and even asked questions. We finished all the remaining topics assigned for the class.

Then I wrote a final, translated it into French, and organized everything so they could run the class without me. When things calm down, the students will gather, play the audio, and watch the slides. Someone else can hand out the final, and the course will be completed.

As for the second three-week course that I was going to do, those students have several years before they graduate, and if they want, they can listen to the whole course as recordings. I’ll write quizzes and a new final for them if needed. So they can fulfill their biochemistry requirement and I can go home.

It is a little disappointing to have plans cut short like this, and a little stressful to be living in a place with random, potentially violent protests. My wife was able to change the plane ticket and now I fly home on Monday (arriving back in Seattle Tuesday afternoon, with a 10-hour time difference that subtracts time = about 40 hours).

I have more to say about what it’s been like the past week but I’m saving that for a later post. For now, I’d ask for continued prayers. This country really needs peace. Most people are in lockdown mode, and I’m sure cortisol levels are way up across the city. Pray that the country takes more steps along the road to freedom. And I would also appreciate your prayers for my 40-hour journey home. I’m a little uncertain about the simple act of getting to the airport! So how much more uncertain must my students be?

I believe that God called me to fill a need, and that He’ll use what I can offer in some way, maybe not the way I thought, but that’s not my concern. Pray that the students will be able to learn from the materials I leave behind.

When all’s said and done, about 300 students will have had Biochemistry 3 here that couldn’t get it otherwise. I can say “Mission Accomplished” even if it’s as yet incomplete. “Mission (On the Way to Being) Accomplished.” But isn’t all life like that?

Stay tuned for more updates on what the past week has been like.