Obama speech last night. Haven't seen it, but I came down to the lobby and the translator was watching the rerun on CNN. Lots of questions!
The courtyard was once again full of armed men in combat fatigues. The first time this happened I figured it was just a Minister paying a visit. As a result of the peace accords, many Ministers and other VIPs are former rebels. Others were involved in trying to brutally crush that same rebellion. Either way, a lot of them have been involved in acts of major violence, and there are still a lot of people who remember this. So, much of the political leadership will only go out with heavily armed escorts.
However, this time I noticed that some of the soldiers were different: beefy older white guys with walrus mustaches. I looked more closely and noticed the South African flag on their shoulder patches. The hey?
Turns out the soldiers are part of a mixed peacekeeping force from the African Union. See, when the peace accords were signed, not all of the rebels came in from the bush. One large group -- the Force Liberation National, FLN -- stayed out and kept fighting. But this hasn't accomplished much (except to make Burundi even less attractive to tourists and investors), so now they're considering coming in. Their opening offer was half of all Ministries; this is not acceptable to the government; negotations are continuing. In fact, they're continuing here at our not very large hotel, as some of the FSN brass are staying here. Hence the soldiers.
Speaking of the hotel, the maid was cleaning my room while I was working today. (Had an hour between meetings, spent it writing thank-you notes and followup e-mails to all my earlier meetings.) I sat tapping at the laptop and she worked around me, as maids around the world do. Only... I couldn't help but notice that she moved very slowly. And coughed a lot.
I have no idea how to act here. "Leave a big tip" doesn't quite seem to cover it.
Um, what else.
The Chinese are here. You hear a lot of talk about Chinese investment and aid in Africa. Well, a Chinese company is paving some roads, and Chinese money has just built a huge new building for the university. It's just off the main road to the airport and it looks very modern (in a good way) and, well, Chinese. China's foreign minister visited just a few minutes ago. -- Has a US Secretary of State ever visited Burundi? [googles] Apparently not.
Burundi is landlocked. It's on Lake Tanganyika, but that doesn't lead anywhere useful. Bulk freight mostly goes in and out through Dar Es Salaam. Some goes by ferry across the lake to the railhead at Kigoma in Tanzania, but the ferry is small -- it can carry at most two freight containers at a time -- and does only one round trip per day. There are some tramp freighters, but they're slow and none too reliable and not containerized. Also, once you reach Kigoma, the rail line is in bad condition, just barely functional. (And small gauge. (Not that it matters, but what the hell were the colonial powers thinking when they decided to crisscross East Africa with one-meter gauge tracks? There must have been some reason, since both the British and the Germans did it -- with slightly different gauges, mind you, but both small -- but what the hell was it? "Oh, these economies will never need real trains"?) Still, some bulk freight -- including most of the country's coffee crop, its chief export -- goes that way. But pretty much everything else goes by truck.
This is apparently a heroic trip; the roads are unpaved for much of the way, and the rainy season... well, you can imagine. You don't want to drive after dark. In the recent past the road has been plagued by armed rebels. That's not a problem at the moment, On average, the ~750 mile trip takes a week, though in perfect conditions a good driver can do it in three days.
Apropos of which: in the Greek deli, I saw two pints of Haagen-Dazs ice cream... coffee flavor, ironically enough. They cost 33,000 francs each, which works out to about $29. If it hadn't been coffee I might have gone for it.
Anyway. I thought landlocked Armenia had issues, but it's the port of Manhattan compared to Burundi.
Okay, something positive. People are friendly and Americans are well liked. The food is good; apparently, if you're willing to live dangerously and break the "peel it or cook it" rules, it's better than good. (I'm not. Might if I lived here, but not on a two-week visit.)
In meetings, Burundians are very quick to get down to business. There's none of the ten minutes of chit-chat that are de rigeur in the Middle East. This comes with a drawback: there's not the obligatory offer of coffee/tea/mineral water either, so after three or four consecutive meetings you can get really parched. Still, from a consultant's point of view, when you're trying to maximize productive interview time, it's a big net plus.
My French has become so much better in a week that I'm really shocked. Five months living in Germany have barely improved my German. Okay, my French was much better to begin with, but still. I have to sit and think about this.
Raining again outside Okay, time to start outlining my report.