We started with a meeting with the Pygmy Association. We got there at 9 AM. There was a sign on the outside of the building, facing the street, but we had to go into the dark open courtyard and parking lot of the building and thread our way through many people sitting in the walkway and on the stairs along the courtyard. There were the typical smells – sweat, smoke, and sewage – and the typical sights – poor people – all along the way. We made our way to a small, simple, tidy office on the second floor and met with Liberateni and Etienne, both members of parliament representing the Batwa people, the Twa pygmies. Liberateni is a gentle, soft spoken woman with hair more curly than wiry. She was very neatly dressed in what we would consider a business woman’s dress. She is the president and one of the creators of the association. Etienne seemed very precise and focused. He is a very good friend of Prosper’s.
(reference note: I think that the Hutus and Tutsi refer to themselves as Bahutu and Batutsi. Or, for women, Wahutu and Watutsi. So I think the American dance of the early 60s, the Watusi, may be named for the women of this country)
We learned about the plight of the Batwa. They are the most marginalized of the three major ethnic groups in this country. They are approximately 1% of the total population. So that compares to what? The Eskimo population in US? Probably smaller than the total native American population. Some say the Batwa are the oldest people here, that the Hutus pushed out the Batwa and that the Tutsi came along later and started pressuring the Hutu. Who knows what balance of peoples would have been found here if the colonialists had come 100 years later?
The Batwa are traditionally hunters, so I imagine that they are less tied to the land than the Hutu crop gatherers or the Tutsi cattle ranchers. Which leads to their further marginalization.
In the Hutu/Tutsi violence, the Batwa were mostly independent. That did not, of course, completely protect them from the violence. In some cases they were simply caught in the crossfire. In some cases, they were in a Hutu or Tutsi neighborhood and had to adopt that loyalty to survive – which of course made them vulnerable to the other side. In most cases, I think, as in any society under stress like war, the most marginal people get marginalized further.
In brief, any problem that you see in Burundi exists in the Batwa community, only amplified. Liberateni gave us an eloquent description of the plight of the Batwa, and a little of her life story. She, as most successful people in Burundi, struggled very hard to get to school, to get her education, to make her way. She is now using her success to help bring along her people. She targets getting resources, opportunities, and education for her people.
She told of how it’s typical for a Wutwa (I think that’s the term for Batwa woman) to be married at 14, and it’s not unusual for a woman to be a grandmother before she’s 30.She told how they’ve been able to get 3 graduates through university, and have 4 currently attending.
She didn’t directly ask for our support, but of course she needs it. She asked that we tell her story; that we try to find others who can support her.
Our next appointment was with Sister Connection. This is an outfit that Wes has heard of, one of his many pastor friends spoke about them at a conference. Wes had insisted that Prosper set up a meeting. When we got there, of course, the woman who runs it is a good friend of Prosper’s.
Sister Connection is housed at Hope Africa University, a private Methodist university. It’s the nicest collection of buildings we’ve seen in all of Bujumbura. Neatly dressed students of all ages are walking around, there are tidy classrooms and dormitories. On the way to our hostess’s office we even passed a well stocked library!
We went into a very nice ante-room, where we waited for our hostess. Justine had joined us (more on her later), she is the woman who manages Susan Bradbury’s microfinance project. We’d met her briefly before at Carama.
Justine joined us as we were ushered into meet our hostess. I don’t think we got her name, but from what I remember reading on the web her first name is “Joy”. From the web, the story of Sister Connection is that a woman in Indiana had lived in Bujumbura as a missionary’s daughter and become good friends with Joy. Some years ago (note to edit: check this) she realized what bad shape Burundi is in and started this connection with her “sister” Joy for helping Burundian people.
Joy is another soft spoken woman. There’s something very submissive about many of the adult women we meet here, they speak softly with their head tilted forward as though they are trying to hide their mouths. They may say forceful things, but their demeanor is often submissive.
They focus on helping widows and orphans. They have several programs, from direct support (like Save the Children you can sponsor a Burundian widow for $30/month) to building houses, to “special needs” support for people who have a specific crisis. Joy’s husband is president of the university. They got a donor to the university to make a deal where he’d build a music center (currently housing the library) as long as Sister Connection was given an office on campus in perpetuity. So their costs are extremely low.
They way they build houses for widows is quite different – Prosper has a whole operation dedicated to putting a cookie-cutter house completely built on a piece of land. Sister Connection provides a direct grant – here’s $600, here are some contractors we trust, you can go build your own place.
She shared with us some of the list of widows who are awaiting support. The stories were heartbreakingly tragic. One woman’s husband had been killed, she’d been beaten and raped, her children’s birthdates were all after the date of her husband’s death so they are probably children of rape. She’d spent a year in hospital and is now struggling to make her way.
Another woman, best I could tell from the notes, had had her husband and most of her ten children killed, and then later when living with a daughter, had many of the daughter’s children killed.
We returned to the hotel, where I had the chance to talk with Justine.I wanted to understand, how does the microfinance project work?
Justine is a very trim woman, short and slender. She seemed to be telling Wes at one point that she’s 50 years old but I wouldn’t guess her at more than 35. She is very business like, in a blouse and skirt. Her hair is trimmed fairly close and in a slightly angular style. She usually seems serious, even somber. When she rubs her eyes, you can see lines of deep sadness around them.
We talked about the microcredit operation, about the successes and the failures. It seems to really be giving people just a wee help up out of the worst poverty. The loans are only $50, and charge about 8% interest. As I understand from Susan B, she pays Justine about $150/month. I would expect that to be a pretty hefty salary for this region, but it’s apparently quite a struggle for Justine to make ends meet. She has to take her transportation costs out of that amount, and that can mount up. She takes bicycle taxis sometimes to Carama. Recently she fell from a bicycle taxi and had to spend some time recuperating. She struggles to send her children to school, she doesn’t have a proper house of her own (which I interpret to mean: she has a place with mud brick, thatched roof, no stucco, no doors and windows.)
I’m not doing justice to this story, and I think I need to stop now. Justine broke my heart, she’s not just a name or a tragedy on a piece of paper, here’s a bright woman who seems very successful and western and modern. The amount of work that it takes her to keep up is staggering, and her ability to get ahead is so slim.
I was ready to wrap up the meeting, but it was at loose ends – Prosper had dropped her off here, how would she get back? Would she have time for lunch? It became evident to me that she was on her own, she would have to find her way back to town on a bus or bicycle taxi or by foot. She would probably skip lunch. I asked her about that directly and she said, “Oh, yes! I forgot all about lunch!” and was totally unconvincing. She didn’t forget. How could she forget?
So I insisted, you must stay for lunch, I’ll buy you lunch, I’ll give you money for a taxi.The hotel was in the frenzy of setting up for the children’s lunch, so I said, we’ll try to eat before the children come storming in (for the art camp).
We had a nice lunch. The lunches here, with the locals and especially the kids, always surprises me. A little six year old kid can pack away a plate of food that would have me choking. I guess it has to last them longer. Justine, likewise, loaded up a large plate of food for such a small woman and patiently put it all away.
I had left the table for a minute, and when I got back Bob had joined Justine and Leduc for lunch.I guess Justine had asked something about Bob’s religion and he was drawing a diagram – Abraham, Jesus, Mohammed, all followers of one book.Justine didn’t like this, Bob, you must follow Jesus.How can you not follow Jesus?She asked me, where do I fit on this picture?I said, “I’m not on this picture, I’m on a whole different picture.”That made her very sad.How can you not follow Jesus?I tried a little version of a universalist god-spirit but she was having none of it.
“Well, you are both very good people so I know you will go to heaven,” she said. Then she said, mostly to me, “I am a very poor woman, I cannot give you a gift, but my gift to you is that I will pray for you to find Jesus.”
That’s the most precious gift I will take from this place. I don’t expect to find Jesus, but Justine’s prayers will be with me.