A newly married Texas couple with great teeth join the Peace Corps to teach fish farming among the friendly, hard-working people of Burundi, Africa.
Grappling with motorcycles, banana beer, bugs, frogs, charcoal-spewing imbabulas, mud, tons of rain falling down, getting up, political uncertainties, language and cultural barriers, they work with courageous farmers through adventures, triumphs and tragedies…to learn that we are all One in the heart.
This is not a book about genocide or politics, but about finding triumph through tragedy and the humanity that resides within each of us.
One person can make a difference, and every person should try.
This is the story of us: of how we came to honor, respect and love a people in Africa within a fragile political and physical environment as Peace Corps Volunteers.
We have waited long to tell this story, for on the verge of telling, the great troubles began and the story seemed suddenly unimportant in the face of such loss, annihilation, sadness and fear.
But this is not a book about conflict or genocide. It is not a book about poverty.
It does not purport to ‘fix’ things or judge a people for their past, or their struggles to define who they are in this new century.
It is also does not contain many of the stories from the wonderful volunteers and ex-pats that made our work all the richer for having known them, as theirs is not our story to tell.
It is simply a story of us: Of love, laughter, and hard work: Of learning to embrace a culture and a people not our own; Of learning to laugh, deep from the belly, at the simplest and most beautiful things in life; Of learning that hard work and working hard can sometimes be the same thing, and that each can yield rewards and disappointments
As the terrible years of war have too slowly diminished, and as repatriation and reconciliation now slowly take root, we can finally offer this story, based on letters home at the time, as our hope; that through our eyes, the world will at last see the luminous, joyous, industrious beauty of a new nation and a people determined to grow and redefine themselves in a world moving both too fast and too slow.
Even after these decades of sadness, we continue to hold out hope for a people and a country still rich in the promise of the things that count: the sheer joy in greeting a morning sun, the courage to face each day with a smile, the beauty of extended family and community, a strong work ethic, forgiveness, reconciliation…and caring.
* * *
To the people of Burundi,
Thank you for everything that you taught us, for all that we learned from you. We see you from afar and yearn each day for you to become a whole people in a united country.
We wish only good for you, that every heart in your nation will find peace, hope and balance.
We wish for you to thrive, to know that you are cherished as a part of the whole, and to know that we are all One.
Jim & Anita Pauwels
“I heard the geese today,” he said.
“Really?” I looked up in surprise. “They’re three weeks early! How high were they?”
“High enough so I never saw them, just heard the honking.”
“Neat. That means an early spring. Just like the year we left for Africa.”
“Yeah. Brings back memories.”
“Do you miss it?”
“Almost ever day. I miss the people. And I miss the intensity of living life for each separate moment.”
I sighed. “Yes. Me too.”
Ode To A Grape
You asked how this happened? Well…Not too long ago or far away, it all began with a dead grape. We were in the car on our way to one of my art shows, talking about the future. You know–is there life after marriage? Even second marriages? Should we even get married? Responsibilities, choices, commitments. We talked of doing something together, a work, something for somebody else. But what could two successful, approaching middle-aged, totally opposite strangers do together? Jim mentioned his Peace Corps service in India of twenty years earlier and how neat it had been and would I be interested in something like that? Of course the idea intrigued me. Romance, idealism, visions of saving children and building bridges swam into view.
That’s when he asked for something to munch on. My hand reached behind, down and under his seat for the pretzels, and there it was–something soft, wrinkled–and wet–“Oh, yechhh!!!!!”
“What is it?” he asked in alarm.
“Oh, yechhh,” I repeated and withdrew my hand, the squashed forlorn something dangling from a finger, “It’s a dead graaape!”
* * *
That marked the beginning. We were married. For two years we struggled, we laughed, we fought, we had fun and we adjusted. And all along something kept pulling at us, asking us to let go of our rat race, to do something unique and have fun on the way to the earthquake. So we did. We put our house on the market, sadly found new homes for the pets (the very hardest, emotional part), took leave from our jobs and joined the Peace Corps.
Easier said than done. We were told it takes anywhere from three months to a year and a half to complete all the paperwork, physicals, background checks and interviews. We have never really decided if this is a part of the screening process to see if you’re sincere, or just another bureaucracy in progress.
You also need the following:
-Marketable skills (i.e. marketable to the developing world, as in education, agriculture, medicine, technology, economics, conservation, construction, mechanics, etc.)
-Great teeth (i.e., no cavities, no ongoing dental problems)
-Reasonably good health (yes, having a decent, no-problems body helps, though they are more lenient on that than they are on teeth.)
-Proof of good citizenship (i.e. will you make a good representative of the American people?)
-No connection with the CIA or other anti-civilization organizations.
-Flexibility, patience, good sense of humor, adaptability, and a sense of what Peace Corps is about.
-And, oh yes, did I mention it before? Great teeth.
* * *
Now, the only program a mechanical design engineer and a biologist-turned-artist appeared equally qualified for, and that had an opening for a couple in the same country (very important that we go to the same place at the same time), was the Inland Fisheries Program, and that, only if we could both pass their rigorous ten-week training program. This consisted of a military style form of harassment and mind-games where ‘trainers’ picked on perceived weaknesses to toughen us up–or wash us out–so we didn’t waste precious allotment money.
The one outstanding segment we did receive in the training was from a County Extension Agent, J. M., who taught us pond surveying techniques and also gave us the most important how-to advice for anyone who wants to impart new information and knowledge to another:
- Tell them what you’re going to do
- Show them how to do it
- Tell them what you did.
Three repetitions and they have it for life. Oh, and another gem he gave us, always get credentials from the people you meet, find out who they are, how they can help or hurt you and proceed with cautious enthusiasm.
At close of our ten weeks training, we thirty in-training-survivors (one guy dropped out early on) gathered to learn the country assignments where we would be posted. As countries were announced for individuals and teams, excitement and anticipation filled the hall. Then they introduced a guest speaker, the Peace Corps Country Director (PCCD) for Burundi (OUR country), an Uber-cool lady named Chris, who just happened to be stateside. She gave a welcoming speech of encouragement and congratulations to the group on our respective assignments and all went well until she put up the slides of Burundi. I have to say, they were so beautiful and her descriptions sounded so much like the land of OZ, there was more than a bit of jealousy from some of the volunteers posted to more challenging climates.
The only other important memory of the ten stress-filled weeks (beyond meeting some really great people) is that we made it–along with twenty-eight other fisheries-volunteers (fishies) to be dispersed and sprinkled round the world.
Jim and I were officially primed for adventure, selected as part of a six-person team, ramped up and ready to go–until they told us we might be going elsewhere, that the situation in our country was uncertain. As Peace Corps worked on the details, we were sent home for a week to hurry-up-and-wait and re-pack a dozen times.
* * *
Not being regular travelers, packing perplexed us. Our first efforts resulted in a floor-full of so much stuff we would have required the plane’s entire cargo hold for transport. Face it, when you are accustomed to luxuries like shampoo and toothpaste and you are facing two unknown years in the African jungle or bush, what is essential?
Should we go ‘macho’ like some of our fellow volunteers with just the small army-green backpack, beat up shorts, and walking shoes, or try to take everything including the corner hardware store? We felt we compromised. And still, our four nylon suitcases (though two of them were stuffed full of official fish-farming and pond equipment), a really big duffel bag of books and two backpack carry-ons weighed in around the proportions of a medium-sized elephant.
In training, some of our fellow volunteers had sworn we’d packed enough for ten people, rolling their eyes and whispering to each other:
“What on earth are these tourists doing here?”
“They’ll never make it!”
“Do we have to sit with these guys?”
–But all criticism was forgiven and forgotten as we finally got word of approval and headed for Central East Africa and our new assignment in the tiny mountainous country of Burundi. Excitement reigned as we met up with the other four of our team in New York, Dann, Mary, Michael and Sarah) for the first leg of our journey, had a twelve-hour stop-over in Frankfurt, Germany (we had great walks through nature gardens, the zoo, and terrific camera stores) and a short stop for inspections (off-load/on-load) in the Addis Ababa airport, Ethiopia (beautiful people–but lots of guns showing), then finally on to Burundi.
The excitement. The unknown. What was in store for us? What lay ahead? Would we all make it through the next two years or would some of us not be able to handle the culture shock, the stress, the language barriers and physical hardships…the bugs?
More later, love and a hug,
Anita & Jim
We flew over Lake Victoria into eternity and the foothills of Lake Tanganyika today. Yellows, browns and greens light up the savannah, and everything sparkles vibrant and warm under a bright African sun. Eight thousand miles from home. This is where Stanley found Livingston, and ‘Texas-close’ to where my heroes, the Leakey’s, found Lucy, one of humankind’s oldest remains in Olduvai Gorge, Tanzania. Excitement reigns!
Let’s see. First impressions:
-Land–red-brown, dry, hot, dusty, windy
-People–friendly, stare, point and laugh a lot
-Food–terrific. Fresh lake fish, rice, beans, fries, salads, great veggies, warm sticky-sweet sodas, cool beer and not nearly enough boiled, filtered water.
Too tired to write any more. Twenty-four hours on an airplane and you feel like you were born and raised there. We will have a week to acclimate to our new environment then it’s off to language training for another eight weeks of school–French and Kirundi this time. Sounds like fun, huh? Whoopee!
* * *
A few days later: Just a few notes about our country, Burundi:
The Capitol: Bujumbura (hereafter known as Buja) is a large modern city with paved streets, a large downtown, and an enormous central market with buses, cars, trucks, and people, people, people everywhere.
It is the dry season. Heat and dust prevail. They say in the rainy season the air is so clear you can see the mountains of Zaire. Or is it Tanzania? Or both? Across the lake or down the lake? No hint of either of them now, of course, as a bright, dry-white haze has limited visibility to less than two miles, so up, down or sideways is about the same.
Buja lies at approximately 2,000 feet altitude, on a flat plain at the foothills of the Nile Crest (where begins the ultimate source of the Nile). Steep mountains arise only ten minutes out of the city and honestly, Mom, we have never seen anything so beautiful. Every square inch is covered in coffee, banana and manioc (cassava) trees. Green everywhere. If they have this much green in the dry season, the rainy season ought to be spectacular when all the underbrush and grasses are renewed.
People; very friendly, work and play hard and have the curiosity of ten cats, just like home. Questions posed to and about us are non-stop. Just wish we knew enough of any language to answer. We are definitely fish-out-of-water at this point.
Dress in the city is both Western and traditional, depending on the social class. I wish we could tell you more about the populace, but we don’t speak any of their multiple languages yet, except Smile and Wave. The food is great and Peace Corps is stuffing us like there is no tomorrow. I can see us getting fat and fatter during language training, what with studying all day, eating three meals whether we need them or not, and no exercise. Already feel like a blimp.
Better get to bed now. We are installed in a hotel at the moment, hot running water (most days) and fans for sleeping at night. Will write more next week after our fish-trip up-country to meet Provincial Governors, tour valleys and mountains, and assess the current status and potential of inland fish culture.
Love and a hug,
Dear Mom and Dad, (alias folks, alias Dottie and Dick),
We are back–and still shaking the dust off after two showers. Paved and in great condition, the two main highways are excellent, but we didn’t spend much time on the excellent part. Take six fresh new fish-volunteers-in-training; stuff them sideways into the back of a Landrover on un-padded metal seats; add one hundred plus miles of stop-and-go dusty red-dirt roads in the hot and dry season; shake well and stir violently into all possible potholes before baking and what do you have? One dusty, red-baked bunch. Red hair. Red clothes. Skin permanently tinged. And sore tushies (bums–rears–behinds and bottoms).
But not for naught did we coat our lungs with silty powder. The Provincial Governors seem pleased that we are here and impatient for us to get to work building fishponds. And the people, in particular the kids, were a delight. Everyone was so friendly–waving, laughing and shouting as we drove by, mobbing us the moment we stopped. We wanted so badly to communicate but were forced to endure the embarrassment of interpreters, so we are all anxious to acquire some language skills. For Jim and me, that means wrapping our slow Texas tongues around two new languages that are pure fluid, grace and speed.
* * *
Interesting week. Good word–interesting. We will be using it a lot in correspondence as we have been warned repeatedly not to say or write anything that could be considered controversial about the country, its people or each other as mail is opened and read frequently. Any perceived criticism could get us sent home, and our program cancelled.
* * *
Today, we met the three Peace Corps voc-ed guys who have just arrived. They will be teaching machine shop, heavy equipment and road construction–in classrooms only as there is no heavy equipment available yet.
Interesting crew. Oops. One’s already being medi-vac’d out to Nairobi, poor guy. Appears he ruptured a vertebral disc three days before arriving here and no hope for him to stay. Too bad, as he seemed like a nice guy.
The eight math and science teachers Peace Corps expected were denied entry at the last minute for unknown reasons and have been shipped elsewhere (no one will say why or where–I hope they show up somewhere). Interesting. We shall miss them…and we didn’t even know them.
Speaking of language training, we start tomorrow. Then, we can at last ask important things like,
“Where’s the bathroom?”
“I’m lost, how do I get outta’ here?”
“How do you say “____” in French?”
“See you next Tuesday”
–And similar profound deep dialogue–with questions by the mile.
Till next time, take care, with love and lotsa hugs,
Jim and me,
Dear Mom and Dad, alias parents, teachers and friends,
What have we gotten ourselves into? Man, this hard. A boy’s technical boarding school (let out for the summer) located some five kilometers outside the small village of Gitega (Gih-tay-gah) is to be our home for the next six weeks.
The moment we stepped off the bus, they allowed no more English. All talk, all questions, everything from morning to morning is in French. It’s called Immersion, and might be the best way to learn a language, but they forgot to tell us which way to the bathroom, chow or bed before they switched off the English. Really forces you to learn stuff fast, so you don’t go dirty or get locked out of the dorm.
The professors are all Burundian teachers, really smart and super-friendly. (One of the stipulations of accepting our fish program was that Peace Corps would use local professors and support the economy here instead of packing us off to the established language school in Bukavu, Zaire for eight weeks.)
Unfortunately for some of us, the professors don’t speak any English and they teach French like they speak Kirundi. You hear the first syllable and sometimes the last, but all the stuff in the middle is connected and run together without enunciation breaks. Oh, yes, and said very softly with the head lowered so you can’t lip-read, and the last four or five words of every sentence drops off so you can’t hear them at all (even with my super-sonic ears), as that’s a part of the culture, a sign of an educated, informed person.
But with the eight new Peace Corps teachers not coming in, we have a two-to-one ratio student-to-teacher and will have lots of individual attention. So eventually we’ll ‘get it’. Just hope it’s before our two-year tour is up.
Jim and I are the only couple in the group of eight volunteers (Six fishies and two technical teachers for the school). We were assigned the only private room (with a door), while the others will sleep in the gender-divided dormitories of half-walls and half-curtains, along with the professors. Sounds considerate and neat for us, except that we are automatically excluded from the late-night gab sessions and practice conversations in French, which we desperately need for ‘ear-training’.
Speaking of ears, Jim has an excellent ear for everything and anything mechanical, numbers or engines, but no ear for languages or music, so learning a musical (tonal) language is especially hard on him. If we had the choice, even now, think we would opt to separate for the duration of language training just to insure no distractions or tension and more practice.
My class may start Kirundi in a week or so, in addition to the French. I keep reminding myself we came to Africa to slow down. Hope it happens. Well, enough of the doom and gloom. A little about where we are:
* * *
First off, we’re in the mountains at almost six thousand feet, and is it ever cold. The first three hours of class each morning are frigid and none of us brought enough warm clothes. If anyone had told me last year that I’d be freezing my tushie off in Africa, I’d have said they were nuts. Down to around forty degrees Fahrenheit in the mornings, it only heats up to fifty-five or sixty degrees by noon. Everyone is asking for more blankets.
—The kamikaze, no-see-um-mosquitos drive us crazy. They don’t bite, or at least you can’t feel them, but they have this maddening habit of jumping off the bureau and dive-bombing your ears till the wee hours of the morning. Nniiinnngggg… Nniiinnngggg…
–Showers: The showers are outside open-air stalls with privacy walls. Concrete throughout. Very clean. No hot running water. I can’t find our pond thermometer, but I’ll lay odds the water temperature never creeps above forty degrees F. We splash our faces with a drop or two at the sinks to wake up, but wait till the noon break to bathe.
Even then, it takes some major courage to undress on that cold concrete with the wind whipping round and about, turn on the water and step under dripping icicles. All the teeth chattering is enough to bring down the ‘walls of Jericho’ and expose everything, and some days we just skip the entire ordeal.
Food: Meals alternate between American and local traditional food. Peace Corps expected double the number of volunteers, so they engaged three cooks, five professors and lots of food.
The Continental breakfast is good and consists of fresh bread, fresh-churned butter, fresh strawberry jam, boiled eggs (strong tasting–not anemic like factory eggs), and hot tea or coffee, and we are learning simple vocabulary for them in both French and Kirundi daily. That’s easy–one word at a time. The chore is to string the words together using proper grammar, tense and gender into sentences or questions that makes sense.
Most of the available food offerings are terrific but there is one of the local favorites I’m not yet excited about. While they don’t eat termites or grubs as in West and Central Africa, they do eat a tiny fresh-water smelt-like-thing that is sundried whole (as in complete with all the Lord gave them). They’re called ndagala (in-duh-gah-la), and they smell like dead, dried fish, which is what they are.
The dead fish are served up with a lump of swelled-up boiled stuff made from manioc flour (man-ee-ahk, same as cassava root in other parts of the world) called fóe (pronounced ‘phoo’)’, but that I call foo-foo, because it tastes and smells like really bad milk after four or five days in the sun (at least to me). They say the taste grows on you and that you don’t notice the smell after a while. We’ll see. (Some of the volunteers actually like it and have said it’s the same thing as poi in Hawaii, but I believe that is made from Taro root, and while the consistency may be the same, I hope the odor and taste are not, as I’ve always wanted to visit Hawaii.)
At any rate, you scoop off a gooey portion from the lump of foo-foo, dip it in various hot sauces, grab a dead fish, and pop it all in your mouth where it swells up some before you swallow it. Then it swells up some more in your stomach till you think it’s going to pop, and the dead fish resurrects and swims half the night.
–On the American side, our food coordinator and a former Peace Corps volunteer, is making up for the foods she missed during her service by serving many-too-much of them to us: pizza, spaghetti, beef stew, and really rich desserts. Even moderating our portions, without exercise we’re all getting fatter and bigger, like ‘sheeps to the slaughter’.
We’ve discovered there’s a huge variety of local food available, just hope we can afford some of it once we are official volunteers and on a small monthly living allowance: rabbit, goat, beef, chicken, pineapple, avocados, tomatoes, onions, cabbage, beans, plantains, rice, bananas, sour oranges, sour limes, potatoes, spinach (a coarse, hairy variety), lettuce, strawberries, blackberries, mango, papaya, manioc leaves (it tastes like spinach but with a long prep-time to get the cyanide toxins out and yields an astringent cooked veggie similar to wild poke weed or dock), eggs, butter, delicious-and-tart-no-sugar Belgian yogurt, an elongated thin white sweet-potato, and too many more to mention.
Meats are very lean and generally as we expected so we are glad we don’t have any bridges or dentures. It also makes us appreciate the Peace Corps requirement for ‘good teeth’. (The small-just-right-for-two pressure cooker you sent should really come in handy once we’re posted up-country.) The local rice is great, except when they boil it in manioc-flavored water, and then–well–it tastes and smells like upchuck. Yummm.
As sugar is an expensive import, local desserts are few and mostly something to do with fresh fruit. They serve a broiled, candied banana that is delicious–and oh, my favorite–maracuja juice (passion fruit), a delicious drink, strangely and magically distilled from a rough brown-and-round leathery ball filled with large black seeds and small amounts of slimy orange-fruit-stuff. (Have promises from one of the kind Burundian chefs to show me how they make it.)
Avocados are plentiful–in season–tree-ripened, and cost about three cents each. Burundi also grows the best AAA tea and Arabica coffee in the world. We’ll send you some of each as soon as we have a free afternoon to walk to town.
Volunteers usually lose weight in language training, and if we were eating only beans and rice with fried termites like the volunteers in Zaire, it might be true, but such is not the case here in our perfect Land of Oz. Please don’t worry about us, or our food, unless you want to send diet pills.
We hope to ‘tone it down and firm it up’ after language school when we have control of our lives once more. But for now, we could each double as the Goodyear blimp!
* * *
The ankle-length shirt-dress you made for me, Mom, is perfect for cold mornings and evenings. Many of the women wear something similar called a ‘panya’, which is just four yards of wide brightly-printed cloth wrapped round and round with an end tucked into the fold. No hems, seams or buttons that I can see. The shirtdress helps me fit in without worrying about sudden exposure if the ‘tuck-thing’ slips.
I ‘slip’ it on at night when I have to trek to the ‘faire le nécessaire’ (fare-luh-ness-is-sare) (out-houses or ‘squatters’ as they’re affectionately called) (and I have been making quite a few trips recently). Two others of our group have not adjusted yet to the local intestinal flora and fauna and had ‘it’ really bad and have been laid up for several days now. My ‘it’ is more just a nuisance and dehydrator.
Females are required to wear dresses in class, so I’m glad I brought the one utility brown cotton skirt, but it’s wearing out quickly! I’ll be so very glad when we are free and at our posted sites so I can wear jeans again. (We were even required to wear dresses to visit potential pond sites–now how does anyone think we’re going to ride motorcycles or climb mountains in a dress? And I really don’t think I can stay upright to pedal-shift a motorcycle sidesaddle.)
* * *
—French–We don’t have favorites, because they’re all good, but we do have two professors we relate better to, Godance (female) and Barnaby (male), mostly because they are willing to slow their speech way down for us until we comprehend the words and sentences.
But even they laughed today when I said ‘j’entendre le poullet a quatre-heure cette matin,” which I thought meant, “I heard the rooster at four o’clock this morning.” What I really said was, “I heard the dead chicken this morning.” Turns out a poullet (poo-lay) is a chicken for eating, with the head, feet and innards gone already. I should have said, “…le chant de coq,” (luh-chawnt-deh-cock) the song of the rooster–Much prettier, yes?
We are all still making lots of mistakes and Jim and I have simply been out of school and in Texas far too long. But the days are moving fast and soon we’ll be free.
* * *
The canvas suitcases are showing some wear and tear. Five tons of stuff shoved and pulled daily from under the beds is beginning to wear the threads and zippers out. And no matter what it is we want or need, or where we think we saw it last, it’s always at the bottom of the last suitcase we drag out. Murphy’s Law is alive and well and living in our bags. We’ll be ever so grateful to have a permanent place to hang our hats soon, even if it’s a tent.
‘Nuff for now. Love and a hug,
Hey You and What’s-her-face
I hope you enjoy my books and become friends with their characters as they have become mine.
Thanks for visiting and come back soon!
(dba) Cooper Hill