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A Letter from Jodi (November 2011)

Dear Family and Friends,

I'd like to tell you a bit about the main road that links Gitega, Burundi's second largest city and center for some branches of national government, and Ngozi, the country's third largest city and my provincial town, a bumpy forty-five minute drive from where I live at Burasira. This is the road whose widening and paving will soon be underway. Much as I long for a good paved road between me and any other destination in Burundi, I'm conscious that something will be lost when the old dirt road lies under asphalt. Old roads carry stories. Some of this road's stories have been told to me. Others I intuit as I walk along it, glimpsing signs of what this region went through before I came here, and the changes it's undergoing now. 

One of my favorites is a story told me by Jean-Pierre Niyonzima, who grew up in Mutaho Commune, just across the river. When Jean-Pierre was in Grade Six, preparing for the national exams that determine whether and where Burundian children will attend secondary school, his commune ran out of chalk. Textbooks were also in short supply, so Jean-Pierre and his classmates copied their lessons from the board. Without chalk, their schooling was at a standstill, and their chances of winning a place in secondary school, negligible. Then they heard about a robbery at Burasira Seminary, where I rent my home. The Seminary has a shrine to the Virgin Mary just off the main road. At that time, it contained a statue of the Virgin, and word got out that there was golden treasure at its core. Thieves stole the statue, dragged it into the woods, and shattered it. Jean-Pierre doesn't know what they found inside it, but he and his classmates combed the woods for the shards of plaster, which they gathered and took back to their school. Their teachers used it as chalk, and the pupils were able to finish their year. Jean-Pierre sat the national exams at the Seminary itself, and passed. "You see how she watched over you," I teased him, knowing that he's an Evangelical Protestant. "It's true," he conceded, grinning back at me. 

From the shrine to Mary, bereft of its statue but still a place of worship, the crevassed red dirt road curves up like a tawny arm around the scrubby green shoulder of the hillside. Walking along it, I glimpse small ruins -- eucalyptus growing in the midst of crumbling walls of unfired brick mortared with mud where once a family made its home. These are the relics of 1993, when the long civil war broke out in Burundi and houses were destroyed all along the road, their inhabitants fleeing either to the Ruhororo IDP camp seven kilometers up the road, where many still live, or to Tanzania, whence many have returned in recent years.

Burundians share with Rwandans the distinction of being the only sedentary Africans who do not traditionally live in villages. Instead, they build individual homesteads scattered over their hilly terrain. Since houses clustered together along a roadway are anomalous, there's even a special word for them in Kirundi: ibigwati, as distinct from the generic word for house: inzu. Various modern regimes in both countries have tried to encourage people to adopt more village-like structures, and the Commune of Ruhororo is about to launch a village project along the main road, opposite the Quaker church and school whose facilities were improved by the United Nations High Commission on Refugees and an Italian volunteer organization as Burundian refugees returned to the area from Tanzania. The school lunch program made possible by the outdoor kitchen they built ceased abruptly this year, doubtless at the end of someone's funding cycle. Here on the ground, no-one knows why. Ntakundi -- that's just the way it is.

The President himself is encouraging people to build durable houses of fired brick next to the road -- what he calls ibigwati vy'amahoro, or peace villages. Reports are that he has promised tin roofing, standpipes for running water, and even solar panels to those who build sustainably along the road. I still see many traditional adobe brick houses dotting the roadside. But in small centers like the ville by the government health clinic, more durable structures are going up alongside the older buildings.

The most urgent story of the road for me, though, is what's happening to the trees. The Belgians lined this road with eucalyptus and cedar. Over the years, some trees rotted or were struck by lightning, and others were felled during the long civil war to block access to the army or rebel forces. Many more simply came down for firewood during that period of anarchy. Yet there were still some glorious stretches of mature eucalyptus when I first moved here in 2008, their massive trunks shouldering into an increasingly narrow road. In preparation for the long-awaited road project, many of these survivors are coming down. Some were already dead, ghostly white menaces capable of falling at any moment in the rainy season when the ground is soft and high winds can rise suddenly. I still remember waking up at 4:30 one morning to the longest clap of thunder I had ever heard. When I walked down to the Ruvubu market an hour later to meet a group of students we were taking to Bujumbura for eye exams, I learned that the thunder clap had actually been the crash of a massive rotten eucalyptus crushing one of the few brick stores and killing the man who kept watch there during the night.

I thought of that tree and that man a few days ago when driving back from Ngozi along the main road. I could see that rain was on its way. When I was about fifteen minutes from home, it came lashing down on furious winds. There was nowhere to pull over. Crawling down a long alley of eucalyptus squeezing the road on both sides, I watched ghostly branches spring from their trunks and fly across the road like chalk thrown by schoolchildren. I drove blindly through flooded ruts and potholes, engulfing the car in orange waves that crested the roof. When I could make out the road, I saw branches strewn everywhere. Praying that they were green and supple, I rolled over them until the inevitable thick white trunk lying diagonally across the road hove into view. I cut up into a small clearing in front of two adobe houses, then back down again behind the tree with my left wheels in a cow track. Within ten minutes, the winds died, and even the rain was hardly a sprinkle.

I have no idea what I drove through or around during the brief storm. Trees are being felled all the time now, their trunks lying partly in the road until people hack them up for firewood or drag them to sawpits to make planks. You can be sure that nothing is being wasted. Yet something gracious and majestic is being lost, and it will be a long time before the promised replanting can begin to make up for it. Certainly not in my lifetime.

So I wandered the stretch of the old road I know best yesterday, taking photographs of colonial trees, adobe houses, and tiny plots that must make way for the new road and its sustainable peace villages. I lingered at the dead eucalyptus that marks the edge of my own land, a ghastly finger stripped of all branches but two that jut out above the road like souls trying to escape torment, or angels bearing glad tidings. What story do they seek to express? And what shape against sky will point to my land when they too come down?

You can see a photo of what I call "the ghost tree," along with other photographs I took on my nostalgia walk, on our website: www.onthegroundinburundi.org. Thank you so much for continuing to write and share your news, and to tell me how what I write affects you. It's a great encouragement to me.

Love,   Jodi