A Gathering in Gitega

Hello! I am back from Burundi, and it was a wonderful trip. The two-week visit passed incredibly quickly, with a busy first week focused on a workshop and a second week focused on working closely with our program staff. And a little fun mixed in!

Gitega MapWhen I arrived in Burundi, I landed in the capital of Bujumbura, but I didn’t see much of it at first. My flight arrived late at night, and then we left early the next morning for Gitega, where we would be holding a workshop for potential grant applicants. Gitega is the name of a central province as well as the second largest city in Burundi, located about a two-hour drive east of Bujumbura and high up in the mountains. The climate changes pretty dramatically from the humid, tropical warmth of Bujumbura to crisp, cool days and chilly mountain evenings. Along the way, we not only saw a lot of the farms where tea, vegetables, and fruit are grown, but we saw many small villages where people were selling fruit and meat. There were plenty of cars and trucks making the journey along the road, but there were also lots of people walking along the road carrying amazingly large baskets of vegetables and other goods on their heads as well as bicycles piled incredibly high with everything from bananas to bedframes. Given the steep angle of the road, it was pretty impressive that people were willing to ride down the mountain on a bicycle, but we noticed that the bicyclists going UP the mountain had figured out a pretty smart way to make it an easier journey:

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Once we arrived in Gitega, we met with representatives from 17 different civil society organizations that focus on youth and peace building in the rural provinces of Burundi. These organizations were to attend a 5-day workshop, during which we shared information about the Youth for Peace Building in Burundi (Y4PBB) program that Counterpart International will be implementing for the coming year. Over the course of the workshop, we shared information about opportunities to partner with Counterpart and the grants that will be available to fund peace building and economic development activities for male and female youth. As part of this workshop, we also trained the partners on proposal and grant requirements.

During this workshop, I conducted a session on gender integration, teaching the partners about Counterpart’s organizational development and gender approach. I shared Counterpart’s requirements for partners in addition to conducting an introductory training session on gender. Through participatory activities, we explored the differences of gender and sex, the importance of consulting with male and female members of a community (as well as members of other marginalized groups, such as the disabled or ethnic minorities) in order to understand different needs and priorities when designing activities and programs, considering risk as well as impact when designing program activities, and some easy to use assessment tools. Gender was integrated throughout the workshop, and reinforced during sessions on budgeting, monitoring and evaluation, and communications.

It was such a pleasure to meet these participants, many of whom have been working on peace building in Burundi for quite a while. They are passionate and committed to addressing issues such as gender-based violence, ex-combatant reintegration, poverty and livelihoods development, HIV/AIDS, and sexual and reproductive health, to name a few. I was very impressed by their level of experience and understanding, and I am very excited about continuing to work together.

I will note that the workshop days were very busy and everyone did a lot of work, but the evenings allowed us some time to get to know each other more socially. One of the things I learned in Gitega was the Burundi cultural tradition of storytelling over beer. After the first workshop day, the staff team was debriefing and planning for the next day, when the staff began to explain to me how storytelling was such a central part of Burundian life. However, it was not quite done in the American style — they good-naturedly (and somewhat jokingly) described, instead, a process where one person buys a round of beer for the table, which entitles him to their attention and sympathy. We joked that good sympathy would receive better beer and not enough sympathy would result in the listener receiving water! The staff joked about calling a committee meeting after work, and declared that whomever bought the beer was the chair and had the floor.

Well, it didn’t take long before I was invited to sit with the staff and have after-workshop beers, and the reports were pretty accurate! Everyone was taking turns telling stories and buying rounds (though of course, not so formally as they had jokingly explained to me!). The stories were usually very funny, but it wasn’t unusual for someone to share something heartfelt and meaningful, which was acceptable as long as there was beer. Soon, though, it was 10pm and we still hadn’t eaten dinner! I inquired about this, observing that in my culture we usually eat dinner somewhat earlier, and they noted that in Burundi they drink first and then eat. And that they do not talk while they eat — they find it a little uncomfortable and strange when people (ahem…Westerners) try to keep the conversation going over the meal. However, they seemed to do just fine when we brought our food to the table and kept both the beer and the conversation flowing.

I was particularly touched when the workshop participants, many of whom are youth themselves, invited me and the other staff for drinks on the final night of the workshop. They wanted to thank us by buying us beers and sharing stories. As we were sitting in a circle talking, several of them stood up to make a speech or tell a story at various points, thanking us for the workshop. A young man sitting next to me leaned over and asked if I would be willing to make a speech to the group, “even for just a few seconds.” Of course I agreed, but I told him that if the others wanted to keep telling stories, I could always say a small speech during the closing of the workshop the next day. “NO,” he exclaimed, “that won’t work! You’d have to buy everyone a beer in the workshop!” So, I guess you really do have to bring beer if you want to give speeches or stories in Burundi!

After the conclusion of the workshop, we returned to Bujumbura. I had a weekend in Bujumbura to explore and relax, then several days in the office with our staff — more details to follow!