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Your location>Home>Publications>PeaceWays>Fall 2008

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A Day in the Life of a Workcamper
By Sara Gmitter

We get up around 7 am, dress and have breakfast, then we walk to the market where we smush into a bus. Sometimes Jocelyn [Kamenge Clinic’s program director] comes with us, which is nice because then she can translate the conversations going on around us. Many conversations end up involving the whole bus. If you're half sitting in someone's lap, you might as well insert yourself in their conversation too. We get off in Kamenge and walk to the clinic accompanied by the usual children's chorus, "Muzungu bon BON, Muzungu bon BON!" (“White person, candy, candy”). We walk the same path at about the same time every day and see pretty much the same kids and we never give them candy, yet they get excited every time.

At the clinic we go around and greet everyone with a handshake. If their hands happen to be full of mud or brick dust or cement, they'll offer up their forearm and we shake that instead. There's even a formality for being dirty. Then John, a second year workcamper from Canada, and I change into work clothes. I've been wearing the same shirt and pants at the work site for 6 days now. So I fit right in with the paid Burundian laborers who do pretty much the same thing. It makes it a lot easier to remember everyone's name: Guy in the pink shirt--Clovis. Every day, Pink shirt--Clovis. Now somehow when Claire [clinic nurse] and Jocelyn and Odette [Adrien Niyongabo’s wife] pitch in--usually wearing skirts by the way--they manage to stay clean while doing exactly the same work I'm doing. I end up covered in red dirt and cement and now mud. They say when you have to wash your own clothes without a washing machine, you learn to keep clean. And I have noticed that the Burundians never sit down on the ground. Even when we were working on the re-bar cages [long iron bars fastened together for reinforcement] for the cement, which is all clipping and tying wire really close to the ground, they always chose to hunker on their feet rather than sit cross legged.

We work on whatever the task of the moment is--hauling cement or mud or bricks or stones or laying bricks or slinging mud or whatever and its one of the best parts of the day, even if sometimes there's not a lot of work for us to do. While we're working and during the down times I try to pick up as much Kirundi [the language of Burundi] as I can along the way. In the beginning I didn't write things down and I needed a lot of repetition and very often I found I must have been altering the words slightly as I repeated them (like playing a game of telephone with myself) so that by the time I repeat them back to a Kirundi speaker later, they'd evolved into entirely different words. Once I started writing things down I learned much faster.

By the second week everyone has become my teacher. The masons take a moment to explain the difference between “here” and “there” (“aha” and “hariya”). Grethe, one of the volunteers leads me through the conjugation of “I come” in all tenses. Jonathan who is 8 [Adrien’s son and the youngest workcamper], loads me up with vocabulary for parts of the body and trees and his sister Katia [Adrien’s ten year old daughter] teaches me a Kirundi song in our downtime. She's pretty amazing. She sings a line for me and I try to sing it back. When I get it wrong--and I often do--she repeats more slowly. I try again and get closer. Not good enough. She slows down even more and carefully enunciates each syllable. She has it down to a science, the breaking down and then stringing back together of words and phrases. If I get it right she says, "Encore" and makes me do it again. If I get it wrong and try to laugh it off, oh isn't it funny how I'm making a hash of this line, she never cracks a smile but gives me this total teacher look which says "laugh all you want, missy, we're not leaving til you get it right.” Duly chastened, I listen to her repeat the line and try again. By the end of our second session I was able to get each line individually though I couldn't remember the whole song at once.

The learning of Kirundi became not only a way to connect but a shared experience. I felt a sense of pride going from pointing and gesturing, through the Tarzan stage of "big stones, street" to being the first person to respond to a call for more amatafari (bricks) to "we are going to eat, I will come back". But more than that, I felt all the people I worked with also had a sense of pride in what good teachers they were and that my progress was their accomplishment as well. When Jonathan and Katia's father [Adrien] came to the worksite one day, they showed off my ability to identify and give the Kirundi names of local trees as if I were a prize spaniel.

For lunch we walk about 10 minutes to the FWA [Friend’s Women’s Association] restaurant. Three months ago FWA opened a restaurant to provide employment for women from the clinic who have HIV/AIDS. It's very simple, two rooms with a couple of tables, a store room and a place for the pots and pans and things. The cooking is done outside over a charcoal fire. The menu is a piece of notebook paper tacked up to the wall which is written in a combination of Swahili and Kirundi and offers: rice and beans 400 francs (about 33 cents); rice and beans and cabbage 500 francs. There's a meat option and then a couple different combinations of rice, beans, cabbage and meat. For us they like to experiment with new food options to perhaps add to the menu so, though we usually have some combination of rice and beans and meat, there's also some form of potato, or sometimes the rice is replaced with pasta and sometimes the meat is goat meatballs in a tomato sauce instead of stewed beef in a tomato sauce.

While we eat there's often lively conversation in Kirundi which eventually Odette or Claire translates the gist of for us, but things must get left out because the translation is never nearly as funny as the conversation itself apparently was. Then, after conjugating our way through from “I am hungry, you are hungry, he is hungry,” etc., to “I am full, you are full, he is full” etc. in Kirundi, we walk back to work for another couple hours until 3 pm. Then we wash our hands and change our clothes if we have them, shake hands with everyone, say N'ejo (see you tomorrow), smush back into a bus and come home.