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Winter 2007
The Shape of Burundi is Like a Human Heart

This is an excerpt of Whitney’s essay. To read all the entries please <<click here>>.

Whitney Popp hails from Chico, California. She is currently a senior at California State University in Monterey Bay, California where she has a Global Studies major with a minor in Peace Studies. Prior to traveling to Africa with AGLI Whitney had visited Canada, Mexico and Italy, each for about two weeks.

Whitney wrote on her application that as a “social worker’s daughter I have been raised in an atmosphere dedicated to community service. Since I was about 12 years old I have worked with the developmentally disabled. This work formed my tolerance and acceptance of others while working cooperatively with volunteers”.

Early in life Whitney had an experience which made her realize “that respect was the most important thing to give a person. Of course love, compassion and understanding are important but I believe those all stem from respect. . . I dedicated myself to understanding a person without passing judgment”.

“Going to Africa and being in a community torn by conflict is what I want to do as a career. I wish to work in negotiation and mediation in the realm of armed conflict. I feel that it is necessary for me to look into the eyes of those in the community and understand their suffering, strength and hope.”

6/23-24/07 - I am in Washington DC
I am in Washington DC now and will be attending orientation tomorrow. The flights went well and I was picked up by some others in the program and am staying at one girl’s house, Chris. It’s an old row house so they’re right up against each other, tall skinny things. We went to Ben’s Chili House for dinner and rode the bus to get there.  I’m not gonna lie, I think I’m going through more culture shock here than I will in Burundi!  The flight on Monday will be out of DC and goes to Ethiopia where we will stay over night. The following day we take a flight to Burundi arriving in Bujumbura. Out of the three team members I have met so far I feel like I’m the most prepared! Have no fear, my trip is registered with the embassy; I have a map, guide book, every medication possible, medical insurance and have taken all precautions necessary. As soon as I have the cell phone number that the team will be sharing I will send it in an e-mail. Right now I am jet lagged and in need of a little rest.

Thursday, 6/28/07 - Another World is Shocking
A lot of what I am about to tell you is still overwhelming to me. We arrived yesterday afternoon and were greeted by a woman in the national police; she had a sign for us. After a hug and a kiss on either cheek we went to gather our luggage. Our hosts were waiting outside the baggage claim area. Elie (a pastor), Alexia (doctor) and Joselyn (member of the Friends Women Association) all shook our hands and hugged us. After leaving the airport we saw cows on the road that had HUGE horns, each one was at least 3ft. We were stopped five minutes down the road by the police to check our bags - we were at a spot where the two main roads, one from the airport and the other from the Congo intersect. Once he saw the “mzungu” (white people) they let us by.

After settling into our place (two bedrooms, dining/living room, kitchen and bathroom) we were introduced to many people. The cop was a member of the Women’s group, Constance, and there were many more. Each introduction had to be a group meeting where everyone went around saying a little about themselves, this happened over five times. After all the greetings we took a taxi to the US Embassy so that the others may register their trip (I did mine online already). The embassy is walking distance but seeing as we are outsiders it was better to take a taxi on the first day. The embassy is the only place I have been with air conditioning and it was hard to leave. We heard music downstairs later in the evening and found out that our place is about five feet from a church. We attended and the voices were amazing. When our host Elie went up to preach, members of the church went out of their way to sit next to us and in broken English translate his Kirundi. I am picking up Kirundi quite fast because it is a very good way to show respect to the culture.

Today I attended the AVP (Alternatives to Violence Project) with 20 people. There are only five of us [Westerners] and 15 members who will be helping us fix the clinic. The bus ride there was shocking. This is poverty like I have never seen in my entire life. Women are dressed traditionally or in business suits/skirts, men are all in Western dress and dressed very well most the time. Then you see the shacks they are coming from and it’s amazing. UN, AU and Red Cross vehicles litter the area along with mini buses, taxis and bikes. The program (AVP) was touching and everyone was so accepting of the new ones. Outside the clinic dirty children run around daring each other to shake our hands. Many in the AVP want to learn English and we have been having good conversations. Marci, a girl in our program, is deaf and there was an interpreter from a local school for deaf children there to translate. At lunch he told the following story that I want to share with you to show the type of situation there once was here. (This happened 10 years ago so Mom and Ally, don’t worry.)

One day he arrived at school and began to teach his class like normal. Then he heard gun fire nearby. The war had broken out in Kamenge - where the clinic is. He turned on the radio to hear it full of hateful words. Then a teacher who is deaf came running inside, covered in blood. The man teacher ran outside and there were soldiers screaming at the children “what tribe are you?” The teachers were telling them that the children were deaf and the soldiers didn’t care. They killed all the children. The teacher ran back inside to calm his class and the rebels (they were Hutu) came in. The same thing happened in the class and all the children were shot. The men turned to the teacher and asked what he was. After responding “Hutu” the men left him alive with all the dead children. It was a school of 300 and only 40 survived. This man sat next to me the entire day with an amazing attitude; all the while carrying this within him. I was so saddened by the story that I broke down and started to cry. The entire area that we are working in was destroyed by the war. Only now are some shacks built to house the thousands of homeless families.

Eyes are always on you here; this is not a place many white people visit. They don’t mean any harm by looking, it is just that I am the opposite color and seem to carry with me every stereotype of a white person. I am pretty sure the whole city knows we are here. It has been an overwhelming two days with sites, smells, sounds that cannot be explained. It could be depressing but it is not because the story I just told you has another part. The man went back to the school after it had been closed for three years and he is still teaching. The area has far to go because if you are deaf you are not allowed to vote and only get education until 6th grade. Nothing can ever prepare someone for this. We are all exhausted, but hopeful. Even with everything around us so hard to bear, the people that are helping us have touched me deeply. I love you all and do not worry about me. I will be fine and will continue the updates...that cell phone number is coming shortly (I hear Mother Africa calling cards are the best). Amahoro (Peace)

Friday, June 29, 2007 - Kamenge knows my Name
I promise to make this short and will then not be using the internet for a few days...though the addiction to it that I had before I came here is hard to break. One correction to make is that it is “Mzungu” that white people are called. I am giving you the number of our cell phone. If you call around lunch time or late morning your time I will get it before I go to bed, so that would be a good time to call. I have only two stories, they are short and only one is mine. First we will start with Fiston’s because his is harder to take:

We were in the AVP workshop and were asked about a time when we thought before we reacted. My example would have been yelling at my sister, but I did not share that story. Fiston contributed this. One day there was gun fire in his neighborhood. He and many others fled into a field. There were a lot of people and his friend approached him to say that he wanted to go off with only a few people because they’d have a better chance. Fiston took the time to sit down and could hear screaming around him. He could not leave the people and told his friend he would stay for a while and then head back to his home. His friend left him to go away from the crowd. The next day his friend was killed. This man is amazing and his story just confirms the determination of this community.

Now my story: In front of the clinic, on our breaks, children will gather in groups of up to 20 to shake the mzungu’s hand. They drag their infant siblings over even if they’re crying. They are not the big-bellied, fly in the eye children; but they are not what you see in the suburbs. Most of their clothing is dirty, their faces unclean. But they are smiling; they are still innocent children with hope. We were asking what their names were and when I said that my name was “Whitney,” a five year old girl ran away and came back with a child no older than one. She smiled and pointed to her sister, “Whitney!”, then pointed to me “Whitney!” This little girl, who looked scared by all the children more than scared of me, had my name. It was nice the children made a connection with me, even if it was only through first names, but my heart hurt to see these children in poverty. Yet, children just want to be happy and one boy about three years old grabbed my left hand and refused to let go. He tried to kick other children that got near my hand. I swung him around and other children danced a little. They are so happy to see new people. When I left they were chanting my name...little do they know that they’re stuck with me for over a month!