Monday, August 24, 2015

At the Good Price

While skyping with my mom yesterday, she asked me, "Bryan, have you been able to go shopping?" Her worried, furrowed brow told me that I haven't shared with anyone what the food procurment situation is here. There are grocery stores in Buj, and despite the political/economic crisis, their shelves are stocked with plenty of delicious fare for the discerning mzungu.

My first introduction to Bujumbura grocery shopping was my first full day in town and some co-workers took me to Au Bon Prix (At the Good Price). Au Bon Prix is a store mostly for foreigners, with foreign products at foreign prices.

Cake mix, soy sauce, Pringles - they have things that one would assume you wouldn't be able to find in Burundi.

They also have wine and beer, although it's on the pricey side for this Californian.
Fruits and vegetables are great in Buj, and Au Bon Prix has a good selection of fruits and vegetables, although many prefer to go around the corner to a store that is exclusively fruits and vegetables, Les Quatre Saisons.

Where does a carnivore find meat in Bujumbura? The grocery stores have small selections, but the best bets are an Italian-owned butcher called Italbu and a Greek-owned butcher called Boucherie Nouvelle. I've made bolognese sauce, taco meat, beef fajitas and wonton filling with the delicious meats here.

Rounding out our options, there is Mutoyi, which some Americans don't like because everything is behind the counter and you have to ask for it (like in the olden days), but which has the most delicious fresh juices and yogurt that I've had. Finally, there is a diplomatic duty-free store with a great wine selection, an imitation Carrefour which has great glassware and frozen things, and Cafe Gourmand, which has baked goods and bread that even French people like.

So yes, food can be gotten here in Bujumbura.

Monday, July 27, 2015


With a new job, a new house, a new country and being separated from Hannah, I've been grasping at any sort of routine that could offer my life a bit of anchorage.

I've been extremely lucky to find a weekly ritual in Sunday volleyball games with a really fun group of people. I've been a huge fan of beach volleyball since college, when I played on an intramural team with my friends Liz, Claire and Joe. I just happened to meet a group of people my second week in Bujumbura who regularly play and I instantly entered into the regular rotation.

We show up at a beach called Petit Bassam around 9:00 or 9:30 Sunday mornings before the sand gets hot. As fishermen paddle dugout canoes just offshore, we play a ton of games on the one volleyball court. Between games we drink a ton of water, which as far as I can tell, is Petit Bassam's main source of revenue until people come back into town.

Petit Bassam also has a 5,000 burundian franc (~$3) hamburger that we get as "brunch" very often. Don't judge us.

Monday, June 29, 2015

Seen in Buj #1 - Terrifying Dinosaur Bird

These guys hang out at Ubuntu Residence, a tasty restaurant/bar/hotel (aren't they all?) in Buj. They are giant and terrifying, especially for me, a member of a generation that came of age as Jurassic Park was coming out. It is a grey crowned crane, which just happens to be the national bird of Uganda.

Sunday, June 28, 2015

The Day the Students Came Over the Wall

In the aftermath of President Nkurunziza's announcement that he plans to run for a third term, the University of Burundi was closed due to political turmoil. The day after the closing, hundreds of students turned up in front of the U.S. Embassy, saying they feared for their safety and had no place to stay.

The Embassy told the students it would attempt to bring up their plight with the Burundian government and the students set up camp in a construction site adjacent to the embassy, seemingly satisfied that the embassy's security cameras would keep them safe from hassling by government security forces.

By the time I arrived in Burundi in late May, the students had become a fixture on the road to the Embassy, sitting on rocks and chatting, listening to the radio, browsing their smartphones. Their numbers had dwindled to 150 or so, and some were even setting up tents and tarps to shield themselves from the mosquitoes and the elements. Because they predated me, their presence seemed normal to me, and we'd often wave to each other as I drove past into the Embassy.

However, their presence was not normal and it wasn't to last. On June 25, the police showed up to clear the students out. The confrontation had the potential to turn into a human tragedy right outside the gates of the U.S. Embassy. However, the students evidently had other plans. I say evidently because once events got in motion, those of us working in the Embassy were told to stay away from the windows. The rest of the drama unfolded for me as it did for the rest of the world - through accounts and photos posted on Twitter.

According to Twitter, the students climbed over and under the Embassy's gates to enter into the outer parking lot, and approached our guards peacefully with arms raised. This wasn't Benghazi in 2012 or Tehran in 1979. This was more similar to the Greensboro lunch counter sit-ins of 1960: seemingly well-planned and certainly peaceful.

The Embassy was able to help find a more permanent safe situation for the students and they left peacefully at nightfall. I lived through the first newsworthy event of my career the way I've lived through most newsworthy events - in front of my computer screen.

Friday, June 26, 2015

The Hippo Hole

Friday is a fun day in Buj.

Many people only work half days, President Nkurunziza plays soccer with his buddies, and right next door, some of the muzungus from the embassy gather at the old cercle nautique, which we've dubbed the Hippo Hole.

The Hippo Hole used to be the main marina of Bujumbura, where colonial Belgians docked their yachts and sailboats for weekend excursions on Lake Tangyanika. Now, it hosts two or three old speedboats and a restaurant/bar that has reliably been empty since I've starting coming. Granted, since the crisis started, many establishments in Bujumbura are pretty empty, as many expats were evacuated after the coup and a lot of Bujumbura's middle class left for Kigali until things blow over.

We always sit on a rickety platform that I'm sure was built in the 1950s or 1960s. One can order a cold (or warm) beer, enjoy the breeze off the lake, squint at the setting sun, and watch for hippos.

Because the marina is shallow and hippos apparently don't swim as much as they seem to bounce along the muddy lake bottom, the Hippo Hole is a great place for hippo watching. They usually come out in the afternoon to bask, dine, yawn and burp. The slightly smaller mammals on the rickety platform above do the same.

Friday, June 19, 2015

Coup d'Etat

On May 13, I woke up in the beautiful L'Auberge Del Mar after a wonderful date night with Hannah in the beach side town where I would go surfing in high school. I had turned off my phone for the night, and when I turned it back on the next morning I had a message waiting for me from my boss:

"Hi Bryan, you are no doubt aware of what happened today in Buj..."

What? I blindly groped around for my glasses, hopped out of bed and pulled up the news. While on a trip out of the country, the president of Burundi had been overthrown in an apparent coup d'etat. Rumors abounded. The president's plane had been turned back trying to get back into the country, people were dancing in the streets, the police had all deserted their posts.

And for maybe the first time, the events of some place very far away impacted my life in a very significant way. A flurry of emails followed my boss' as I tried to figure out what this would mean for my arrival in Burundi, which was only seven days away. I quickly realized that plans can never firmly be drawn in this business. The day following the coup saw gun battles in the streets of Bujumbura and all commercial airlines diverted their flights to Burundi. This was enough to trigger a partial evacuation of the U.S. embassy, sending family members, non-essential staff and private American citizens out of the country by charter flight on Sunday.

I ended up arriving in Burundi on one of the first flights back into the country the following Friday. The coup had failed, the president was the same, but my life sure wasn't.

Friday, May 29, 2015

Bon Voyage Bryan

On my way out the door, I stopped through New York and had one last goodbye with some very good college friends and Hannah. American flag Budweisers, hamburgers, and selfies. I'm going to miss America.

Wednesday, March 4, 2015

30 Funking Years

Some fear the arrival of the thirty year milestone. It signals the passing of youth, the expectation of responsibility and the end of adventure.

For me, it signaled the opportunity to throw a big fat theme party and invite all my friends.

I'm someone who prefers to spend my money on experiences rather than things and my 30th birthday party was quite an experience. In the tradition of my previous birthday parties, which include the infamous Barn Party of 2012 and a pretty college-y glow-in-the-dark party in 2013, this year I bought a disco ball and themed my party after the hit funky dance show Soul Train.

A couple of weeks before the party, the space I had rented underwent a city inspection and had to close it down. Luckily, they referred me to their sister restaurant, the Washington Firehouse, and hooked me up with the restaurant's spacious second floor bar at my original rental fee!

Not a place I could responsibly afford otherwise.

The rest was easy: Hannah helped me make decorations, a three hour funk playlist and some very soulful costumes. We had a dance contest with medals for the winners, a make-your-own-chest-hair station, a full bar, and cheese cake.

Amenities aside, it was my friends who made it fun. A special shout out to some pregnant foreign service colleagues who held it down on the dance floor, a couple who got a babysitter for their two year old so they could spend the night in clothes from a thrift shop, some great college friends who came all the way down from New York, two buddies who independently bought the same white disco suit, and Hannah, who blew out her hair to ridiculous lengths.

The party continued into the wee hours of the night as the bartender took us to her boyfriend's bar after she closed down her own.

The only lesson learned: try not to have so much fun that there's almost no photos. Next time, I guess.

Sunday, February 22, 2015

Needs of the Service: Exhibit A

After basking in the light of my French exam success for a couple of days, the clouds of the future started rolling in.

I received an email from my career development officer that given how early I had finished French training, she was going to have the rest of my training schedule moved up and move my departure date up by two months.

Wait... WHAT?

I didn't even know that was possible! After getting over my initial shock, I tried to decide if I was pleased or not. On one hand, I was now going to get to be at post for the presidential election and be present for some pretty significant Burundian history. Also, I've been in this job for about seven months without actually doing the real job yet - I'm eager to start doing some diplomacy. On the other hand, I have a pretty great thing going with a lovely lady here in DC, I had plans to visit family and friends in California, and moving to Africa two months early can trash the best-laid plans.


Talking it over with my career development officer clarified things. My training is really expensive and keeping me around in DC unnecessarily doesn't look like a great use of taxpayer money. That's right taxpayers, you have bureaucrats on your side! In addition, the person I'm replacing was leaving in mid-May and it would be really good if I could overlap with her at post for a bit to not have any gaps. In summary, the needs of the service trumps convenience on my part, and to tell you the truth, I am more than ok with that because that's what I signed up for and that's part of the allure and adventure of the job.

What does that mean for friends and family? I'm probably still going to get out to California before I leave, but adjust your calendars because Bryan begins a new adventure in the Great Rift Valley in early May!

Sunday, February 8, 2015

Nick Burns On: Everything

This week, the former Undersecretary for Political Affairs (usually the top non-political appointee in the State Department) and diplomatic hot shot Nicholas Burns stopped by FSI, where I'm doing my training. He spoke to the Foreign Service Officers, including me, on a variety of topics including the future of US diplomacy, great power competition, our relationship with Iran and much more. The talk was moderated by Ambassador Nancy McEldowney, the Director of FSI, who at this point in my career is one of my favorite diplomats.

A few interesting topics Ambassador Burns tackled, now that he works for Harvard and can speak as a private citizen:

On the US relationship with Iran.  Burns supports the current negotiations with Iran and believes that US diplomats could be back in Tehran within three years.

On the Foreign Service's past. Burns talked about growing diversity in the department, but how the present status is not enough. He referenced days not too long ago when the service was dominated by East Coast, Ivy League, White Anglo-Saxon Protestants, "no offense to anyone here from that background," he joked.

On Foreign Service Generalists and the importance of Public Diplomacy. He repeatedly highlighted the importance of public diplomacy, especially in the context of the propaganda offensive undertaken by Russia on the topic of eastern Ukraine. He also thought that the idea of "cones" or "tracks" (Economic, Political, Public Diplomacy, Consular and Management) should be taken out of the Foreign Service and that all FSO Generalists should truly be generalists.

As an Economic-coned officer with a degree in international politics, a professional background in public relations, an interest in management and currently taking consular training, I find myself agreeing with that last point.

Thursday, February 5, 2015

On French and Fluency

On Tuesday I took my French interim test. I'm about five months into my seven month French training and given that I'm on schedule, I planned on hitting the 2+/2+ mark on the ILR scale used by the Department.

I went in, took he test, which was pretty pleasant. I felt I did very well on the speaking portion, but bombed the reading portion. However, when I got home that evening, I was surprised to find an email with this:

Hmm? A mistake? I went in to talk to my language supervisor the next day and he confirmed it was not. I had received a 3/3 in French and had completed my language training almost two months early!

Now, I have mixed feelings on this. Am I confident in my French? Absolutely! I feel like I could speak to anyone on any topic and express myself well. Is my French perfect? Not by a long shot. I wouldn't consider myself fluent. I still struggle to remember vocabulary words and sometimes require weird workarounds to express what I'm trying to say.

In addition, I had also needed a 3/3 on my Spanish phone test before joining the Foreign Service, something I so infamously struggled with and failed to achieve after working and living in a Spanish-speaking environment and studying in Spanish for ten years.

Is my French better than my Spanish? Doubtful. However, I think the difference in results is a testament to the great language instruction I've had here at FSI, which has really prepared me to tackle difficult topics and express myself in a subtle way that maybe Spanish Bryan still lacks. Also, it helps to make immersive language learning your full-time job eight hours a day, five days a week!

Tuesday, February 3, 2015

The Richness of Language

"The richness of every European language is a richness in ability to describe its own culture, represent its own world. When it ventures to do the same for another culture, however, it betrays its limitations, underdevelopment, semantic weakness."
- Ryszard Kapuscinski, "The Shadow of the Sun"

At this point I'm about five months (two-thirds) through French language training. It's a lot of fun and we've reached the level where we sit in class and just talk about issues most of the day. The role of religion in wedding ceremonies, abortion, perceptions of race, scientific breakthroughs, free speech, you name it.

I'm learning French, but also about francophone culture. We read opinion articles and listen to news stories and especially recently, in the wake of the terrorist attacks in France, I feel I'm getting to appreciate the cultural angst, hopes and fears of the French speaking world.

It's difficult to talk about the nuances of immigrant integration in France without using French words and French meanings. I imagine it's even harder to discuss the lasting impact and legacy of colonialism in French Africa in the language of the colonizer.

And this got me to thinking. I'm learning French, which is spoken as a second language by the educated minority in Burundi, but only 8% of Burundians in total speak French. How will I be able to understand what's happening in Burundi if I can't speak Kirundi, the actual language of the country? How will I understand the concepts, ideas, the richness of Burundian culture if I don't even share the Burundian way of speech?

I understand that learning French is better for my career, and that French being the, well, lingua franca in this part of the world is the norm, but it does sometimes make you wonder about how we understand each other as human beings speaking and thinking in different languages.
Well, back to the presentations and and philosophizing in la langue fran├žaise!