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MARI CHRISTMAS '08 OFFERS SUPPORT AND FRIENDSHIP AS A GREAT LAKES INITIATIVE VOLUNTEER FOR HIV/AIDS

When volunteers came to Burundi in 2002 to promote a variation of the United States “Alternatives to Violence Project” (AVP), they sought a translation for trauma in the official language of Kirundi. The word that the Burundians felt best described their concept of trauma was “what it feels like when one’s heart is upside down.”

In a country that has felt waves of cyclical violent conflict since its independence as a Belgian colony in 1962, the concept of trauma is nothing new. The majority of the world has too easily neglected the small country of Burundi, nestled between Rwanda, Tanzania, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Like Rwanda, Burundi shares the same ethnic heritage of the conflicting Hutu and Tutsi groups. With the media’s interest drawn to the Rwandan genocide in 1994 (the plane crash in 1994 not only killed the Rwandan president but the second democratically-elected President of Burundi as well), Burundi’s own crisis was overlooked and ignored – rarely was it mentioned that in 1993 the first democratically elected Burundian president was assassinated along with all his ministers, triggering a crisis that would claim over 250,000 Burundian lives in the next 12 years. Even rarer is the mention that Burundi had already experienced similar crises in 1972 and 1988. Nelson Mandela called the Burundian crisis a “slow-burning genocide.”

When I arrived in the capital of Bujumbura in May, the final terms of the Arusha peace accord were being negotiated in Tanzania between the FNL (Party for the Liberation of the Hutu People) and the Burundian government. Though the capital was crawling with white United Nations vehicles, it was a peaceful time in Burundi. Things were looking up.

I began my work in Gitega, the second largest city in Burundi. There I spent two and a half weeks working as a teacher at MI-PAREC (Ministry of Peace and Reconciliation Under the Cross). As a volunteer representing the African Great Lakes Initiative (AGLI), I had been placed by AGLI to work at MI-PAREC. MI-PAREC began as one of the first organizations working internally at the grassroots level for peace and reconciliation in Burundi. Since its foundation in 1996, MI-PAREC has continued to invite community truth-building using non-violent and peaceful demonstrations (such as its peaceful disarmament of the civil population on June 9, 2006) and various workshops (such as AVP). Provided with a classroom by MI-PAREC, I worked specifically with two HIV-positive women. During my free time in the morning, I taught English to the MI-PAREC staff and other community members. Working with both HIV-positive women and the staff allowed me to see the progress Burundi was making in both HIV/AIDS activism and peace.

The two HIV-positive students were remarkable women. One, Felicity Niyonzima, was the first woman in Gitega to come out publicly about her HIV status. Felicity learned of her status after her husband died in 1995. She expressed to me how hard it was for her to share her status with others—many people believed that Christian women did not contract HIV. She has therefore sacrificed her public reputation to dispel these stereotypes that have kept other Christian HIV-positive women from receiving treatment or outside assistance. Felicity had asked for an English teacher so she could network with other HIV women and organizations in Kenya. At the end of June she traveled to Kenya. My other student, Jacqueline, came-out with her HIV status after hearing about Felicity. Since then, they have become fast friends. Jacqueline, like Felicity, learned of her status after her husband’s death from AIDS. Last year, her oldest daughter died of AIDS and Jacqueline is still afraid to test her other four children.

My work with the MI-PAREC staff and other community members gave me a chance to learn about the Burundian conflict and its struggle for peace. I was fortunate enough to have people tell me their stories—how they were able to flee their secondary schools, how they came home only to witness the murder of their parents and siblings, how they found peace in the country’s conflict, and why they want to see a peaceful Burundi.

Working within MI-PAREC allowed me to meet incredible people such as various ex-commanders of the Hutu Rebel Military. I had imagined these people as monsters of humanity, murders without remorse. Yet, with each ex-commander and ex-soldier I met, I was dumbfounded by his depth and desire for peace. I could not imagine what they had experienced or grieved but I could feel how remarkable their change had been for them. Each person I met along the way had a different story. Rather than becoming numb to the horrors they related to me, I realized the complexity of peace and reconciliation, the importance of truth, and the power of determination.

As a philosophy major, I have studied the importance and hypothesized reality of truth. Philosophers are continually searching for truth in their works. Likewise, truth is essential in the Burundian peace and reconciliation process—and just as complicated and hard to obtain.

After my brief illness, AGLI decided that I would return to Bujumbura and begin working with the Friends Women's Association (FWA). The Friends Women’s Association was founded on Aug. 18, 2002 by a group of eight women of the Evangelical Friends Church of Burundi. These women had been devastated by the recurring Burundian wars. Still their mutual desire to engage in their country’s peace building empowered them to dedicate themselves to social change. Working with FWA added another layer to my experience in Burundi. One of the main initiatives of FWA was the care of women HIV/AIDS victims. It is said that one in 10 Burundians is HIV-positive. In 2003, FWA opened a clinic in Kamenge, a poor section located in the north of Bujumbura. During the conflict, the people of Kamenge became refugees; either internally displaced in Gutumba on the border of the Congo or externally displaced refugees in Tanzania. The Kamenge quarter was leveled for fighting. Due to the population’s lack of basic healthcare, safe sex, and HIV/AIDS education, Kamenge has been especially devastated by HIV/AIDS. The demand for affordable medical care allows the clinic not only to care for HIV/AIDS patients, but also to treat a wide range of illnesses. The clinic depends on the donations made by AGLI and grants from the U.S. Embassy and various organizations in Kenya. As their objective is to provide affordable healthcare to its patients, the clinic charges the equivalent of 20 cents for medicines and examinations. Even at this price, patients can barely afford the expenses. Thus, the clinic relies heavily on outside aid. However, by having an easily accessible medical facility that integrates both issues of health (HIV prevention and basic health care), FWA lifts the veil of HIV/AIDS ignorance and educates anyone who comes through its doors.

When the Kamenge clinic opened in 2003, there was still fighting in the area and the refugees were starting to return to their (non-existent) homes. Currently, three nurses, one part-time volunteer doctor, one manager/finance manger, one-maintenance/public relations person, one non-professionally trained social worker, and one night guard staff the clinic in Kamenge. With the help of FWA, I was able to see the relationship between HIV/AIDS and the civil wars, and how each impacted the current peace-building process.

During the 1993 crisis, which killed over 250,000 Burundians, deportation and refugee camps rarely offered sexual security to women who escaped their homes. Without protection, many women became victims of sexual violence, while others, in order to avoid sexual violence, sought protection through various partners. Those that were widowed from previous wars were widowed once more. War accelerates the spread of HIV/AIDS infection and destroys the familiar support systems of the infected. Now as both de-mobilized combatants and displaced women begin to move back into their communities and homes, the need for HIV/AIDS education and prevention is crucial. More than ever, sexual education and HIV/AIDS testing and treatment is necessary to bring about reconciliation, to forgive oneself and one’s past and to insure a safer, more peaceful future. In many cases, the victims of HIV/AIDS have an especially difficult time forgiving the war, each other, and themselves.

The dominant threat and fear of widespread HIV/AIDS has shaken the very foundations of peace in several ways. Burundi is a country all too familiar with the costs of cyclical revenge and social segregation. HIV/AIDS stands as a constant reminder of the effects of war. Like a war, HIV/AIDS is capable of breaking communal trust, destroying individual respect, and disrupting households. Burundians, through the wars, have become accustomed to not sharing their pain with each other. Likewise, they have been taught to keep quiet. With HIV/AIDS, they have continued this habit of silence. Yet, this is precisely the danger of HIV/AIDS—it thrives in the silence that protects the people socially. The FWA was formed to go to challenge the socially detrimental aspects of HIV/AIDS in hopes to continue rebuilding their communities.

FWA has reunited Hutu and Tutsi women by giving them a common mission—to create awareness and understanding of HIV/AIDS within their communities. Through common work, FWA seeks to build a space that develops and nurtures these bonds that create, safeguard, and secure peace building. The FWA has empowered women to claim a needed role in the strengthening and fortifying of the peace process in Burundi. For these women, the FWA is more than a simple solution or education and treatment of the physical aspects of HIV/AIDS; it is an organization devoted to the psychological and emotional care of the victim and the community. Although the symptoms of HIV/AIDS may take many years to develop, the victim suffers immense psychological distress immediately after learning of his/her HIV/AIDS status. Though HIV/AIDS is physically devastating to the body, an ignorant community further traumatizes a socially stigmatized patient. FWA educates family and community members on how to understand the virus’ course and care for HIV/AIDS victims.

Through FWA, the patients are promised their right to a peaceful, bright, and fruitful future. FWA reminds us that victims of HIV/AIDS will not be socially rejected or ostracized from the efforts to rebuild Burundi. FWA is concerned with the passive neglect of many HIV/AIDS women victims and seeks funds to further develop its campaign to empower these women.

With FWA I worked on a grant proposal that will be submitted to Burundi’s National Council for AIDS Service. The clinic has a rising number of HIV/AIDS patients. Currently it serves 156 HIV/AIDS patients—an increase from 55 HIV/AIDS patients in 2004. Additionally, the clinic provides basic medical care to roughly 10 community members per day. This increase, in both the HIV/AIDS patients and the other patients, has placed a significant amount of pressure on the clinic’s medical and personal resources. As the clinic wishes to have enough funds to assist 400 HIV/AIDS patients within the next several years, I worked on a grant that asked for funds to recruit a part-time professionally trained medical doctor and part-time professionally trained psychologist. Furthermore, we asked for funds to provide a patient with intravenous therapy before hospitalization and enough medicine to treat 500 cases of malaria per year. As the FWA/NTASEKA Clinic anticipates the opening of its own government-approved testing site this year, we asked for a refrigerator and freezer to preserve and protect blood samples and other medical supplies and medicines. Due to Kamenge’s multiple power outages, we also asked for funds to purchase a generator and enough gasoline in order to protect samples and medicines.

I worked with Cassilde Ntamamiro—the founder, president of FWA, and head nurse of the clinic—to determine the next steps for the clinic and its immediate and long-range needs (I listed only a few of the clinics needs above). Cassy became a wonderful mentor and friend. Though coming from the United States—a country where women are encouraged to be independent, determined, and influential—I had never met anyone with the forceful spirit that Cassy possessed. As a Hutu she was one of two Hutu women that went to nursing school when the education system was dangerous and dominated by Tutsi—one could be killed if s/he were an educated Hutu. The war forced her to take care of all of her younger siblings while she was trying to finish her nursing degree. As she fought to finish her education and struggled to raise her younger siblings, Cassy’s younger sister was raped and gave birth to her daughter at the age of 12. Then her youngest sister died of AIDS, propelling Cassy to dedicate all her medical education to HIV/AIDS activism. Cassy’s house is considered home to an incredible number of war-orphaned Burundians. Her current three “children” have recently finished high school. Working with her helped me achieve a new clarity and dedication to my work and to the value giving oneself freely to helping others. Though I always valued my volunteer work, working with Cassy deepened my dedication and improved my experiences.

During my last two weeks, I worked on a building project with Cassy, volunteers from AGLI, FWA, and community members. The building was the new FWA clinic. Working on this building project served as a perfect ending to my time in Burundi, for it was the creation of something new. On the plane back from Burundi I came across a Swahili proverb: “Happiness is having something to do, something to love, and something to hope for.” When I left Burundi, I left a community where members were fully engaged in the peace-building process, learning to love their neighbors, and building a hopeful future. Though I have been able to share most of my experiences with my family, friends, and staff at Haverford, there are some that I have kept to myself as they are too personal and I need a little more time to reflect on them.

Ni twa shir’imitima kumana, Uburundi buzokira
Ni twa shir’imitima kumana, Isi yose izokira

When we put our hearts together, Burundi will be healed,
When we put our hearts together, The whole world will be healed.

 

—Mari Christmas '08

 

My experience in Gitega and Bujumbura would not have been possible had it not been for the wonderful support I recieved from the Chip Rosenfeld Fund, Deborah Lafer-Scher Grant, Donna Mancini, Amy Feifer, and Helene Pollock at Haverford College.

Founders Green on a warm spring day.

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