Thursday, March 18, 2010

Gym Tonic

I’ve put if off for too long, but now I HAVE to tell you about one the funniest things in Bujumbura. It’s called Gym Tonic and at the risk of sounding as naff as the girl introducing each session on my fitness DVD, “it’s incredibly hard”!

I found out about Gym Tonic through a friend, who insisted that it is a really good work-out. But while I nodded with a polite smile, my smug self thought that it couldn’t possibly be true, and that judging from my experience of Africa and sports (or rather of Sudan and OMG-are-you-kidding-why??-no sport), I should be treading on safe ground.

And at first, I clearly thought I was. Most Gym Tonic participants, Burundians for the vast majority, are either males in their mid-forties with a significant beer belly or as Mma Ramotswe would put it, “traditionally-built women”. As I handed my $2 entry fare to the attendant, I believed that those years spent in Sudan doing crazy aerobics by 40 degrees on a roof terrace were finally going to pay off. Well, they did not.

Enter the instructor, a Burundian athlete of Olympic proportions. There’s no time for small talk here, so quickly he starts the session with accelerated techno-dance music. The pace is unbelievably fast and for the next 90mn it will not stop. I look around and my neighbours, who appeared so inoffensive at the start, have now mutated into ├╝ber-humans. The whole experience feels like a boot camp, with everyone shouting and grumbling in unison as they kick and punch the air.

But worse is to come. After 30mn of fighting to catch my breath, the instructor decides to put on some Congolese music while staff helpers lay steps in front of every participant. The ordeal continues with more jumping and clapping to reach a climax as the instructor screams “Now daaaaance!” and everyone with no exception starts swirling around their step in perfect rhythm. Everyone but me.

I cannot say what amazed me the most. Was it the fact that I was so unfit despite all my Sudan efforts? Or rather the sight of all these people who managed to keep pace despite... well, their shape?

In any case my friend was right. Gym Tonic is a good work-out, it certainly rivals any well-polished Western class and I will kick and punch and dance on anyone that attempts to mock it in the future.

(You didn’t seriously think I was going to post pictures as well, did you?)

Monday, March 8, 2010

A visit to the Batwa

In my not so many years of traveling through Africa, I have met a few people for whom my heart was broken. Among them were the elegant Peuls in the desert of northern Senegal, farmers fighting the drought in landlocked Burkina Faso, HIV positive women sewing beads for an income in Burundi, or landmine victims learning to live with their injury in Sudan’s Nuba mountains.

I will always remember the day I met the Batwa pygmies of Burundi. I first came across them four years ago when I was working for a development agency and I saw them again last month. They are among the poorest of the poor.

Although the Batwa are the oldest recorded inhabitants of Burundi, they were subjugated in turn by Hutu, then Tutsi tribes around the 15th century and have since been a minority. Illiterate for the major part, they are under-represented in all aspects of life in Burundi. They have often been evicted from their land and have been deprived of their rights. As a result, they get the least fertile, most inconveniently located land, which no-one else wants, where they live in small communities withdrawn from the rest of the world, often in utter poverty. Women eke out a living by making pottery, while the men work for food by carrying sacks of grains or other goods for people to and from the market.

Of course poverty is a difficult concept, and I will not attempt to compare ethnic tribes and establish which ones are poorer. But what strikes me with the Batwa is their reluctance to change.
For a start, they see themselves as a separate people. When asked which tribe they come from, most Hutu and Tutsi will insist that they are Burundians. A pygmy will reply that she or he is a Twa. Then centuries of submission have made them understandably very suspicious of foreigners. Development workers often find it much more difficult to teach Batwa ways to improve their lives (such as building more sustainable housing, sending their children to school, taking up agriculture or adopting some basic hygiene and sanitation) than their fellow Hutu and Tutsi citizens.

I value the work of organizations that run projects specifically designed to help the Batwa. Yet I cannot but ask myself how long and what it will take for an entire generation to learn to trust others, to do things in a different way, possibly even to embrace a new culture so that they will survive. If anyone knows the answer, please let me know.

the Batwa (pygmies) are smaller than the average Burundian person

A Twa building his hut, made of wood and leaves

A Twa child

Pygmy woman curious at the visitors