“They have a dog AND a pony,” I remarked — a little cynically — to one of the people in our tour. He was as tired as I was of seeing another presentation of well-intentioned humanitarian assistance — another nicely constructed clinic without patients (the doctor care is free, but because no one can afford to pay for medications, none of them stay long).
People have the best intentions when they present a dog and pony show. They want to put their best foot forward, and show you what they’ve accomplished (a much needed clinic, for instance), often against the odds and in an otherwise dismal place. But the group I was following (as a videographer on hand to document their journey) was in Burundi to assess immediate needs. And to do that, to more fully understand this country’s plight, they needed to see the worst that people are going through.
And that was what we were heading to see as the 4×4 bounced on rough roads up the mountaintop, with Mr. Eli, a member of a church that has taken on a huge humanitarian mission in this region, at the wheel. He was taking us to visit a village of Batwa, the pygmies of Burundi, who are very much a disadvantaged minority — only a tiny sliver of population compared to the 80% of the country who are from the Hutu tribe and 19% or more Tutsi.
The hundred or so villagers in Ngendo have the least desirable land in the area: high on the mountain, with rocky soil and steep slopes. Their homes have thatched roofs that are no match for the gusts of wind that tear over the hillside.
The children’s clothes are threadbare, and the adults have to work in the fields for others in the valley in order to earn a living. One woman we spoke to says she walks a couple of hours over a mountain to work for a landowner, who doesn’t always have work for her. On those days she has to make the two hour walk back empty handed and break the news to her family. When she does work, she said she gets paid in corn meal, the equivalent of about 10 cents for a day’s work, with which she feeds her children and a few others who belong to another villager who had to go away for some months to find work elsewhere.
She said she and her family hadn’t eaten in two days.
After a video interview, when I was making sure — to keep the lawyers away — to ask permission on camera from the woman to use her image and voice in a potential broadcast, she said something that we often hear when we work in poor and disadvantaged areas and countries, and it always breaks my heart: “yes, it’s okay, I suppose. But even if people respond by sending help because they saw it on tv, the money and help never make it to us.”
We like to think, as journalists, filmmakers and messengers, that we’re doing some good in the world by exposing some of the harsher truths to our audience or readers. But she had a point. We can’t guarantee that anything we do will make a difference to the people on the ground.
So I was relieved to be among people who actually do rather than document. The team sprang into action and decided to help these people — both in the long term and short term. First, they would make sure the hungry got fed. The next day, they would come back, with a bags of corn and beans for each of the families. It would feed them for half a week. They also promised blankets for the windy, chilly nights. I could see a commitment building among the group, who seemed to be relieved to have found a way to help, after a week spent among so many dogs and ponies.
Before we left, I could hear singing in the village church. I entered to find children belting out with adorable voices, a little hymn welcoming the guests to the village. Though it had the melody of a western tune, the rhythms (on a Burundian drum) harmonies and pitches were distinctly pygmy. It had that haunting and angelic sound co-opted by so many new age composers since the Deep Forest album first incorporated it into synth tracks in the early 1990s.
I wanted to stay and listen (and continue to shoot video). But the sun was setting. And when darkness falls, the shadowy elements of Burundi emerge and it’s dangerous for guys who look like me, riding in expensive vehicles, to be on the roads.
The next morning, we would get up before dawn and come back.