Sat in Doha airport waiting to board the London bound plane gives a few minutes to write on the final 2 days of what has been an inspiring, educative, and challenging journey.
The combination of MPs, Southwell Diocesan folk and a Christian Aid staff member has worked well. We all agree this is the case. It could have been disastrous; we might not have got on nearly so well as we have done. There have been a lot of laughs. We have learnt much about each other and each others lives and work. I certainly have a much deeper understanding of what is involved day to day in being a constituency MP. I have gained insights into the inner workings of a political party as well as the House of Commons. I have, as should always be the case, learned more Bout myself through the whole journey and all that we have seen.
Our final full day began travelling to Ngozi up the wonderful winding road from Bujumbura. It is beautiful every inch of the way as the road twists and turns along the mountain edges. Mountains roll away into the distance. Forest appears and goes again. Every mile sees the disturbing yet awesome sight of cyclists clinging on to the back of the very slow moving lorries. Overtaking is hazardous. Cyclists coming the other way reach ridiculous speeds. Many are more than overloaded with bananas, charcoal, or the stranger sights of furniture, gourds and baskets. Women sit side saddle and appear to have remarkable balance.
In Ngozi we visited an inspiring water project. Simply turning a natural spring into a clean source of water. It took 12 days in total to complete with all the labour done by local villagers under expert supervision. £500 supplied all the pipes and cement required. Excitedly villagers spoke of an end to regular stomach problems, diarrhoea etc. through this simple piece of work. Before we visited them we had spent an hour with the bright young provincial governor; clean water was one of the things he highlighted as required across the Province. Impressively we sat in a building opened to celebrate 50 years of independence last year. Proudly he told us that all £700,000 worth of it had been donated in kind or in labour by the local community. He equally proudly showed us the developing football stadium next door. The pitch on which the first ever international between Burundi and Rwanda had been held in 1958 (Burundi won 4-1). Next July Burundi’s football loving President will open the stadium and the 3 surviving players from that match will be guests of honour. We asked if Newcastle United’s Bigirimana will be there too; ‘we will try’ was the governor’s simple reply.
The final visits were to Buye hill where the first British Protestant missionaries arrived in 1935. Here is the oldest Anglican cathedral. The home of Burundi’s Anglican Church. A former bishop’s son, Paisible, had guided us around the nation for the past week. He was thrilled that he was able to come to the village where he was born and grew up to the age of 15. His father’s grave is outside the cathedral. He had also pointed out the maternity ward in which he was born. It is still in use. It was over full and not a joy to behold. The psi attic ward was also harrowing. Far too many children in too few beds; and this is the dry season. When malaria is in full swing it is seriously over stretched. The medical superintendent made it clear that all his staff do their very best; but they all know that they work in far from ideal conditions. The X Ray machine has not worked for 3 years. They are heroic in what they achieve.
The secondary school is also a source of more concern than joy. Teenagers having to share a bunk bed; so 4 to each bunk. There is little space between the beds too. They are fed on such a small budget; 3 meals a day but never any meat; far too costly. The library is seriously under resourced.
Alongside the cathedral is a football pitch. Many were out playing. So the final action was Andy Clasper (Christian Aid) displaying his shooting skills against local lads and Graham Mann MP joining him for demonstrating how both of them handle attacking crosses in the box with their head and feet. I don’t think either answers Arsene Wenger’s search for new team members. Poppy Richards was as ever surrounded by children as she took lots of iPad pics of them and delighted them with showing them the results.
In the face of all the difficulties the generous hospitality from Bishop Sixbert and his team in the evening once again demonstrated Burundian Christians ability to be generous, warm, kind and enthusiastic in the face of enormous challenges.
Coming back through Rwanda was a stark reminder of just how different these 2 nations now are in terms of development. The roads are better and safer; the people look better dressed and kept; the buildings appear more solid and cared for; the streets are much cleaner. This is in no way to criticise Burundi it is to highlight the difference. One nation is now nearly 20 years post conflict and genocide; the other only 5. One has had around 3 times more aid poured into it than the other, and it has used it well. One has emerged increasingly gaining international respect; the other is still not regarded as worthy of real interest or concern. Both have a long journey ahead of them. Both are determined to get there. It is a privilege to have friends in both and to speak up for both through the church, agencies and government. The approach given where the 2 nations are in their story cannot be the same. Neither must be forgotten but in particular Burundi demands our real concern and support. If the international community fail to really help it come out of recovery into rebuilding and renewal it will fall further behind its neighbour; and that will be no good for either of them, the region or the world.
Sat in Doha airport waiting to board the London bound plane gives a few minutes to write on the final 2 days of what has been an inspiring, educative, and challenging journey.
Nyanza Lac was a beautiful place to stay; the East African hotel right by the lake. The chargrilled Makeke excellent. Sleep not helped for most of the group by the disco which went on until 4am; me I slept through it.
Then into a fascinating day that focused on how this nation has successfully been reiterating returning refugees. We are talking large numbers here; tens of thousands. In 1972 many fled into neighbouring Tanzania where they lived in camps for nearly 40 years. So many of these returnees were born in the camp and grew up speaking Swahili and English, not Kirundi. Others fled in the 1980s and more again when the most recent crisis began in 1993. A smaller number fled to Congo and returned across the lake. Those in Tanzania were effectively forced to return by the Tanzanian government; we met some where the husbands, Tanzanians, are still there. In 2009 I saw streets lined with people living under UN plastic sheeting whilst beginning to build a home. Now there are large numbers of new settlements designed for these returnees. Some are entirely new, others are linked with existing local communities. Christian Aid has helped with 1 such village of 900 homes. The settlement we visited was smaller but still we heard good stories of reintegration; of locals and returnees living harmoniously together. There were water stand pipes and signs of commerce. Land has been given for cultivating. It has not been easy but overall it is a remarkable success story. Especially as land is connected with ancestral rights so not just any piece of land will do. There is much to be done around land registration to ensure these people feel secure. More schooling space is required, along with quality teachers. But the story through the day, and in Cuba, Karusi Province was consistently positive. The school we visited largely built and extended by the Diocese of Makamba with the help of the Refugee Education Trust, is 40% returnees children. It is woefully under resourced (as are so many schools) with an average class size of 50, no library books, no laboratory equipment and no ICT. When children do succeed in their education they are courageous and remarkably persistent to succeed against many odds. But harmony between communities is part of the success.
On a steep hillside near Rutana is a remarkable community based project in which trenches are dug and trees are planted to overcome soil erosion and deforestation. Thousands of kilometres have been dug by hand as the community comes together once a week to protect their environment. Hundreds of thousands of trees have been planted. They tell of improved harvests and of community harmony through working together. Returnees spoke up of their sense of belonging through this work together. There are over 4,000 volunteers in this particular project. It is a fine example of the community doing for itself what it can and noticing the difference. Small funds from Christian Aid, Episcopal Development Relief and others have assisted on the way. They have proved much more effective than the bigger bucks from World Bank and others. Why? Because it is locally owned, directed, and managed. This makes the difference.
The same applies to the dramatic presentation given to us in Cuba (Chooba). It is very remote. But in powerful dramatic form this cooperative told of the impact of the Mothers Union literacy and savings programmes on their lives. Returnees telling of the welcome given and support offered; families telling of transformed home lives where now all children attend school, not just the boys; where domestic violence has ended; where men are recovering the dignity of work and where the community works together to see life in all its fullness break out. They all see prayer and worship as part of this transformation but it is closely linked to their holding one another to account; standing with one another in times of need and a commitment to see their lives improved. We are still talking deeply poor people but their lives are changing – because essentially they are taking responsibility for themselves and for their community together. There is much we in the West can learn from this core community mobilisation which leads to transformation.
A call on a Batwa community also focused on this theme of community transformation. Further to go here but it has begun.
The afternoon saw us royally entertained at the site of King Mwezi’s miraculous deliverance in 1908. This is where the world famous Gishora Drummers perform. They are outstanding. Drums are deeply important in this nation. They are symbolic of power, of communication and these drummers and dancers are icons for the nation.
Then an early start to return to Bujumbura for a meeting with the nation’s president, Pierre Nkurunziza. From being one of the rebel leaders for many years he became the elected president in 2005. He was re-elected in 2010. He was good enough to give myself and my 2 MP co travellers, John Mann & Graham Jones 30 minutes private conversation. It was private so no comment on its content. He was friendly and engaging. He is passionate for his nation and its future. He knows there is much to be done.
A really helpful reflection time on the whole of our Burundi visit with the bishops of the Anglican Church here followed.
Then one of those unexpected bonuses that happen on these trips. Hippos spotted close by a local bar. We sat for nearly 2 hours watching them as the light faded away. They were playful with each other. 2 babies and 4 adults together. Behind us a group of young adults were out celebrating 1 of them’s birthday. They played guitars, sang and danced. They were relaxed and very good. They even played a request or two from us. They mixed Burundian songs with internationally renowned ones. It was simply a delight sitting there being entertained from both sides; hippos in the water and Burundians singing. Occasionally we even entertained ourselves with witty remarks about each other and the past week.
This has been a happy group with which to travel. Before we met up in Kigali 2 weeks ago some of us had never met each other, and others met only occasionally. We come from church, NGO and parliament. The Parliamentarians are not Christians; the Christians are not politicians. Yet together we have made a rich mix and all recognise that the visit has been the richer for what each other has brought to the journey. We will return home with different memories and perspectives but all with a deep appreciation of what the people of Burundi are seeking to do for themselves. We all believe that at present Burundi is getting a raw deal from our own nation and from the rest of the world. It must not be a forgotten and ignored nation. Burundi what’s and needs our prayers, support and above all our friendship.
This began as a reflection on the lakeside of Bujumbura last summer when as a group we watched 2 traditional dug out canoes cast out a huge net between them on Lake Tanganyika. We watched them carefully and slowly draw the net in towards the shore. It took them a long while. Very slowly it all came together at one spot and in this vast net there was almost nothing. All that work; all that care; all that hope; and nothing. The disappointment for them was palpable I think we all felt it. We knew they would start over again and try once more. This after all was their living. Inevitably conversation also reflected on the similarities with what it must have been like for Peter & Andrew, James & John as fishermen in the time of Jesus. This helped bring those ancient stories alive.
But this is a fresh write; I never quite published these thoughts last year. But in the middle of the night on Lake Kivu it all came back. I was up to respond to nature’s call and in the dark make my way to the ‘long drop’ (smartly built at Kumbya but still a long drop). I could hear voices coming from off the lake. Here in the dark of the night there were men ( and probably boys) out fishing. The moon was out so they had some light. I couldn’t see them because of the trees but there talk was clear. It is a hard life making a simple living this way. Paddling the canoes which can easily tip; out in the dark perhaps being successful but sometimes probably not. On successful nights no doubt joy at what the money could do for the family, hopefully not to be squandered on drink (sometimes it is).
Then sat eating wonderfully flavourful Makeke fish at Nyanza Lac I could see a string of lights spread out across Lake Tanganyika? On the drive down this beautiful lake we had seen fishermen preparing to go out for the night, and then watched as the boats began to leave. A very few have a motor, most paddle their way out together. Taking a couple of hours to reach the favoured fishing spot and setting the lights to attract the fish to them.
In the early morning I watched them return. It may or may not have been successful; either way it was a long night’s work, and hard.
Lakes Kivu and Tanganyika were both calm but I thought of Jesus’ disciples on a boat at night storm tossed (the night before at Kumbya we had a storm). Making a basic living from the land, and from simple fishing is still the reality for millions and millions of the world’s poorest people. Times have changed enormously; and yet have changed very little. Incidents here throw light on the Bible stories. The Bible throws light on our world today. We do well to try and heed both.
Bujumbura is a bustling place. Traffic jams emerge out of nowhere simply because everyone is trying to cross the junctions at the same time. There are a lot of cars, motorbikes, bikes and even a few motorised rickshaws now. There are people everywhere in the city centre and in many of the outskirts where urban poverty is very high. Yet there is also significant wealth. There are many grand homes and a burgeoning number of decent, even smart hotels.
Bujumbura lies on Lake Tanganyika; it has a port. It also has some beautiful sandy beaches with the gloriously warm lake in which to swim (checking where the crocs and hippos are first). The mountains rise up behind the city and from the foothills there are glorious views both day and night, even in the dusty rather grey dry season.
Here we had an array of visits. Most of a morning spent with Handicap International, focussing on their work with ex servicemen (both government soldiers and rebels), was inspiring stuff. Disability remains a major issue here but great work is being done. HI run a range of other really positive programmes alongside this one.
We then spent a couple of hours at the international day for indigenous communities; here focussing on the Twa. Some good drumming and dancing, a speech or two but the best part was simply talking with the Twa MPs and Senators. They are all appointed rather than elected. Still this 1% minority group face issues of inclusion across the whole society. Many forward strides have been made but it was clear there remains a long way to go.
The afternoon was taken up with 2 political meetings. The first with the First Vice President of the National Assembly; a delightful Christian woman who talked well about the role of the assembly in relation to the Government (appointed directly by the elected President). Then late meeting the Foreign Affairs minister. An open helpful conversation.
Burundi has every right to be proud of 2 particular things. It has cleared itself, especially with Swiss help, of all land mines. No mean feat after 15 years of civil war. It has also reintegrated tens of thousands of returning refugees from Tanzania, and Congo. This appears to have been done remarkably well. Burundi could teach many nations how to handle helping refugees settle and become part of the community. Understandably the minister wanted to talk about the withdrawal of DfID office and also Burundi’s Commonwealth application. Since these are 2 of the major areas on which our visit report is likely to comment in due course for now I simply note the conversation without further comment.
On our second day we all loved joining in the community work at Kamenge Commune. We helped for a short while with the cement laying on the roof of the new school block. We joined the ‘chain gang’ helping the cement get from the ground to the top and along to the pourers. Seeing MPs and a bishop with cement covered hands, forearms and on clothing and shoes was quite a sight. This kind of community work is encouraged for 2 hours every Saturday. This example was a very fine one of what can be achieved when a community pulls together to improve its own lot. Kamenge is a very poor area but here were people helping themselves, especially helping their children.
Then we had the treat of time on the beach, and swimming. Just great.
In the afternoon we visited a couple of churches in Bujumbura diocese and heard how they had been built during the crisis years.
Hospitality was again amazing. Every evening we were royally entertained and met a fabulous range of people. Burundians are very generous hosts.
On the Sunday it was preaching for me in Bujumbura Cathedral. Bishop Eraste has only been in post for 6 weeks. The diocese has been through a terribly difficult period with the removal of Bishop Pie from the role. It is a deeply sad story and situation. It is far from resolved. But to see the cathedral crammed full; to have all the choirs singing well all said that this was a community that had held together through the crisis and one determined to get on with its task under new leadership. Many challenges have still to be faced. Including what to do with the old cathedral next door. The proposal that it become a nursery school seems a very positive one.
Preaching is always a privilege. The to see many stand in response to the message, Be dressed and ready for action’ was humbling.
Then it was time to say farewell to Bujumbura and head south along the stunningly beautiful drive by Lake Tanganyika. This should be a tourist haven. It is so beautiful. More people need to visit this nation and see its beauty, and meet its generous people.
The most memorable thing about our time in Butare was Bishop Nathan Gasatura’s energy, enthusiasm and vision. 6 years ago he took over a diocese in crisis. He inherited serious debts and many disheartened and disillusioned clergy. There is a very different feel to the diocese now. Nathan has done a great deal to build up confidence and commitment amongst his people. The churches are growing again. But it is his vision for how things could develop through to 2030 that sticks out. It is large; it needs refining and prioritising but somehow the entrepreunership, faith and strong commitment mean that I believe a great deal of it will come to fruition. A view shared by my travelling colleagues, including MPs who don’t share the faith but did come away convinced his clarity of leadership and direction means he will achieve much. He needs wisdom, and perhaps helpfully critical advisers around him but nothing is likely to distract Nathan from seeking to fulfil the vision he senses he has been given by God for the diocese, and shared by his fellow leaders.
Crossing international borders on foot is so very different from the clinical processes of airports, or seaports. So much life is seen around the crossings. Money changers have disappeared from the Rwandan side but still there are kiosks trying to sell out of date biscuits ( yes we bought some); there are the queues to deal with exit cards and stamps on passports; queuing here is not quite as neat and polite as in the UK. Lorries, buses, minibuses, cars abound. There is something deeply physically and mentally tangible about this whole process, especially passing through the barriers on foot. Crossing boundaries is something huge numbers of human beings never do in terms of international borders; but there are other boundaries that can either hold us in, and apart, or across which we can pass so that we meet new people.
There were plenty of ‘new’ people to meet on the other side. Quite a number had come to greet us from Christian Aid, the Province and the local Diocese of Buye; even a couple of well known English faces in Denise Dodd and Rosemary Cottingham. Introducing my companions to these new faces was a privilege and a joy. On the drive down to the 2 projects we visited it was great to catch up with Bishop Sixbert Macumi. Our first call was to an impressive new coffee washing project run by Food for the Hungry and with Christian Aid connections. So good to see local coffee growers being helped to gain more value for their work by enabling them to control the whole process from growing through to selling washed and dried product to the buyers. Just owning the process has raised their sense of dignity and worth; it has also helped economically.
Then on to Kyanza parish where we were enthusiastically greeted by the Mothers Union literacy and numeracy group singing and dancing away. They had dressed up in their finest, brightest colours. They sang so well. Hearing their story was very moving. Literacy, numeracy and micro-finance together has revolutionised their lives. The women in particular are liberated. We heard of the ending of domestic violence in some homes; improvement in health and well-being and general joy that life has changed for them all. Interestingly Lilian Greenwood MP noted the same smiles and laughter on the faces of these women that she had sen when she had worked with women’s training and education through Trade Union work. There is release and freedom to be found in literacy and running your own life. When this is combined with knowing God in Jesus Christ the transformation is deep and lasting. Do not get me wrong these people are still poor and face many problems but they have a conviction that they can face these now and move forward. It was a real joy and a great testimony to the work of Mothers Union, and Five Talents with whom they have worked on the micro finance side of the work.
Then the glorious drive through the mountains, past the forest, and finally winding down to Bujumbura. A tale for another day.
I was in tears on the top of Zion Hill, on the edge of Gitarama (now renamed Muhanga). The tears rolled down my cheeks as I looked out towards the school and centre for Compassion ministry in the valley below. These were tears of joy, not sorrow. So many tears have been, and will be, she’d in sorrow in this land but here were tears of joy.
I have visited this new centre for the diocese of Shyogwe a few times now. The tears flowed because the level of development and advance that has been made suddenly overwhelmed me. Things have progressed so much. Here we were now staying in the recently opened Guest House and Training Centre which I had seen as a dream, and then a shell that it was hard to see ever being completed. We had seen the continued brilliant work of the Mothers Union training young women in tailoring; helping people parent well; encouraging crafts, and so much more. We were all excited by the water that the diocese had brought to the area and which they were offering to houses around. So good is this work that the government are now running it and expanding it to serve the many new homes going up in the area. We shared the delight in the way that the juice and jam making processes have developed and add so much value to the pineapple and passion fruit growers. We saw the skills being developed in the woodwork centre, with good quality furniture being produced; the leather working skills and perhaps most excited by discovering that one of the metalwork welding teachers is a woman. Much of the new guest house had been made in these workshops.
Then climbing the hill to the impressive cathedral and hearing another story of tragic loss and suffering and the transformation that Jesus Christ has made to lives all set the seen for the tears to flow. Somehow the sight of the school, the image of 1800 children being assisted by Compassion just meant it all seemed too much. This led by a deeply humble man, Jered Kalimba bishop of the diocese, who has been through so much personal difficulty and sorrow himself. It was deeply impressive.
In the evening at dinner we were joined by the local Executive Secretary for the District, the Police Chief and the Captain of the Army battalion. It was hugely informative talking with each of them about their role in the local district and the nation more widely. The percentage of women in the police is good. Violence remains the most significant crime, much of this is domestic. The way in which church and local authorities work together is impressive.
The next morning only added to the picture of a diocese moving ahead serving the local community. The massively improved Health Centre in Shyogwe; the continuing success of Shyogwe Secondary School and the work of the Rural Development Service all speak of hope in the face of continued poverty and challenges.
This is a diocese that is growing in numbers and in spiritual depth. It is committed to integral mission which transforms lives and communities.
Against this was the difficulty of squaring how in the Roman Catholic Cathedral at Kabgyi there are buried 3 bishops who all died on the same day in June 1994. They were killed by RPF soldiers. They were held to be complicit, if not even perpetrators of the killing of the 64,000 people who died in the church and compound in the genocide. The worst single incident recorded anywhere. Yet in the building there is no memorial to those 64,000. Certainly down the road there is a genocide memorial to those thousands, but nothing at all in the church or close to it. This simply seems wrong. Lest this appear to be an Anglican throwing a stone at the Roman Catholics it has to be also remembered that the previous Bishop of Shyogwe was accused of being a perpetrator, and of such significance that he was tried at the International Court in Arusha. He died before the trial was complete but the evidence does not read well for a supposed follower of Jesus Christ.
This is the complexity for those of us who follow Christ. In the genocide church leaders and members were amongst those who perpetrated genocide, or were complicit in not seeking to stop it happening. Yet there were heroes who protected others and often lost their lives in so doing. In the rebuilding of this fascinating nation the church is a very key player and impressively so when you look at Muhanga and Shyogwe. Individual leaders like Bishop Jered stand out as remarkable people inspired by their commitment to Jesus. He is not a man to shout about what he has done although the work he has managed to establish for babies and infants born in the local prison is his pride and joy; he says that himself. It is a further remarkable piece of work and Eugenie, a Rwandan who lost all her family and returned from Germany to share Christ’s love and forgiveness with such children, is a walking saint. Her quiet confident loving approach reflects that of the bishop himself. So much flows from their humility.
All of us this helps me understand more, and yet also finds the riddle of Rwanda evermore complex. The more I discover the more amazed I am at the transformation of this nation, and the more questions are raised about just what is being achieved and how. Rwanda is wonderful, it is also a mystery. It gets deep inside you and itself helps transform you. Yet all that I have seen has reminded me that the deepest fullest transformation comes only through God and the wonder of all he has done in Jesus Christ.
A day spent in Byumba with my fellow travellers has been amazing. We began by visiting a Twa community which have been helped over the last few years by the Diocese of Byumba. Financial support has come from a wide variety of places but most notably Norwegian Aid. Traditionally the Twa lived in the forest. These had lived in the area around Kibali for some years before they were helped to get land and build houses. I had visited before and this time was a huge encouragement to see some of the ways in which these people, traditionally marginalised, have moved forward. They are still very poor. They face great challenges but their increasing pride was clear. They welcomed us into their tiny very basic homes and shared their stories. The children are more likely to be attending school than in the past; and they do well. The animals are well cared for, and the crops are increasing. They have good basic water collection systems and their long drop toilets are well established. They talked animatedly about their lives.
After some singing and thanks we were on our way to a peace and reconciliation project along the road. We were greeted with enthusiastic singing and around 80 people, mainly women, talked of how their lives have been transformed by a reconciliation process. It takes place over 15 weeks and involves 6 steps, security, respect, trust, care, rule making, share. They build their conventions as a safe place in which each is respected by being attended and listened to carefully. Once this is established trust is built between them and they begin to care for one another. Having established a community they realise that they have changed and need fresh rules by which they will work together. Then, and only then, do they share their stories. These are of war, genocide, HIV, violence, loss, difficulties; but when listened to carefully the very act of telling the story brings a measure of healing and strength. Together this new community supports one another and sees transformation. From this social therapy groups have developed cooperatives, micro finance, and their lives are changing. They proudly showed us their pigs and piglets, goats, cows and newly built houses. When a pig has a litter half are given away to others in the community; the owner sells or rears the others. Step by step lives are changed. Later in the day we meet a man who now owns a motorbike who began a similar journey starting from nothing. This bottom up transformation impressed us all. So too did the joy expressed in the singing and dancing. If you have ever wanted to see a bishop dancing Rwandan style alongside members of the UK Parliament then you would have done today in Kibali & Kageyo. For me a highlight was asking a local church leader who has been part of these projects from the beginning whether or not through these visits he was encouraged. He gave me the broadest smile and simply said ‘Yes, very encouraged’. The hopes of the early days are turning into a simple reality. Do not get me wrong these people still live hard lives based on subsistence but there is real development and change.
In sharing our highlights of the day all 8 of us picked on specific people or conversations. But we also found ourselves talking about how in our own setting we need to see more community based contracts and group developments. Our future too lies in helping people take responsibility for their own lives and communities together, not as isolated individuals but as people together. As one person testified, ‘my humanity grew through the group support, for which I thank God.’ So too do I.