Everywhere you travel in Burundi the streets are full of people walking. Carrying goods to and from the market. The better off have bicycles to use; the loads they carry are huge. You become used to this sight and yet never quite accustomed to it because always there are fascinating new sights that occur. Some of these stick, like the blind man walking. We only saw him for a few seconds as we drove through his small village. He was old; on his head he was carrying a very large pot which he held with his right hand. In his left hand was his long stick with which he swept the street before him guiding him down the slope along the edge of the road. His eyelids were closed. A few seconds and we had driven by never to see him again. He could never see us. No doubt his hearing told him a large 4×4 was driving past him. He trusted the driver to take care; he would have taken care himself. What help others might give him in this village is unknown. Whether or not he has a family who care and support I have no idea. What I know is that the image has lived with me of a man determined to go on; battling against the odds; a man who somehow inspires me to be continually grateful for sight, for a society that seeks to treat the disabled well, but regularly fails. A man who takes me back to a blind man sat by the side of a pool whom Jesus meets and talks with, then puts mud made from his own spit and the soil on his eyes and tells him to go and wash. A blind man who trusts in the word of this man and discovers sight. I doubt this Burundian man will ever see with his eyes but somehow I pray he will know the sight that Jesus brings that gives the light of life.
Meeting together back at Bujumbura Diocesan Community Centre everyone is full of stories. There are a lot of laughs at incidents that at the time may have been infuriating, or worse. What is clear is that each group has had an amazing adventure. Inevitably there have been some difficult moments, even longer periods but overall the impression is hugely positive. Key things people highlight are the hard working life of the people here; the growth of the church; the youthfulness of nation and church; the incredible hospitality everyone has received; the beauty of the mountains, hills and Lake Tanganyika; the vibrancy of worship and the desire for developing a meaningful companionship between our Diocese and the Province here.
We have time to share, tell stories and reflect. We pray together.
After a mixed nights sleep (Bujumbura is hot and sticky and gets going as soon as light is appearing), most of the group go shopping. Markets are good places to get some feel of ordinary life. They are places for taking care with money and passports (all over the world). You know you have to take care when your hosts tell you they always do in such a setting. Crafts are bought; material is found all return happy. For two of us there is a visit to the Police to meet with their chaplains. For our policeman and vicar who acts as a local police chaplain it proves a valuable and interesting visit. The police here are largely ex military and run along military lines. Chaplains are therefore a part of the whole structure, not just voluntary. The assessment is that we might have more to learn about police chaplaincy from the people here than they from us. For a further three of us it is 2.5 hours with Andre the Christian Aid country manager for here and Rwanda. We have a brilliant time hearing about the work in these 2 countries. The clear focus for CA on Community development, HIV/AIDS work and governance is outlined. Clarity of focus helps decide where limited resources should be spent but sometimes means hard decisions being made about bringing projects to an end. There is a real desire to be programme rather than project based. For the first 2 areas of programme the Anglican Church of Burundi is a key partner but Andre would love to see them engaged in the governance work as well. For HIV work there is also a strong partnership with a main Pentecostal denomination that is spread across the whole land; radio work is also important in getting the educational messages out. Andre is very aware of the limits of what CA can do because of having only 6 staff and limited funds. He longs for closer cooperation between the various agencies who are here from around the world. CA itself shares a building with Trocaire & Norwegian Church Aid. He dreams of more open cooperation; all power to him in this I think. We talk about our partnership with the Province and with CA in England. We share ideas and explore some of the pros and cons of these. He is a delight. He is incite full, thoughtful and prepared to think and act prophetically. He is a good advocate for CA in this nation and it’s neighbour.
In the afternoon we hold a debrief with 4 of the 6 bishops (+Pie is in Nairobi for a meeting representing them all; + Martin has continuing car problems). Each member of the team shares openly and positively about their time here. Together we are able to not only say what we have seen but reflect on what we have learned. There is trust here so people are also able to note some of the difficulties that occurred, or disappointments ( it has to be said there a very few of these). In turn the bishops reflect on what they have seen of us; what they have valued about the visit. There is an extremely positive feel.
We talk about possible future developments; everyone agrees that organic growth must be better than trying to do anything too structural at this stage. The growing of friendship through prayer and mutual exchange remains high on everyone’s agenda. There a ways forward but right now is not the time to note these in such a public way. Time for reflection and then future action is always needed after such an intense time together.
I am deeply proud of the team who have travelled with me. They have represented our diocese well. They have travelled well together, looking out for each other; caring and supporting. They have been open to a huge range of new experiences and challenges. As one member noted ‘I will never be the same again.’ None of us will.
The day is rounded off with a fabulous evening together over a terrific meal at Le Flambard, a truly Burundian restaurant of very high quality. + Pie, back from Nairobi, joins us along with Provincial staff. We all learn yet more but around the room there are smiles, laughter, teasing and glorious conversation. Something has happened at a deep level between us as people of God together. We have made or deepened friendships further. It is such an honour to call these people friends. The friendship for Rosemary & I with ++Bernard and Mathilde is particularly special; they are truly wonderful examples of following Jesus, heading a family and leading the church.
For 4 of us Lake Tanganyika has not been seen on this trip so for our final morning we all head for the beach to relax for an hour or two. Karera Beach is beautifully sandy with palm trees for shade. The water is clear and warm. We had been warned of crocodiles out in the water but a local boatman assures us that today they are elsewhere up the river Ruzizi. We paddle, exec
T for Rosemary who having decided she would come ready to swim glides in. We watch fishermen at work, and I will reflect on this elsewhere another day. It is simply beautifully relaxing. In dry season the mountains of Congo and Burundi that line this beautiful lake are so shrouded that they cannot be seen, even thou the sun is shining brightly overhead. Children are playing in the water. Here children the world over are the same; lots of fun, laughter, teasing and sheer joy in the warm waters. It is a great way to spend our final morning together. Quiet conversations happen between us, sometimes in a larger group, at others just one to one. The group mixes around, a healthy sign. Then it is time to go; driving back
Past the UN base which I remember from 2000-1 as vast, now a very small presence; a sign of more peaceful times here and less troubled refugee camps in close by Congo ( though sadly no less troubled at all). A final Burundian lunch before completing the packing and the start of the long journey home. There is for me 1 more conversation to be had, reflecting with +Bernard on his time at the Global South Conference in Bangkok and how we see things in the Anglican Communion at present. I find his perspectives deeply thoughtful and wise.
Our first evening in Muyinga is a quiet one. Aft tea with Bishop Eraste and his wife Consolata we move into the house which will be our home for the next few days. This was the home of Steve & Lucy McIlhenny when they were here as CMS Mission Partners establishing the Bethesda Centre. They have now returned and a short term partner from Crosslinks comes next month. After staying in guest houses / hotels it is a pleasant change having our own house. We even cater for ourselves on this first evening ( only toast and fruit which after all we have been fed is plenty).
The previous Diocesan group have left us helpful notes. There is a pet dog Asher and Gaspar is the house guard. A quiet evening gives everyone the chance to catch up on journals ( or in my case blog).
Early morning the cock starts crowing; in the distance the Muslim call to prayer can be heard. The birdsong is glorious; no familiar sounds at all but such a variety of songs. activity outside begins around 6. Natasha arrives to assist with breakfast. Here our minimal French has to meet with her minimal English along with our few Kirundi greetings. We get there; breakfast is the usual omelette, bread and tea ( or coffee). Today is Saturday so it is community work hours for everyone between 8 & 10. We are left to quietly read, write, relax, pray before the days visits begin.
Our conversation turns to the history and politics of this land and it’s neighbour; of Germans and Belgians; of Tutsi and Hutu; of conflict and killings; of current governments and the desire to be Burundian or Rwandan rather than defined by an ethnicity. Yet the history continues to underlie it all. I pray for truly lasting peace, deep reconciliation and the yearning of all ‘Never again!’
Mukoni Primary school on the edge of Muyinga has just over 1,200 pupils who attend in separate morning and afternoon sessions. There a 20 teachers and a head teacher. The school governors are gathering for a meeting as we arrive. They have textbooks but nothing like an adequate number for this many pupils. There are 13 classrooms some built in the 1950s and very run down; the others well built in the 1980s. Each class therefore has 55-60 pupils. By P6 when the national exams are taken in the most recent round 94 of 99 who took the exam achieved the 50% or above to go on to secondary school. This is a high pass rate, though I have no idea whether 0, 11 or 21 did not sit the exam. There is a reasonable amount of outside space, with a handball pitch and a well cared for banana area & sorghum patch. However when the numbers are considered it must be very crowded when everyone is out to play.
The secondary school uses 2 of the classrooms from the Primary school and has 2 newer classrooms on the other side of the plot. This is another secondary school growing from S1 currently to S3. 275 pupils across 4 classes with a head teacher (new to the role) and 10 teachers. The average salary for a secondary teacher ( who will have a degree) is 130,000FB per month, around £65. This is almost twice that of a primary teacher ( no degree) at 70,000FB. When house rent is around 40,000FB per month it is understandable why many teachers, especially primary, seek to supplement their income with a second job. The structure of the day allows this too.
We are accompanied throughout by a group of around 10 children who sing for us, talk with us and hope for sweets from us (we have none). Some of these children attend this primary school. We don’t manage to ask them what they like about school; the head teacher’s presence might not help with honest answers anyway. Education does offer hope of a brighter future; but here for how many? Never again has to be accompanied by Never Give Up and Never Stop Believing Change is possible.
We move on to visit the Bible School where the Principal, Archdeacon Prudence, and 12 students welcome us. These men are so smartly dressed and have shiny shoes; clearly 2 bishops coming to visit, 1 of whom holds the power to authorise 8 of them as catechisms and ordain 4 of them as deacons means they want to be at their best. Here +Eraste outlines his hope for our partnership; that the longstanding partnership with St Mark’s will expand to the whole diocese. First friendship is sought. Where finance comes first friendship does not follow; money without love and friendship is useless. He makes the point that Burundi is a poor country but yet they are not poor because God is here with them. In our friendship we will share our concerns with one another not just our blessings. We must pray for each other in our journey of mission.
So far as the Bible School is concerned the principal says that the general situation is good but the lack of materials , notably prayer books, is a problem. The arrival of the new Kirundi Bible Commentary will help a great deal here. St Mark’s have supplied a good number for each diocese to put in their college libraries. We also visit their accommodation where we see that 4 share a room with 2 double beds also being shared. There are cows here and some land. The meal we see is basic but plentiful and overall they are content with their lot. Catechisms spend 3 months here then 9 back in the Parish. They do this for 4 years before being fully qualified. Deacons do a further year. In conversation with the bishop we also talk about the importance of holy living expected of church leaders.
Our first afternoon stop is at the ‘Stand Up and Build’ site on the edge of town. The title comes from Nehemiah’s words to the people of Israel as they rebuilt the walls of Jerusalem. +Eraste explains that after all the years of conflict it is now time for the people of the nation to stand up and build for the future, and the church is to lead the way. The plan is for a building technical college on the large site, given to the diocese by the government. The foundation stone is in place and the boundary markers are clear. However there is a small house on the site and around 10 Twa grass hut homes. The Twa approach speaking loudly and vociferously to the bishop. There is no need for translation they are clearly expressing their anger at having to move off the site. Quite quickly a large group is gathered, some are arguing with their own clearly expressing a different view. Eraste listens carefully acknowledging their words but making no response. He allows them to speak for a long while. Then eventually he calls for them to stop and he speaks. They listen though after a short while clearly object to a comment he has made.
Here is a serious dilemma for the bishop; he wants to build a college which will be to the advantage of the whole community. If he does not start within a couple of years the government will simply take the land back, give it to someone else and remove the Twa anyway. Yet the bishop wants the college to help the Twa too. We later learn that the diocese has helped this group already with food and clothing, and that they do plan to offer help to the group with planting and possibly materials for new homes, just on the other side of the valley. Working for the good of a community can create internal conflicts of justice and priority. The Twa are the despised of this society, others would not offer help at all. The church is on the horns of a dilemma. Eraste displayed real wisdom in handling a difficult situation. I am sure he will find the wisdom to guide them through.
It may sound perverse but this encounter is one of the highlights of our whole time in Burundi. It was so unexpected and clearly unplanned. There could be nothing but Eraste’s totally genuine response to it. It also highlighted the deep deep poverty of this group of people, and raised fresh questions of what justice looks like in a nation like this.
The Bethesda Project is unique in this nation. It aims to work with people with disabilities particularly using sport. 8 hectares at present undeveloped will become a centre of sport, recreation and education. Archery and some team building practices already take place here. We are challenged as a group of 4 to do a couple of the team building exercises. We cooperate pretty well but still need guidance to resolve in reasonable time. Then archery; great fun together. The project arose by Eraste being inspired on a visit to Kepplewray in Cumbria. Steve & Lucy McIlhenny spent 2 years developing the work. They are now in Ireland. Evariste now leads the work. It is a major project. The plans are clear and large. Part of the vision is to change attitudes to disability in the families who have disabled children ( they are often hidden away and treated as of no value); and in wider society. It is seeking to build God’s way of doing things for the disabled. It is a long vision; could there be Burundian Paralympians from this project in the future? Well why not?
Morning worship at Mukoni Cathedral. At 10.00 when we begin the building (previously a multipurpose community centre) is just under half full. By the close it is 3/4 full. There are very large numbers of children and young people. An unusually large number of choirs sing through the 3 hour service. I preach and as part of the sermon Phil & Poppy share stories from their churches illustrating the way in which Jesus breaks barriers down and brings diverse people together into the one new humanity in Jesus Christ. Apparently the small congregation that meets at the Diocesan Offices in the town had also joined us and every choir had wanted to sing for the visitors. I have been in longer services but never before a simple Morning Prayer that lasted this long. Children here are very patient when it comes to church; they sit for long periods and must be quite bored at times yet when they sing they do so with enthusiasm and joy. Most leave before the sermon to play outside ( no Sunday School this week). The youth choir are good. The worship band quite competent.
After lunch we have a quiet afternoon and evening – our first long period like this since we arrived. It gives plenty of time to chat, reflect, go for a wander ( as is usual 4 muzungu attract looks and comments) and catch up on this blog and journals.
In the early hours Rosemary & I awake with the sound of 2 cracks, like gunfire. We have no idea whether or not it was. The mind however races and you soon realise some of your own inner fears and insecurities. You also realise how self centred the world can be. The odds on anything being aimed at us must be very low indeed, yet somehow we can contrive to think we might be at the centre of things. We are all guilty of this centring the world on ourselves. It is the heart of our rebellion against God for He is the centre of all things; from him, through him and for him all things exist. I am most decidedly not the centre of the world. Yet I can rapidly think I am.
In the morning we discover that neither Phil nor Poppy had heard a thing!
We join the Diocesan Staff team for their morning devotions and their brief summary sharing of both how the past week had gone and what lies ahead this coming week. This is clearly a team. They appear to enjoy each others company, are glad to pray together at the start of each day, and care about each others work. The core of it all is a mix of leadership and community development. Leadership through the training of clergy and lay leaders, and enabling local people to grow in taking responsibility for their own affairs, through becoming literate, micro-finance and small businesses. As elsewhere the Mothers Union plays a critical role in this. There is a real care for orphans; 2005 are currently on the books with a staff of 3. The legal adviser offers a lot of support to orphans in the courts and at tribunals, mainly seeking to ensure they are protected from exploitation around their land and property rights. Other community development is around agricultural projects, based on sorghum, beans and other products. There is concern for water supply and protection. The buildings officer is concerned for both building churches and schools. The Diocesan Secretary, Perpetua, is a woman who is pleased to see women growing in confidence and taking on positions of leadership. She is delighted to be able to ask Poppy about women in theology and church leadership. With the appointment of the first woman bishop in Africa whilst we have been here it is clear that for a good number in this team they look forward to that possibility in Burundi too. We are also asked thoughtfully about how we as a diocese engage in community development where we are; so we are able to share some examples. It does come as a shock to Burundians that there are ever any people in need in England but they accept it when we tell them there are.
Then we head for Lake Kavuruga, which may only be 8 km from town but on the road we take is nearly an hour journey. This is a reservoir built in the early 1980s. Here Bethesda run their canoeing, they also have an archery sight and abseil down the side of the dam. We are well guided in our canoes by Evariste, Lambert & Davina, the 3 staff. We have a lot of fun. It did feel more like holiday than visit but gave us a real insight into the kind of activities Bethesda is seeking to do. It’s potential is huge. I was also delighted to see a Malachite Kingfisher, an African Fish Eagle and an as yet unidentified white water bird. I don’t know if they are thinking of adding birds to their activities but it is a possible option here. It will be fascinating to see how this project develops over the next few years. Weirdest sight of the day was on this return journey. 4 men wearing orange high viz jackets, 1 with a measuring wheel, and English stop / Go signs in the middle of nowhere. Apparently there are plans to make this dirt road into tarmac so there was a logic, but it was so incongruous and the high viz so unnecessary.
Our visit to Mukezi did not promise much. It is a village a few miles from Muyinga just off the Gitega road. The schools are on holiday so we knew we would be looking at empty classrooms; but we had also been told that unlike everywhere else we would not even meet the head teacher. It is actually an interesting Primary school as unlike many others it has an outside kitchen, a project linked with World Vision to ensure the children of this area get a decent meal each day. There are also 3 classrooms that are out of use and need serious refurbishment. 6 other classrooms are standard size but there are 2 of a different design; broader and with larger windows, with air vents above. A design others could copy. Inevitably some of the school’s pupils show up and follow us round. We then visit the small church. Here the unexpected occurred. The catechist appeared and we had a fascinating conversation with him. Brega is 24; he has undertaken 1 year of the catechist training so far. This small church (130 of whom 70 are children) was started by his parents and grandparents as a sub parish from the cathedral. They remain on the church council. Brega completed Primary school but did only 1 year of secondary education. He possessed his first Bible at 17, though had access to the family one before then. He has a Prayer Book and a Hymnbook. Of the responsibilities that a catechist has he most loves preaching. He works the family land but serves the church as catechist on 2 days each week as well as Sundays. He is clearly proud of his church and his work. He wants to develop as a catechist and hopes he might one day develop into a pastor; but he knows others will have an important say in all of this.
This is the core of how church happens here. Lay led by someone with a relatively low level of education who is unpaid. Where children and young people form the majority of the congregation yet have no specific provision. In buildings erected by the local community that are of no great standard and have inadequate seating even of the minimal bench style that exists. Yet valued and loved. Plus they are growing. Sociologists will have explanations for the dynamics taking place which Re valuable in understanding these things. But there is something very New Testament like about this. The good news of Jesus Christ is changing people’s lives, and changing communities in the land of the poor. Whilst where power and wealth prevail it struggles to have a similar impact.
This encounter is another of those unplanned ones which mean so much in understanding more of the life and church here. What looked an unpromising afternoon proved to be very valuable indeed.
The evening is our farewell party. It actually takes place in the garden of the house in which we have been staying. People arrive, move furniture around, set everything up. Food appears, so do drinks and eventually there are 28 guests; diocesan staff, members of the Cathedral congregation and Bible School. Burundians love their protocols ensuring everyone sits in just the right place. Only the bishop, his wife and the 4 of us as honoured guests have a table, which has a cloth on it. We have to take food first. People do not really talk whilst eating though they talk freely before and after. There are always speeches afterwards. The are genuine thanks; actually very moving; but there is also form to it. This evening however convention is broken when after the 2 bishops have had our say Rosemary is invited to speak, then also Phil & Poppy. We think it is all done when the head of laity stands to speak. What we have heard time and again during this visit is just how much it means that Rosemary & I have returned. This shows true friendship. The fact we have brought many others has also spoken deeply. This is not to blow our own trumpets but the power of this is very clear. Friendship for these sisters and brothers is truly expressed by being together. The giving up of the time is far more significant than the cost. There are real hopes of continuing friendship and sharing ahead. I hope these are realistic and not too high. I certainly have every intention of returning again. I also know I have a responsibility to advocate and speak for this tiny forgotten nation whose people have suffered so deeply and yet whose love shines so brightly.
Morning devotions at the Diocesan Office are less well attended than the previous day; but Monday morning is staff meeting so everyone is in. Come Tuesday some will be out in the field meeting orphans etc.
Then it is time to say farewell. The gulf between the rich West and this nation becomes perhaps most apparent when handing what are in our terms very small gifts to those who have helped us during our stay; Elsie who has cooked our breakfasts and washed up afterwards, Gaspar the night guard and the day guardian whose name we never got. They are small gifts, T-towel, wind up torch, soap, small bar of chocolate and what for us is a minuscule amount of money. Yet their joy is very very evident. This for them s abundance. All the guidance is to somehow strike a balance; give too much and it is overwhelming and actually unhelpful.
Here is the catch for the consuming West. Consumption is okay, even necessary, as it helps move an economy forward etc. but over consumption takes away from others and exploits. How do we actually help Burundi develop whilst reining back our own over consuming? No easy answers available but somehow we need to find some; not just for Burundi’s sake but also for our own as we sleep walk into cultural, moral, spiritual and physical obesity.
Farewells done we drive to Bujumbura. At times a scary drive but we make it. En route, at Karuzi, there is an unexpected surprise that brings tears to Rosemary and my eyes. But that is another story to tell on another day.
Again we are welcomed warmly. Bishop John has been bishop of Gitega since 1985. Quietly he shows us around the Diocesan office area gently explaining how things have grown and developed since he first began. Almost impercibility we find ourselves hearing of the time when 150 displaced persons camped inside the compound grounds because it was the place they felt safe. How the diocese welcomed them, fed them and helped them over several years. There is a quiet grace about this man of God. Unassuming, having had to handle all kinds of difficulties that I can only just begin to imagine how I might respond if faced with such matters. Jean Francois is a lively principal of the Bible College. She explains how the focus at present is on training 12 pastors who are largely returnees from Tanzania. People who became Christians in the camps and were cared for by the Anglicans there now returned and wanting to remain Anglican. Needing training as Pastors so the diocese is providing it. It is a joy to see such work being led by a woman. Later at dinner we also meet her husband who is a school chaplain. The dinner is with the whole diocesan staff. The thing I notice most is their lively conversation with each other and their laughter. It is also the whole staff, whatever their role they are included. There is something vibrant about them Asia group. This is my introduction to Gitega. Tomorrow we visit church planting projects.
The whole morning was spent visiting a number of church planting projects. They were all from St. Luke’s which is both cathedral and parish church. These visits took us deep into real settings where the levels of poverty were clearly to be seen. Yet here there is enterprise and desire to establish a centre of worship and witness. Each was taking a different approach in the first instance. The first a former small house with inner walls removed to create a space where 50 gather each Sunday. Twice a week literacy classes are held in the same space. The congregation is lay led; the literacy programme locally run by those trained by Mothers Union workers. Close by the foundations of a permanent building are in place; these we done last year. There are bricks that have been locally made but not yet enough. It is hoped more work will be done this year but the anticipation is this is a 5 year project. Close by an independent full gospel church is being erected; deliberately started to be near the Anglican church it is thought.
The second is a small hut like church purpose built for worship. Around 120 gather here each work, mainly children. We meet many delighted children here. Again lay led. But this building is becoming in need of care aft 5 years; the average life of a mud brick church is only 10 years. There is a gaping gap between the side and end wall which if not repaired will lead to the collapse of a wall before long.
The third is a plot of land. 16 families who live in this area and travel into town each week have a vision for building a local church. The diocese has bought the land. At present the 16 families a cultivating it to produce crops for cash to give them the capital they need. They give. 1 or 2 days each week to working together on the land. They are also engaging with the wider local community to see in what ways they can serve. They always begin with Bible study and prayer. Lay led once again. Close by there is a small growing ‘commercial’ centre. They hope to assist with the growth of local trade through their presence.
The fourth again deep in the hills has foundations laid but with a wooden pole and tin roof structure within it. This began just a year ago. Next week the concrete columns go up. Then they will wait as they raise the finance for the bricks. Eventually the tin sheets from the temporary structure will help roof the new building. A local man, a congregation members, is employed to ensure the iron sheets are not stolen. Lay led once again. Being developed to serve the local communities.
There are some principles at work here. First there is a desire to grow the church through growing new congregations who are locally rooted. Second these are all encouraged by the bishops, the diocese and the parish leadership but they are all lay led. Third there is a core community from which the new church can grow. Fourth there is a commitment to work with the local community and serve it not simply through worship but also through meeting local needs, like literacy, commerce, agriculture etc. fifth there is a combination of funding at the outset to help the project start but then an expectation that the local people will raise the money / do the work to bring about the vision. Sixth there is an importance placed on having a specific place and space in which the people can meet; the building is seen as important.
Gitega Diocese has a strong commitment to growing the church through growing new congregations.
In the afternoon we share in a time of worship and fellowship with members of St Luke’s Cathedral congregation. Alongside singing, adding scripture, introductions, a word from the bishop we have a time of questions. Some of them share their challenges and their joys in knowing Christ as Saviour. We are asked a range of questions about our churches, congregations and inevitably the issue of human sexuality came up. Whilst at Lambeth some US bishops admitted to not previously realising the impact some of their statements and decisions have had here in Africa. Sadly little attention appears to have been made to this since, though there are some notable exceptions. The positive nature of same sex friendships is recognised and valued here. Indeed there appears to be a greater acceptance of this possibility without sexual overtones being real. It is not easy handling these questions without offering long explanations of cultural difference etc. But it remains essential that serious listening and engagement across the communion continues.
I have said little of our group thus far. Rosemary is with me so too are Phil Williams, vicar of Porchester & Area Dean of Gedling. Our fourth member is Poppy Richards a member of Ordsall Parish and student at Chester. We spend a lot of time together and chat about what we have seen and heard. But our conversation ranges across many matters relating to home, church, mission etc. they are great company; really stimulating. I am enjoying having a younger mind and voice as part of the group. She is quite a star. It is also brilliant spending so much time with 1 of my excellent clergy. He was already a star and just shines brighter by the day.
St Luke’s Primary School began in 2009. They have 6 classrooms. 13 teachers look after 338 pupils who attend school in 2 sessions either 7.30-12.45 or 1.15-5.30. Sometimes they have to double up classes which will mean 100 in a lesson. There is little by way of text books or equipment. There is no electricity and the school secretary and head teacher do not even have a traditional typewriter to use. It is on the same site as St Luke’s Secondary School which began last year with Senior 1 (equivalent to Year 7/8). They have 116 pupils & 4 staff plus Principal. There will be up to 120 joining in September to create a new S1. There are no labs, no assembly space and a minimal number of text books. The vision is clear but the needs to develop these 2 schools are huge. Th e Burundi Government has decided that Primary Schools should be P1-P9 so that those who do not pass the exam to get into Secondary School at the end of P6 are not turfed out into nothing but can continue with education for a further 3 years and then possibly move into a vocational training of some kind. The idea is laudable but suddenly another 3 classrooms are required on this confined site. There will be the mix of ages across the 2 schools and there is no finance to provide the extra resources. Where do you even begin? What becomes first priority? Electricity, new classrooms, textbooks, recruiting staff … In the UK we take our education too much for granted; we fail to recognise how privileged we are to have such a strong system in place; we continually compare ourselves with our Western counterparts without recognising the vastness of the gap with the world’s poor when it comes to this provision. This is no exceptional story in Gitega it is repeated time after time across this land, and many many others. Education matters; it needs priority. It must be one of the issues for which our aid is used.
Then onto Mushasha Parish where they are bringing the final touches to their brand new parish church. Outside parishioners are tidying the grounds and planting some new trees. Windows are being painted, slightly bizarrely with grey undercoat over a gloss coat of blue – there must have been some reason. Some teenage helpers are clearly not that enthusiastic about being here, the signs are the same all over the world. Younger children are having great fun swing how many can hang onto the branch of an avocado tree at the same time. Loads of laughs and smiles; they also recognise that they are entertaining us so play up to it; there are some universals with children at play. There is also a large community hall which will be dedicated on August 5th by Bishop John Ndwayo alongside consecrating the new parish church. The area appears more well to do than some others; seen partly in the clothes worn by the parishioners. Clearly much work has been put into this, and much generous giving of money, time and talents. The work began in 2005 just as Eraste Bigirimana then parish priest and diocesan secretary moved to Muyinga to become bishop there. The parishioners talk of their hopes for the use of the hall by them and by the community. They speak of growing a congregation from its current 200 to filling the church, which would hold 3 or 4 times that much. They also talked about friendship with a parish in England. Their hopes would be that they could learn from our church how we do things as we have been around so much longer; they hoped too for people to visit from England who would help them with the programmes of development and outreach that they run. This was a vision of companionship and mutuality not dependency and receiving.
The afternoon was very different. We drove up the rough Ngozi road to Gishoro where the site of the King’s resting place from his flight in 1908 is found. The huts are built along the same lines as those we had seen in Matana. Our guide loves his subject but his large bare feet gnarled by the years are distracting from the commentary. But then the real drama begins as we take our seats and the drummers enter carrying there various sized large drums on their heads, and beating them as they enter. For the next 30 minutes we are gloriously entertained by the finest African drumming I have witnessed. They drum, dance, leap, chant and sing telling stories of friendship and unity as they go. There are 22 adults and 2 children who we later learn are 8 & 11 but the latest in the family line of drummers. Once they played only for the king; now to entertain. The Burundians with us absolutely love it too. At times it is almost deafening. At the close we are invited to join with them 1 at a time. None of us can hold the double rhythm required on top and side of drum; there have been many complex rhythms throughout and not once was there a slip. Simply stunning.
In the evening we have a pleasant meal with +John, his wife Christine and their family along with Tharcisse the Diocesan Secretary who has been our ever present guide whilst in Gitega.
Our final morning in Gitega takes us to the largest coffee factory in Burundi. Here washed coffee beans arrive; they are graded (7 grades available) then de-husked, sorted by size and colour (using a computer controlled colour imager), bagged and prepared for transportation around the globe. The very best coffees go to the premium niche markets; the poorest end up in cheap instants and the middle grades end up in Starbucks, Costa, supermarkets etc. it is a fascinating process to see and have explained. We also get to experience cupping which is tasting coffee to grade it; a process akin to wine tasting – spitting out included. Our guide is a lovely Muslim who has worked here for over 20 years. He tells us that in the move from state owned to privatised factory the workforce has gone from 75 to 25. However there are 900 working here today on a daily paid rate. Many are involved in hand picking the beans; this is for the real niche market high end coffees. Others are lifting sacks etc. Their pay is just 3000 burundi francs a day (£1.50). There are still at least 100 people outside the gates hoping they might be taken on even though it is late morning. The director who leads the tasting is a true world citizen; born of Portuguese & Indian parents who grew up in Kenya, was educated at Ampleforth College, Yorkshire and now works in Burundi for a company based in Switzerland. He does assure us that Burundi coffee is amongst the world’s best but does not produce enough to have a major brand of its own; most ends up in some blended form of coffee whether ground or instant.
From here we go to see the earlier stage of the process at a washing station. 1 kilo is bought here for around 465 francs (22p). The amount a coffee bean goes through from being picked to reach our cup has grown in my mind. It has been stripped, washed several times, stripped again, graded, checked, sacked, roasted, ground and possibly reconstituted, all for the sake of a wonderful drink ( at least if it was a good coffee bean). The argument that the basic producer deserves a bit more of the profit share by being paid a decent amount for the raw material is clear to me.
A long slow lunch with Tharcisse & +John follows (slow to due to service rather than choice) & then we await the arrival of the group from Muyinga as the vehicle bringing them is taking us there. A brief reunion after 7 days apart is good and it is clear they have had a really good time thus far; just as we have. Before the group coming from Makamba arrive ( we later learn their vehicle had a break down but got going again okay) we are off to Muyinga. It is an eventful journey in that very early on the car is clearly very eating and the oil warning light comes on. We continue more slowly, coasting in neutral down the hills whenever possible. I pray silently as I know the others are also doing. If the Lord could provide oil for a widow he can do the same for the car. He can also guide the driver to drive thoughtfully and cautiously avoiding overheating. It may have been both that happened I will never know but the warning light went off, the heat dropped and we arrived safely in Muyinga, having very briefly driven around Buhiga seeing the hospital, secondary school, primary school, technical school and church. Buhiga has been a centre of mission since 1935; here is where the Anglican church in Burundi began. A shame we had no time to stop and reflect on the brave pioneers who came here.
Our time in Gitega diocese was gentler than Matana but still stimulating, rewarding, inspiring and raising questions of mission here and at home. I learn so much about our situation by observing that of others.
DAYTWO – BUJUMBURA – MATANA
The night was hot; but no mosquitoes (a great relief). In the morning we all emerged cheery and happy; except for 1 who had struggled to sleep at all. She remained cheerful but a reminder how in a group it is important to pay attention to each member recognising that each experiences the same place and event differently.
We walked along the road to visit the very impressive new Bujumbura Anglican Cathedral. The old one is dwarfed by this new light, bright and airy space. In 2009 I preached here when there was no glass in the windows and much was far from complete. The finished cathedral is a delight. Then walking by Diocesan Office, Peace House and sneaking into the Scripture Union building whose door was open but only the cleaner to be found.
The strangest thing about walking the streets of Bujumbura on a Saturday morning is that they a deserted and still. All the shops are closed; no one is allowed to travel into the city because for 2 hours or so everyone is expected to do community service. For most this is cleaning and tidying the space around where they live; seeking to keep the streets clean and even made more attractive. We watched a young man clearing the detritus from a storm drain. We also watched an amazing chain gang throwing mixed concrete up to the top of a 3 storey building. The muscles on display were commented on by at least 1 member of our group. We all admired their fitness to do such hard graft in the heat. This was work rather than community service. We later learned that an entire day of such work would earn $4. For the day here in Burundi not a bad wage. But it is piece work that only lasts a few days. Then for many no work for weeks. No social security. Life is tough in a city where so many are poor. We had seen street children gathered in groups the evening before.
Then after lunch the time to split into our 4 separate groups had arrived. 1 group remains in Bujumbura to learn about the work of that diocese. Another travelled to Buye in the north. Rosemary & I along with Phil (a vicar in the diocese) & Poppy (a student at Chester Uni but from the diocese) were driven by Seth, the diocesan secretary, up the hills winding as we went onto the flatter top of Matana. It is dry season and today is Saturday so there are many social gatherings; including weddings. On several occasions we drove past groups surrounding the bride, serene in white, accompanying her to the church. Some had drummers sharing in the procession. The largest had 7 brides stretched out along the road. There we some grooms groups too. We also saw a few wedding cars, bedecked in ribbons. For marriage in church here you go through a period of preparation; up to 2 months we are told.. Then the group that has prepared together will be married at the same service.min Uganda a few years ago I shared in a service at which 56 couples were married in church in the 1 service; that was for different reasons as many of those couples had been together for many years but never gone through a church ceremony. These brides were nearly all young and entering marriage for the first time. There was so much joy around.
As ever the roads were full of people walking somewhere, carrying food, or wood. The roadsides in the villages full of things to buy. Women shelling peas together; children playing; card games happening; bars busy. Life is full; full of surviving or making just enough to live just above survival. Yet so many smiles too.
We arrive in Matana and are welcomed by the Dean and others. There is much protocol in Burundian society; yet such warmth and hospitality. Over tea we get into a deep discussion about this countries history, and the killings, and revenge, and working for peace. Every time I come I hear more; I hope it helps me understand a little bit more. It is a nation that has been through so much pain and hurt. Seeking to create a long lasting peace and well being for all. As our hosts said, “we need God’s grace for it all; forgiveness is not easy but it has to be the way.” it is an amazing country.
DAY THREE – MATANA
Matana Cathedral from the outside looks much like an English Parish church; well English missionaries did build it. The Confirmation service was due to begin att 9.30; well we started pretty soon after that. The Cathedral was packed from he start, by the end there were hundreds also surrounding the building. 243 candidates ranging from children around 10 years old through to a man in his eighties. There must have been around 2000 inside the building in total; no wonder they have plans to build a new cathedral close by. The growth of the parishes means that when there is a gathering together like this (this was a Parish confirmation not a Diocesan one) there really is a need for much more space. It was my privilege to preach. Preaching with an interpreter is an experience I have learned to enjoy even though it has it’s restrictions. Canon Seth, Diocesan Secretary, was easy to work with. We seemed to establish a rhythm that worked for us both. When preaching there is always the question in mind, ‘Am I communicating? What is being heard? It is an act of faith that God will be at work in the minds and hearts of those who listen. With an interpreter there is a further step of faith, ‘Will what I am saying be properly interpreted and passed on?’ it is a healthy way to be reminded that the interpreter always is the Holy Spirit, and the hearer. There is an intended message but how it is heard and received can only lie with them.
Serving communion to over 2000 takes quite a time especially when everyone comes to the front. Not much time for quiet personal reflection but plenty after you have received. Choirs sing throughout. We had some great music throughout.
Lunch provided by the Mothers’ Union is as plentiful as ever. You are not fed small portions here. This always seems strange in a country with so much poverty but it is the way of their hospitality. Generosity is found amongst the poorer in a way I hardly ever find it among the rich.
In the afternoon we are taken to a fascinating village where the ancient first king of Burundi is believed to have been born. He united the various dominions around into one land. Apparently there were 2 brothers who ruled over different dominions. One proved infertile and so arranged for his brother to make his wife pregnant. It is this child who, after fleeing to Tanzania at one point with his mother, returned to lead his land into becoming the unifying power. Exactly when this was we struggled to discover but probably the 16th century. The traditional style king’s hut and compound has been rebuilt ; it is similar to that of the king of Buganda in Uganda. Unlike that 1 which attracts many visitors this is in the middle of no one a long way up a very narrow track. Our guide Revd Vincent makes the comment that Burundi has just celebrated it’s 50 th anniversary of independence; he adds ‘We have not been good at keeping our history’. Buts then colonial powers sought to sweep that history away, even remove the memories. So there is the beginnings of a recovery in the desire to recall the past.
As I am reading through Israel’s history in the Old Testament at present; and since the Christian faith is rooted in the historical person of Jesus of Nazareth history matters. It is hard to see how the memory here will be recovered when the story has not been passed down clearly from one generation to another; or perhaps it has and is waiting to be recovered and rediscovered in the folk tales of ordinary villagers.
It is a fascinating site to visit. Here we are watched by a group of children who are clearly desperately poor. We are the unexpected and bewildering entertainment unlike some places they keep their distance almost fearful it would appear; but whether that is of us or the man who is gatekeeper to the king’s palace wielding a long stick it is hard to decide.
DAY FOUR -MATANA
An incredibly full day! A gentle start belied all that lay ahead. We met with the Matana Diocesan Staff in their offices. After the usual introductions, which in Burundian protocol take a little while, we found ourselves in some really helpful discussions about development, the impact of cuts from aid agencies, the switch of some agencies away from working with or through the church; we shared about changing cultural patterns. There is an awareness here of the potential for life to change very rapidly for some ( the arrival of the mobile they talk avidly about; its positive impact on their ability to communicate). We explore what partnership between us might look like; they hope something will develop.
We then spend time with 2 groups of women. The first are being taught tailoring in a Mother’s Union project. There are many of these found in East Africa but each time I see one and hear the women talk about what learning these skills means to them I am inspired by those who teach and those who are learning. The ancient treadmill sewing machines work wonderfully well. A reminder of the dependency on electricity that most of us now have. Then we talk with a savings group. The impressive Five Talents trained 2 women to go and train others in savings and micro-credit. The stories this particular savings group tell of how this simple programme of saving a small amount each for 6 months and then beginning to lend the capital to one another to help develop their small businesses are inspiring. They speak not simply of their improved business but their greater self respect and self esteem; their sense that they are able to help their children more and the improved changed relations between husbands and wives. Micro finance is a key way forward in helping the poor move out of their severe poverty. It will not make them rich, but then they do not want to be rich, they simply want enough for them and their families to live on healthily. All credit to Five Talents for the work that they do.
In the afternoon we meet some students from the small Bible School; no library or text books; each trainee catechism has a Bible, a prayer book and a hymn book. They are taught the Bible and some other skills for 6 months. These remarkable men and women lead churches. Their theology may be basic; their biblical interpretation may be literal but they are people of faith who serve the Lord they love as faithfully as they can. If only more help could come their way.
Then we learn to make porridge! The teacher is brilliant; in the UK who could possibly become a TV chef for his communication skills. This porridge is highly nutritional, a mix of maize, soya and groundnut flour mixed with palm oil and water. It tastes quite good. Those being taught are people living with HIV; men and women. They meet every fortnight for mutual support and to learn a new skill or support lesson. Anti-retro vitals are great but they have to be supported by a high nutritional diet to be effective; not so easy when you are very poor. It was a wonderful group to spend time with.
Put all this together and you have a church working for the total well being of people. They seek to care for the poor; to bring health to bodies and minds; to build self esteem; to offer hope and they do so with prayer and the good news of Jesus Christ. This is holistic mission.
Rosemary & Poppy get to visit 1 of the women from the savings group and see her home and meet her extended family. Phil & I join the fellowship study group for the early evening. We have fun with the children of the house as well as a good Bible study and some lovely singing. Then supper in 3 homes for us. The hospitality we have all been shown is staggering; why do we find this so hard in our land of plenty? The meal also reminds me of the mixed up world in which we live for in the background a DVD is running – Madagascar 2. There a some new almost universals that can be bewildering.
DAY FIVE – MATANA – GITEGA
Farewell to Matana who have been superb hosts. After the many farewells we visit the source of the Nile. This is the most southerly such and 1 of the few places where some work zaps and is being done on tourism. There’s already a pyramid over the place of the springs and the land around the trickle of water that flows out of the hillside to begin to form a tiny stream that eventually becomes the Nile is being landscaped. Such a small flow that becomes such a mighty river. Such a small start to a long journey. It is a parable in itself.
Then to Rutana to visit the site of the new church being built. The existing 1 holds only a couple of hundred; the new one will hold 1,000. Local Christians are moving stones, sawing wood, helping in whatever way that they can to bring their dream into reality. It will take 2-3 years for them to complete. But the church here is growing in number. A brief conversation is able to be held with the local pastors on some of the differences we have in both seeking to grow the church. At present they are more successful than we are. They a aware that the issues we face may also come their way one day soon.
Then onto Gitega our home for the next few days. We say farewell to Canon Seth who has cared for us so well whilst in Matana. He is generous, thoughtful, kind.
Our first evening is spent in the wonderful company of Archbishop Bernard Ntahoturi, his wife Mathilde and their family. It has been a huge privilege to get to know these wonderful people since we first met just before the Lambeth Conference in 2008. Personally I regard ++Bernard as one of the most outstanding Christian leaders in the world today. There is a clarity of love for the living God, a deep desire to serve him and make Jesus known. He shows so much wisdom in his thinking and leadership of his diocese, province, and the pan African and global church organisations with which he works. It is a deep honour to call him a friend. Together he and Mathilde are wonderful hosts; their family mirror this as well. The description of a leader found in the pastoral epistles to Timothy and Titus fits them well.
The journey across Bujumbura was an experience of a traffic jam African style. Cars creating lanes of traffic where no lanes exist; at 1 point there were 4 lanes heading in 1 direction where there should have been one. No space for anyone to come in the opposite direction. Pavement becomes a lane. For those who have never experienced being driven through these dark streets where people walk, cycles appear never with any lights and yet somehow no accident occurs it is hard to convey. Somewhere in it all there is a thrill as well as a fear of what might go wrong ( & of course occasionally does). I was once in the front seat of a car in Uganda when we hit a drunken cyclist who careered in front of us. It was broad daylight. The accident was fatal. I have no wish to be in that situation again; the crowd that gathered literally wanted to lynch the car driver there and then although he was entirely innocent. Seeing him later in a prison cell was both a relief ( he was safe) and a horror ( it was foul). Eventually we made it through the jam. Such long delayed journeys give such a false perspective on the size of a city. The return journey took only a few minutes.
Travelling as a group is always an interesting experience in itself. You spend a lot of time waiting around to check in, waiting to board, waiting for connecting flights. It is a mixture of chat in light mode and in serious mode. It is a time for being quiet, and even attempting to sleep – largely unsuccessfully. But it bonds the group together. I have great company on this trip. We are staying the first night in Bujumbura Diocesan Centre. Perfectly comfortable, and good food at lunch time. Then there is the fun of changing money, getting Sim cards to work etc. But right now I am at the Provincial office where the work progressing the Faith Centre is amazing. 3 years ago I stood in this large garden having a dream explained. Today it is well on its way to completion. It is a great facility being developed. I love the contrast with Health & Safety compared with our new diocesan office. There it is a bright jacket, booked time, hard hat, gloves and only stand where I am told. Here we wander around under the soon scaffolding watching men at work (actually women learning to be brickies too.
Faith Centre is the right name. Born in faith and being developed in faith. These sisters and brothers inspire me with their faith and vision for the future.
It is delightfully hot too.