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.