Christmas in Kibuye (the third)

So a while ago we celebrated our third Christmas here in Kibuye. Seems strange in many ways – that we have already been here long enough to celebrate Christmas for the third time. Feels strange that we have made this place our home that we only visited for the first time when we arrived here on the day of the coup back in May ’15. That this place we moved to “temporarily” just before Christmas that same year and yet by last Christmas had already lived in our house for a year.

Here’s what Christmas has felt like – at least for me: strange.

One of the things that I’ve realized being here is that so many of the external indicators, so many of the environmental signs of Christmas are completely absent here. This is not just something that you notice at Christmas however – oftentimes I will find myself actually completely confused as to what season of the year it is – as I’m used to temperature, weather, length of days (like the <8hour days of Alberta in winter and ~20hrs of daylight in late June), leaves on trees, activities (school year, holidays, skiing, etc.) all giving clear and constant indicators as to what time of year it is. Here however, since the temperature really doesn’t change at all throughout the year, being 2º off the equator means the length of days doesn’t really change, so it is honestly not unusual for me to actually forget that I’m currently in a season that for the previous 40 years of my life I referred to as “spring” or whatever the case may be.


How the kids stay entertained when church services go too long.

Leading up to Christmas here is a bit different as there are no stores to have Boxing Day, Les Soldes, or Black Friday like in other places we’ve lived (well, I guess that should be expected as there are no stores). There is no radio here, or places that start to play Christmas music. There are no ornaments, decorations, or signs up on houses, buildings, churches, schools. No concerts or staff parties, no sledding with cousins, or hockey and skating on the frozen pond.
Honestly, at one point when we decorated the house and started playing Christmas music, I had a strange feeling like we were merely pretending it was Christmas – like we were having some kind of “Christmas in July” party. One of the things I’ve realized is how much of what we think of as “Christmas” is so completely connected to the cultures and climates of parts of western Europe and some places in North America exclusively. Snowmen, snowflakes, angels-in-the-snow are so prevalent in songs, pictures and stories of Christmas that we really start to think that it’s normal. Yet of course, the VAST, VAST MAJORITY of the world who would celebrate Christmas in December would have none of those things.

Going for a Christmas Day bike ride through the hills with the kids


The other thing that really became clear was that some traditions are just held so much stronger than others. Traditions are funny things. They’re just some kind of activity that you do more than once, really. If you go out for Chinese food on New Year’s Day with your family, and then you do it again, and then even once or twice more – it starts to feel like a tradition. If you stop doing things – they just cease to be a tradition. They morph, and they change.

But man, do I have strong memories of so many Christmas traditions.

Sledding in the cold. Skating on the frozen lake. Gathering with as many cousins as we can. My mom’s family has a strong Norwegian background – and our Christmas traditions seems to bring those out more strongly than any other time of year. The drinks, snacks, foods, smells, tastes. The sight of a tree with candles lighting its decorations of woven straw, carved wood, and paper. Simple red, white and the earthy-beige of straw and wood on the green tree. The singing of carols in Norwegian as we join hands in a circle around that tree. The visiting of the Jüle Nissa, the seemingly unlimited lefse. Christmas Eve candle-light carol service at church. To me, in so many ways, that is Christmas.

Our local church did have a special service on Christmas Day, there were even some decorations and special songs. However, the concept of the season of Advent leading up to Christmas itself – or any other “we’re approaching Christmas” event’s were utterly and completely absent.

walking across the field to go home after church on Christmas morning.


But the reality is that for our kids, camping in Tanzania during Christmas break will likely be a stronger memory than any of those things. Honestly, I do feel a sense of loss for that. Like they have been deprived of something. Because they have. That sense of extended family. That sense of rootedness that I used to feel when I was young, going to my grandma’s house that my grandfather built for her back in 1929. I have memories of four generations gathering together in that place that in so many ways was obviously and directly tied to who our family was, to who I was. That house, that small farming community in southern Saskatchewan was and always will be a part of who I am despite the fact that I have never lived there.

This year was the 21st Christmas we have celebrated since we got married. I think it was the 10th that we’ve been living overseas and not been able to travel home. But still – every time it seems strange to not be ‘home’ – whatever that means after all this time.

So yes – Christmas seemed a bit strange this year. I think the first year I didn’t notice it as we were temporarily staying up here in Kibuye (we thought) – squatting in someone else house, and wondering if the violence that drove us out of the city was going to calm down again (which – in hindsight, it actually did) or risk flaring up (I get the feeling that risk won’t go away for a very long time).

However – there were lots of events that did make it feel like it was Christmas.

Decorating the borrowed tree with mostly home-made decorations and some solar powered led lights

The kids put on a pageant in church – which was a huge hit. Apparently at least partially due to the fact that the idea of a Christmas pageant was completely unknown to the several hundred people crammed into our church that morning.
Actually, they did it twice up at the hospital, once at the local public school, and in church on Christmas Day.

Our teammate Logan wrote a blog post about it over on the team blog complete with video if you want a look. There was singing and dancing and costumes – Matea and Anna were the French narrators and we had our Kirundi language tutor translate. We sang in Kirundi, French and even threw in some English.

Christmas eve we all spent some time together reading familiar passages about that first Christmas, and singing some of the songs that are so closely tied to this time of year.

The next day in church it was almost overwhelming how badly people wanted to get a good look at what was going on.

We had Christmas together as a family – opening presents. Some homemade, some locally made, and a few items that we had brought over via visitors who have travelled here and give up luggage space for such things.

Some things apparently are common – Lego building on Christmas morning.
Someone was PRETTY excited to get bird identifying books for Christmas. As most 6-year-old girls are…
Lego, books and the seasonally decorated Leopard in the background.


Matea holding a special girl to her – as we are handing out bags to the several hundred kids at the Sunday school on Christmas.

In the afternoon we went up to the hospital with a bunch of our team and some visitors – for carolling, visiting, handing out some presents to kids in the peds ward (dolls, toy cars, hats).

The kids singing Christmas carols in Kirundi for some of the patients in the pediatric ward.

I think this is the third time we’ve done this – so perhaps it is on its way to being one of those things that turns into a tradition.

So did it feel like a normal Christmas for me? Nope. But in some ways, it was so much richer. No overwhelming constant messages from a consumerist culture constantly telling us to buy more and expect more. No rushing around for things. No shopping, no malls, no parking-induced anxiety attacks, no running around, no scheduling of multiple events. Just us, our kids, our community here -and real Christmas. I honestly have no idea what our kids will think of as a ‘normal’ Christmas when they’re my age – but hopefully, these years will help to form a sense of what Christmas is not.

Apparently – driving a few hours to camp by the lake has now replaced skating, skiing, Marche de Noel etc.

The youngest gets older

It’s hard to say things about the age of your youngest child and not sound like a quasi-senile old person. “I can’t believe you’re so big” “seems like you were just born” “But you’re my baby” etc.

But – there she is….six years old.

First grade.

Lost her first tooth last week.

For her birthday she decided to have a “Bunny” theme.

in fact the day even started out with a birthday breakfast

Later in the day the festivities commenced with (nearly) everyone dressed up as a bunny. Some costumes appeared to have a bit more effort put into them.. Darth Vader with a bunny mask …. I guess we’ll allow it.

Races where you hop like a bunny.

And then … there were races where every kid chose a bunny – and let them run.

Now maybe it’s just that we were starting the races from right next to the chicken coop in our front yard….or maybe it somehow felt like we were on a slippery slope towards gambling on dog races.  But sometimes things feel like our very-rural-African-tight-community can feel like we’ve actually started to become some kind of hill-people. 

No, on second thought, I’m pretty sure kids racing animals for a 6-year-old’s birthday in the front yard (never mention the fact that we have enough rabbits to have such a contest) means we’ve past the fine line between ‘rural-African-mission-community’ and ‘hillbilly-compound’ so long ago that we can’t even see it in the rear-view mirror any more.

Well – anyway…happy birthday Alma. Hopefully when you reflect on days like this birthday party (perhaps with a counsellor) it will be with fondness.


Just to give a bit of a picture that isn’t all animal-racing and races-in-flour-bags, here are some more pictures of Alma from the various things she’s been up to over the past few months:

In Canada this summer: “look what I found. what is this thing?”
First ever dental check up in Canada


on a long-weekend holiday with Jonah on our way to Canada
One of her favourite things to do
A dream come true…

Micah is 11

Look at that – He’s ELEVEN!

So Micah’s birthday being in August seems to frequently be not ‘at home’. This year was the end of our time in Canada (in fact, Jonah & I flew to Kenya on his birthday)

There’s something that doesn’t exist in Burundi – IceCream Cake!

This pattern has played out a bit in the past:

  • Last year he turned 10  in Kenya
  • He turned 9 in Rwanda
  • He turned 8 in Michigan
  • We were in France when he turned 7, 6, 5 and moved there just days before his 4th birthday
  • And his 3rd, 2nd, 1st – and actual day of birth – were in Canada.

It’s of course pointless to try to describe a kid like Micah, such a paradoxical combination of characteristics: brave yet compassionate; thoughtful yet daring; at times the crazy & outgoing center of attention, other times quietly sitting reading and playing lego by himself for hours.

The life we have led the past decade or so has not always been easy for him – in some ways because of his ages at various moves and because of his personality – perhaps harder than for most in our family. Being thrown into French public school for his first ever day of school when we had arrived in the country just several weeks earlier, what we experienced in Bujumbura, more moves – but he sure has persevered and not only survived it all – but truly, truly thrived.

He is so at home here in rural Burundi, and it’s great to see all the things he gets to do that an 11 year-old kid loves to do. Yes – there are many and significant things that are lost from our being here, but there are some things that are really good.

So here’s some pictures of Micah over the past year –  doing what he does, and loves best:


At the southern most source of the Nile – about 45min from Kibuye
Lego – the stuff dreams are made of
On the top of a 10.000-bushel bin of lentils at our cousin’s farm in southern Saskatchewan


Hiking at Lake Louise with the Cho’s – just a few minutes before the solar eclipse
Going out to visit former hospital patients in their home.



Divine Love

NOTE: This post - written by Susan - was originally posted on our team blog:

What I’m about to tell you is a love story.  This is one of the greatest love stories I’ve ever experienced.  It involves unconditional love, costly sacrifice, incredible patience and perseverance.  But this is not your usual love story.  This is the love story between a young a very  sick little girl and her older brother, and I have been deeply blessed to have seen this love story up close.

5 year old Divine came to our hospital at the end of December and was admitted for severe malnutrition.  Really, really severe malnutrition.  For weeks, she lay in bed, barely conscious and barely alive.   Her mother was unable to stay at the hospital, and since our hospital requires each patient to always have a caregiver, her brother was given the job of caring for little Divine.  From that point on, her 12 year old brother, Moise, was always at the side of her bed. 

He did jobs that I have never seen any 12 year old boy do before; change his sister, clean up diarrhea, wash and clean his sister, feed her, give medication, and sleep next to her (in the same bed, often with other patients) in a very crowded room filled with lots of fussy, malnourished babies and toddlers and their care-givers.

Weeks after she had been admitted,  I walked into the room one day and found her sitting up in bed.  I was shocked.  She still had a feeding tube in and was still on oxygen…but for the first time, I felt like she was going to make it.  For the first time she was interested in playing, and even though she was extremely weak, she was determined to pick up blocks and try to throw a toy at me.

Divine had a type of malnutrition that is a bit deceiving to those of us that don’t have a medical background.  She actually looked a bit chubby.  Her body was puffy and swollen, due to a lack of protein.  As she was fed a high protein formula through her feeding tube over the next few days, her swollen body dramatically changed. She suddenly had a tiny little body that looked like pictures that I have only seen in my high school textbooks of holocaust victims.  Just looking at her tiny little skeletal frame, my throat would tighten and would get choked up.

  Divine is special.  She has some developmental delays, that mean that although she is 5 years old, she has never walked and has never clearly spoken.  I feel certain that if Divine had the help that we offer in Western countries;  therapy, special education, healthy food etc. that she could thrive.  However, there’s not much aid for special kids like Divine here in Burundi, so I can only imagine that most days Divine sits on a mat in their mud hut, neglected, while her single mother is out working in fields, fighting to get enough food to feed her hungry kids. 

  Almost every day for 4 months, I visited Divine and played with her.  Moise was never far from her bed.  Boys his age should be in school and outside playing soccer with their friends, but Moise patiently sat by her bed, tenderly caring for his weak sister. 

He was never embarrassed of his sister, but would clap and cheer and rejoice in her progress.  During those 4 months, we saw some amazing changes in Divine.  She grew stronger, was eating more, was more talkative, was working with our hospital’s physiotherapist, and was actually able to start walking with the aid of a walker. 

Of course, she had some setbacks, like coming down with malaria and another infection.  In spite of the tough times, it was exciting and rewarding to see her gain weight, strength, and see her play and smile every day. Moise became a strong voice and an advocate for his sister, pushing for his little sister to get more physiotherapy time, and be able to borrow a walker.   

  On April 12th, after so many months in our malnutrition service, Divine was discharged and Moise carried her home…we would later learn just how far he had to carry her!  Both Dr. Alyssa (our pediatrician) and I never had the chance to say goodbye to them before they left, so the  following weekend, the two of us along with my 10 year old son Micah, set off to try to find Moise, Divine and their home.  It took about an hour of driving, a few wrong turns, and then about another hour of hiking on little dirt trails following an old man with a machete before we found them. 

They were a little shocked – and honestly a bit scared – that a group of 3 bazungus (white people) just showed up at their home,  but after offering gifts of beans, rice, Busoma cereal and a soccer ball, they were much more receptive to us!

  This family lives in unbelievably extreme poverty. Their house is made of home-made mud bricks, a grass roof, dirt floor, and that’s about it. To a person walking by, you would say that they have nothing.  Absolutely nothing.  I would have totally thought this had I not gotten to know Moise and Divine.  What I learned is that while they are the poorest people I have ever met, they are rich in other things. 

If I’m honest, it’s hard to imagine anything for Divine other than a dismal life filled with a lot of suffering, pain and hunger.  However, I have to remind myself that our Father loves Divine so much more than Moise or anyone else does or ever could.  That pain, sickness, and poverty don’t get the last word. That the sacrificial love that Moise showed for his sister, is merely a poor reflection of the divine love God has for little Divine, and for every single person on this earth.

      This is how we know what love is: Jesus Christ laid down his life for us.  And we ought to lay down our lives for our brothers {and little sisters} 

1 John 3:16

Grandma & Auntie Nora’s visit

Well – i think a lot of people just lost one of the major reasons for not visiting us: “It’s too hard / far / tough of a journey.”

My mom and my aunt – who I think one can agree are not currently spring chickens –  just left after about 2 1/2 weeks with us here in rural Burundi. So unless you’re older than them (which would put you in your 90’s),  it’s a bit harder to say the trip would be ‘too hard.’

We had a great time – honestly not ‘doing’ a lot of things, but just allowing them to see, and experience what our life and work is like here in Kibuye.  This isn’t the first long trip they’ve made together to see us. They visited us in Kazakhstan, they came to see us in France – in fact when they were in France when Alma was born.

They did what they do best, what they’ve been doing my entire life, and let’s be honest – for a long time before I was born: showing kindness and love to others.

They spent as much time as they could up in the hospital wards – playing with the kids, helping to bring some joy and happiness to the children who have otherwise rather dull and depressing days.  Let’s be clear, the kids in the hospital are getting great medical treatment (in many cases life-saving) from people who treat them with love and respect, treating them as fellow people created in the image of God. However, for a kid, hanging out in the hospital for days, weeks, or even months on end can be a bit much, so any distraction is very welcomed. 

They went up to the cafeteria in the hospital, just to have a cup of tea, and hang out in the hospital.

They tried their best to bumble through interactions where they had no language skills, but merely defaulted to smiling, and laughing, and showing kindness.

They read to our kids, to the kids at school, and made who-knows-how-many treasure hunts in the yard where the prizes were small things they brought for the kids from Canada.

They came with us to the market in Gitega, buying sacks of flour, and rice, some cloth,  and clothes for the kids in the hospital.

there’s mom sitting in the Land Cruiser while I run into a ‘store’ in ‘downtown’ Gitega.

They made cinnamon buns, sang songs that I remember from my childhood and did their little ‘parlour-trick’ games that I remember spending I’m pretty much years of my life trying to figure out.

Our family lives a life that is in many so rich, and rewarding, and interesting  – but it does come at a cost.  Some of those costs I think we as parents bare the hardest, others we have actually put on our children, and definitely there is price to for the life we lead that is paid by our friends and family – most notably our parents.  I can only imagine how hard it is to hear your kids say “we’re taking your grandchildren away, for a number of years, to the other side of the world” only to be updated a few weeks later with “there was an attempted military coup, but don’t worry the bullets went right over our house.”

I think that’s why it feels so meaningful, so affirming, so life-giving when those closest to us tell us in all honestly “I can see why you’re here. I’m glad you’re here. I’m proud of you for being here. I think it’s great that you’re here.”  I guess because there are lots of days when we question why we’re here. When we question whether it’s all worth it, and if were delusional when we thought that God really wanted our family to move here, or if it was all big mistake.

Those are the times when it’s so welcomed to have someone say “good job – keep it up.”

So a good time was had by all -and on the way to drop them off at the airport we even got a chance to stop by the lake.

So here’s a picture of me and Mom & Auntie Nora, with Lake Tanganyika and the mountains of D.R.Congo behind us.