Pardon Our French

(and Kirundi)

How Low Can You Go?

One of the strange things we have found living up here in Kibuye is that our perspective has shifted.  

A lot.

When we first arrived in Burundi, we lived in the capital, Bujumbura. As we explored the city we saw a place that was very economically underdeveloped. It felt almost quasi-rural at times, with herds of goats grazing along the main roads and cows being herded down busy streets. After having spent over three years in Kibuye, we now go to Bujumbura and are shocked at how much traffic there is, how many women wear pants and other western clothes. How almost everyone has shoes, and people drive their own cars. There are grocery stores and restaurants, and now even traffic lights. In short- we’ve become more used to the very rural, very underresourced people who live and work in and around Kibuye hill.

This week we glimpsed into the world of someone for whom the small brick houses with old clay-tile roofs around Kibuye village probably feel to her like what we feel when we go back to the capital. 

This is a woman who lost her husband just over a year ago and is left with two small children. Her youngest is a girl, just over 6 years old. This girl suffered from a severe, severe, burn which rendered one of her hands essentially useless. She fell in a fire when she was only a baby, and never received any medical attention for it.

Since the mother simply cannot get enough food for her family she comes to our malnutrition program. She carries her daughter on her back every Monday and Friday to Kibuye. 

It takes her two hours to walk. She has no shoes. She carries her six-year-old. And she walks.

Two hours there.

Women wrapped in their Kitenge cloth – waiting at our malnutrition program
photo: Scott Myhre

Several hours at our malnutrition feeding program.
Two hours back.
To get a bowl of porridge, some dry porridge to take home and a hard-boiled egg.

Two times a week.

She does it because there is little else that she could do with a half-day that would help feed her children that much.

Susan has been helping her out extra because our surgeon said he should be able to do some operations that would significantly help her get some mobility and utility back to her hand.  However – she is far to undernourished for surgery.  So Susan has been helping the mother, giving her an extra kilo of porridge every week, giving her beans, trying to help her get her little 6-year-olds weight up so that she is strong enough for surgery.

She told Susan that she borrows a Kitenge cloth (the bright printed cloth that women here wear) from one of her neighbours to come to the feeding program.  

Let that sink in.

This woman does not have clothes that are nice enough to come to a program for parents who cannot feed their own children in one of the poorest, hungriest regions, in one of the poorest hungriest countries in the world. So she has to borrow something from her neighbour.

Getting out to walk the last few hundred meters

She also told Susan one day that her roof leaks so badly, that it’s very hard for her and the kids during the rainy season.  The rains have just returned a few weeks ago, and sometimes it comes down so hard that we get some drips through our 1-year-old metal roof. It’s hard to imagine what she means when she says “leaks a lot.” So last week, after the feeding program we drove with her out to her house.

decided this bridge was unlikely to support the Land Cruiser

We asked her how she could see enough to do anything in the house. She has no lantern, no light. She says she holds a burning stick in one hand while she does things. Suddenly a toddler falling into a fire seems to be more of an inevitability instead of poor parental supervision. 
The mother’s parents are both dead, as are the parents of her deceased husband. She has only one remaining brother, but he lives very far away and has some serious mental health issues of his own. Her husband had some family, but they won’t help her, even when she tells them there is no food for the children. And from looking around the mud-brick hut, it was pretty clear that when she means no food, she really means it.

We asked her if none of the people in the village have reached out to help her. Why don’t any of her neighbours help her with her leaky roof? She said that a few of the men have offered to help her.

the path leading to their house – beyond the small bridge

Their house is made of mud-bricks.  Essentially there is enough clay in the soil around here that if you find a good pocket of dirt, you can cut out large blocks of it, let it dry in the sun, and they will hold together for quite a while. Her roof is dried banana leaves woven over some branches. The interior of the house was pitch black when we were there in the middle of the day, with spots of sunlight pin-pricking through all over the roof. You could see how rain must pour through.

the inside of their roof

On condition that she sleeps with them.

If I think of vulnerability – being susceptible to harm, being exposed, unprotected – this is who I picture. In a culture where men have more rights, more priveledges, more respect, and better options than women, this widow really is at the bottom of a social pecking order.

So – what’s the point of me relaying this story?

To make you feel guilty? Not at all.

To just get it off my chest? Maybe a little.

To honour her in some small way by making her story known? Perhaps

Partially, i suppose it’s for all of us – definitely, me included – to be more aware of what we have. To be thankful. To not begrudge those who have more.

To not be jealous.

To be content.

Also not to look at someone who is materially and socially less well off than I am, and think “well, at least I’m not THEM!” But to realise that having food, and clothing, and a supportive family &/or community is A LOT. It really is.

And I suppose the other thing I need to remember is that instead of looking for those few who have more than I do, I should be more aware of the others. Instead of looking at the 1% or so of the world’s population that appears to have more than me – to be more mindful of the other 99%. I think, at least for me, that helps to nurture generosity and kindness while looking at the 1% breeds jealousy and unrest. And that’s something that I definately need to work on.

‘Tis the Season

On Friday night our family set up our Christmas tree.  As is our Christmas tradition, the evening we decorate the tree we have snack supper, play Christmas music, and it’s when it really starts to feel like Christmas is coming.

There are some things that go along with Christmas that feel so siimilar, so familiar. The tree, the songs, family all together. Then there are the things like hanging lights on the Leopard skin that has been in this house since the ’70s, using an artificial tree, and the banana tree growing just outside the living room window.  Or the fact that Jonah and I just got back before dark from Bujumbura (we try to never drive on the highway after dark ~6.00pm all year) because we were in the city trying to sort out car registration with customs, and taxation people. We ended up having a 12-hour day, yet the three appointments had a combined time of less than 5 minutes. Then we tried to fined Diesel on teh way home as tehre is a nation-wide fule shortage for the last couple weeks. 

So there are some things that definitely remind me of my childhood christmas, and some….not so much.

It seems like there was not a lot of years in between us being the kids who go home for Christmas, and us being the ones with kids who come home for Christmas. Actually, there was one year in between.  In 2014 we were back in Canada, celebrating one last Christmas with extended family before we moved here, and 2016 Jonah was coming home from school in Kenya.  Perhaps for our family that is a bit more compressed but I’m sure it feels fast for everyone.

{I suppose it’s also the season to use ’tis,as that’s not something we’d ever consider the other 11 months of the year.}

Home again, home again…jiggidy jig *

Supper down in the big city.  No hippos were sighted.
Supper down in the big city. No hippos were sighted.

The big kids are home!  They landed in Bujumbura a week ago Saturday, and we stayed overnigight in the city. 

A little rain couldn’t keep these four out of the pool.  Since there’s no pools in either Kibuye or Kijabe, they’re all pretty happy to be swimmign around. 

I’m quite convinced that it will never not feel strange to have to pick up your kids from an international flight when they come home from school…but such is life #ThisBurundianLife

Already in one week, we’ve had a lot of fun. Lots of family games, bike rides, movies.  The kids have gone up to the feeding program with Susan, visited the orphanage, and distracted their siblings from school work. On Saturday Jonah learned to ride a motorbike – so yesterday we went for an amazing Father-Son ride through the beautiful, lush, rolling hills of this place.

Still to come…setting up the (borrowed) Christmas tree & decorating the house, and so much more.

*I must admit…I really have no idea what that saying means. I have probably thousands of little rhymes, songs, and sayinngs that my Mom (mostly) sang to us [still does actually] that will for ever be with me. 

For November 11th.

This is a re-post of something I wrote after visiting Normandy just before the 70 anniversary of D-Day, and I feel it still reflects my feelings on a day like today.

This year marks 100 years since the guns were silenced on the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month.  The signing of an armistice that would finally stop “The War to End All Wars”. 


Right now here in France, it’s early morning June 6. 70 years – to the hour-  since the start of the D-Day landings on the beaches of Normandy. Having recently taken a trip with my Dad and my son to see a lot of the WWII sites, this idea of ‘properly’ remembering D-Day and events like it, has been on my mind.

Canadian troops arriving at Juno beach

How does one go about Remembering D-Day?

It’s 70 years since thousands of Allied troops landed on the beaches that spread out in front of the sea-side towns along the shores of Normandy. These coastal villages that were used to welcoming tourists to their beaches, and fishermen back from the sea now welcomed a liberating army as the largest assault ever put together in modern military history arrived on their shores. There is no way to avoid the signs of the war in these towns along the Norman coast,  simply impossible to ignore what happened here in the days and months surrounding June 6, 1944. Code names like Omaha, Utah, Gold, Juno and Sword are tied to a material reality here. They are real places, just across from someone’s house, a place where kids fly their kites, some farmers field. The memories still seem so fresh with the year-round flying of US, UK & Canadian flags in the streets of these French towns. Yet when you stand on the beach, it seems almost impossible that these events took place, or if they did it must have happened a very long time ago.

One thing that struck me in Normandy was this juxtaposition that a time frame of seven decades can create. On one hand, it doesn’t really seem that long ago. Find someone at least 80 years old, and they will likely remember it well. My own mother was in elementary school. 1944 was the year George Lucas, Ban Ki-Moon, Lorne Michaels were born, Jimi Hendrix and George Harrison, Steven Hawking were one, and they don’t seem all that old.

American Cemetery, 

However, 70 years without our nation being involved in such a massive conflict is long enough that neither me, my son, nor my father have ever faced the brutal reality that is warfare.

As we stood on the coast of Normandy where so many young men lost their lives, and specifically on Juno Beach where the toll on the Canadians was so high, it was cause for reflection. There we were, three generations, lived (so far) in peace.  Fully aware that to a large degree this privilege is due to the sacrifices of those who did experience hell-on-earth in that very place where we were standing. For us, the harsh truth is that remembering D-Day is something we can choose to do, or not. For any who took part in the struggle here, or any battle anywhere, forgetting will not ever be an option.

While we were in Normandy, there was something I saw on a lot of memorials, cemeteries, graves and other places, that kind of rubbed me the wrong way:

“TO OUR GLORIOUS DEAD”

Really?

I understand wanting to honour the sacrifice of those who felt compelled to put their lives on the line for the struggle of their nation.  However, I’m not sure I can agree a teenage boy having his body blown apart by a farm-kid from the neighbouring country is “GLORIOUS.”

I decided I should, perhaps just this once, know what I’m talking about. So I looked up the definition:

glorious |ˈglɔːrɪəs| adjective ~having, worthy of, or bringing fame or admiration

So perhaps, glorious is an appropriate word – even if it doesn’t feel like it. Worthy of admirationseems about the least we can say about those who died to honor their memories.

IMG_7891

So, how does one properly ‘remember’ an event like D-Day?

How do you balance respect for the individual, order-following soldiers who died fighting on the winning side, without demonizing the individual, order-following soldiers who died fighting on the losing side?

“Beloved only son…Edmonton, Canada”

How do you recall battles fought, won and lost, lives saved and ended, and human conflict elevated to the level of armed hostility without glorifying war itself?

“Love the soldiers – hate the war?”

When we were wandering through the Juno Beach centre, taking in the exhibits, an older gentleman was standing next to me, saw Jonah and asked with an English accent if ‘the lad was interested in the war.’ I think I replied something like, “well, not interested in the war, but I feel he needs to learn about it.’

The man said something like “well that’s good – because we can’t ever let it happen again” and then he turned and continued on.

We finished up with the museum and went outside as we had signed up for a guided tour of a bunker which had (fairly recently) been discovered under the beach. The tour was lead by a Canadian university student working at the Juno centre. As he started his presetntation, he said “I just want to give a special welcome to Mr Hyde, a veteran of D-Day.”

Commonwealth Cemetery, Bayeaux.

That man from inside the museum was a D-Day vet from the Royal Air Force. He had manned the guns onboard an RAF bomber that came in to support the Canadian and British troops who landed at Juno. It was impossible to imagine what this place must mean to him. What memories does he hold, that he can never forget, even the ones he wants to? We were touring a bunker that was used to collect intelligence and coordinate the counter-attack on the plane he was in.  For me, D-Day is a historical event. For him, it was probably the one day – the few hours – of his life that will stand out forever. For him, remembering D-Day, is not an option, because forgetting it is not possible. My son, my Father and I were struggling to imagine what it must have been like that morning. For him, I’m sure there are more days when he struggles to forget.

I recently saw a series of ‘then and now’ photos, contrasting the same place. (NOTE: stop reading NOW and go look at this nice interactive one here, and a really big set here. Seriously  – go look, they are fascinating)

'Nan_White'_Beach,_JUNO_Area_at_Bernieres-sur-Mer
Canadians landing at Bernieres-sur-Mer with their bicycles.

When I look at the pictures showing sunbathers lying on the beaches that a few generations ago were literally soaked with human blood, it feels like poorly behaved kids yelling and playing in a graveyard. People relaxing, seemingly without a care in the world. But in some way, isn’t that part of the freedom those soldiers were fighting for? They sacrificed for us to enjoy the chance to sit on the sand and enjoy a day at the beach. They wanted their countrymen to be free, to live in peace and security. You can’t lay on the beach if you fear an invasion. We – Canadians, French, Americas, British, and Germans and so many more enjoy a kind of liberty that was very hard won. 

So how does one remember D-Day?

I guess I’m left with: let’s enjoy things like a day at the beach, but never forget the price was paid for us to do so.

“To the Fallen,
Thank you for your sacrifice for our freedom.
From the pupils of Woodland Academy”

More importantly, let’s honour the request of Mr. Hyde and all those like him – and never let it happen again.

Ever.

Something a little different.

This is just a one-time notice that I’ve started another site to share some writing / thoughts I have. 

OK – the truth is that I started it several years ago – but never had the courage to actually share what I wrote. 

So before I change my mind and delete this post…here it is:

www.chartreusian.com

Consider yourself informed.