During our Christmas break we got the chance to see some more of this beautiful part of the world when we went along with some teammates for a few days of camping just across the border in Tanzania.
It takes almost 4 hours to drive – plus at least an hour at the border for 14 people to get through the various steps on either side.(One of our fearless travelling companions Audrey also wrote about the trip on our team blog)
But once you get there- it sure is pretty spectacular.
Basically it’s so beautiful – that you feel like you’re at some kind of private tropical resort – but really we’re just camping a few hours south of our place.
Our family stayed in one large safari-style tent which had a tin-roof overhead, and a little bathroom out the back with running water and a toilet – plus two kids in a tent outside under a thatch roof. It was great – there was a real bed inside, and it was (just barely) possible to keep the monkeys out of things.
Since we were there the week between Christmas and new-years – it was Jonah’s birthday. So in honor of him turning 15 we pulled out a big Toblerone someone had given us as an imported treat – and realized that you can actually make a pretty good candle-holding and easily divisible birthday cake out of a giant Toblerone.
I think these are the kinds of experiences that are so formative in kids lives – and our kids love these kinds of get-away’s. Hopefully now that we are a bit more stable here in Burundi – we’ll be able to get out and expore more that we were able to in our first year or so. There is so much natural beauty around us, and so much to see. Only God knows how long we’ll end up living in this part of the world – but it sure seems like a great opportunity to see amazing thigns that we’d hate to not take advantage of.
Well we have just (yes – over two months ago I realize) celebrated our second Christmas here in Kibuye. Seems strange in many ways – that we have already been here for a year, that we have made this place our home that we visited for the first time when we arrived here on the day of the coup attempt back in May ’15.
Here’s what Christmas has felt like – at least for me:
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 <8 hour days of Alberta in winter and ~20hrs of daylight in late June), leaves on the trees, activities (school year, holidays, skiing, etc.) and so much more 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, there are no stores to have Boxing Day, Les Soldes!, or Black Friday like in other places we’ve lived. There is no radio, or places that start to play Christmas music. There are no ornaments, decorations, or signs up on houses, buildings, churches, schools.
Honestly at one point when we decorated the house and started playing Christmas music I had a strange feeling like we were 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. Snow (snowmen, snowflakes, angels-in-the-snow, sleigh-rides…) 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 MAJORITY of the world who would celebrate Christmas in December would have none of those things.
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 around us.
The other thing that really became clear was that some traditions are just held so much stronger than others. Traditions are funny things. It’s just something that you do more than once, really. If you go out for supper to for Chinese food one 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 can cease to be 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 simple decorations of woven straw, carved wood, and paper. 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 candlelight service at church.
So yes – Christmas seemed a bit strange this year. I think last 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 was lots of events that did make it feel like it was Christmas.
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.
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.
They did a dress rehearsal the day before on Christmas eve – followed by some time all together reading familiar passages about that first Christmas, and singing some of those songs that seem to be 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.
Then we had Christmas together as a family – sitting in pyjamas, opening presents. Some home made, some locally made, and a few items that we had brought over a when Susan’s parents came.
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) and reading the Christmas story. We did this last year also – and I think this may be one of those things that turns into a tradition.
So did it feel like a normal Christmas for me?
But in some ways it was so much richer. No overwhelming constant messages from a consumer-culture. 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.
Well – as of today we have now been in Burundi for two years! Two years ago today we stepped off a late-night flight from Edmonton (via Montreal & Brussels) to walk across the tarmac at the Bujumbura airport.
It feels like we’ve lived so much in that time – lived so many experiences that it must be more than a mere 24-months worth.
Some have been incredibly joyful, some gut-wrenchingly sorrowful.
We have camped out in the beauty of breathtakingly beautiful waterfalls and natural hot springs.
We have had our kids hide under the bed as large-calibre guns fire their bullets directly over the house.
We have experienced friendship, loyalty, and sacrifice from people we had known only months.
We have felt more frustrated and mislead and taken advantage of than ever before.
We have seen people who find such whole-heartedly joy in worshiping God – and have heard stories of betrayal by those claiming to follow Him.
We come face to face with poverty, malnutrition and physical suffering on a daily basis to a level that I had never before witnessed in my life.
We get to be part of a team that, despite all that seems to be working against us (and that list can often feel very long), is a small part of God’s redemptive work – fighting poverty, feeding the hungry, curing the sick.
We’ve sat in places with dirt floors and mud-brick walls, and we’ve somehow met up with ambassadors, diplomats, and the first-lady herself.
We have been inspired by our Burundian friends and colleagues – who can possess incredible resolve, determination. Who keep their Faith that God is making all things new when it’s hard from a human perspective to see that it’s true.
And I’m pretty sure I can honestly say that I’ve personally shed more tears – of both sorrow and joy – in the past two years than perhaps the rest of my life combined.
Two years ago I’m pretty sure I’d heard the sound of a gun fire perhaps a few times (and honestly, that would have been in my Outdoor Education class trip to a firing range, and when my brother Phil was skiing biathlon) – and soon after we arrived, and for essentially the whole time we lived in Bujumbura – it became almost a daily occurrence.
Honestly – there are still days that are so hard I feel ready to quit. Days where cultural misunderstandings, differences in approaches, and just plain hard things make me want to pack it all in and go home.
But for now- this is home. This is where we feel God has called our family. There is so, so much work to be done here – and for now we get to be part of it.
For those of you who are perhaps new to our story – or if you want a bit of a re-cap – here’s how the last 24 months have gone down:
March – we get all packed up and say good-bye to friends, family, Canada, & snow
After staying about a week and in discussing with others – we decide to drive to Rwanda, hoping we can stay there for a couple weeks while things settle down.
June, July, August
We stay at the mission station in Kibogora, Rwanda while things in Burundi continue in much the same way. Elections are announced, delayed, boycotted & disputed. Violence continues. While in Rwanda we kept up homeschooling the kids, they played with new found great friends, we swam (and camped) in lake Kivu to relax, I made several trips back to Bujumbura (including one time where I ended up getting left there with no ride, the immigration office closed down with our passports inside and there were rumours of an impending rebel attack), we had surgeries (x3), and I got involved with the local university trying to help out as I could. We go for a hike through the canopy of the rainforest for Susan’s birthday.
Sept – Oct-Nov
We move back to Bujumbura Aug 30 since things had been settling down -there had been several weeks without much noticeable violence. The night after we arrive – gun-battles start up again in opposition neighbourhoods not far from us.
I get back to teaching my MBA classes at Hope Africa University, and have been asked to take on more responsibility on the admin side becoming Directeur Pédagogique (VP Academic).
Since HAU is unfortunately in one of the neighbourhoods experiencing a fair bit of conflict – clashes, fighting and attacks are essentially always in the back of your mind. Checking twitter for reports of attacks before deciding what road to take home.
My classes – which are supposed to start at 6.00pm as it’s an executive-style MBA for people working full-time – keep getting pushed up as people are too scared to be out after dark. Finally after having to stop mid-class three times in two weeks due to gun-battles really close (including once when the students hit the floor and crawl into the corner as I’m lecturing as shots ring-out just on the street outside the window behind me) we move classes to a spare room at our house, since our neighbourhood had remained relatively peaceful.
The violence continues – with the sound of grenades and AK-47’s audible from our house essentially every night.
It feels like everyone in Bujumbura is starting to accept that this is “the new normal” – the tension, in uncertainty, the angst, the rumours. Oh so many rumours. Rumors of rebel bands training across the border in Congo, of people recruited out of refugee camps, being armed and amassing together somewhere in the jungle. Rumours about the government. Rumours about what laws or rules are about to change. Rumors about who is involved in what, who’s been arrested, who’s disappeared -and most of all. what the heck is going to happen next.
We realize that since this does appear to be the new normal – we are going to put our kids in school. Because of the security issues, deciding on either the French School (close enough to the President’s office that you pass barricades, and road blocks, and soldiers with huge guns stationed just outside the wall of the school yard) or the Belgian School (which is a bit further away, and means it could be harder to get to if things heat up – meaning we may not be able to get to the kids if there is a large flare-up in fighting while they’re at school). We visit l’Ecole Francaise on Dec 10 – the only reason I remember the date is because I remember what happened the next day.
The next day we are awakened at exactly 4.00 by the sound of explosions, and gunfire. Lots of it – and big ones. It continues throughout the day, and as news starts trickling out over social media it seems that some unknown rebel group(s) conducted coordinated attacks against three military bases in different parts of the city. The sound of fighting can be heard from our place for about 14 hours straight. So much shooting. So many grenades. Then every so often something much larger than a grenade. Then the sound of guns much larger than the typical AK-47. Then a slight pause. Then more shooting from a slightly different place. At one point I things had calmed down a bit and I was standing in our yard talking with our Serge East Africa director – who happened to be in the US. He was saying that they wanted us to leave town the next day – as soon as it was safe to do so. As I was standing in the yard talking to him the relative calm was pierced by what sounded like larger caliber guns, closer to the house – immediately followed by the instantly unmistakable sound of bullets whistling overhead.
compared to the previous year – 2016 seems almost uneventful. On a security call on new years eve it was decided that Serge did not want our family to return to Bujumbura.
That was hard.
Working at Hope Africa University was what we had come to do – and having to leave a place that had finally felt like home was really hard. After looking at our options – it was decided that we’d move permanently to Kibuye to join the team working at Kibuye Hope Hospital where there was a huge need for administrative oversight. We moved Jan 13.
I tried to pursue my work at the Hospital – but we were faced over and over with month after month of false starts, missed deadlines, broken promises and more. The kids kind of slipped into the school here with the other kids when we got here. Jonah broke his arm, and we almost got a monkey,
Susan quickly found a very acute need at the hospital working with the kids in the paediatric ward – including a lot of work with the kids in the malnutrition program.
We had our first ever visitor as our friend Karen came from France.
I’m not sure there is anything else to say about that. I’m pretty sure there’s really very much at all that I’d change even if I could.
We are so thankful for what we’ve been able to see, and do, and learn and experience here in this place. My great hope is that we could have a tiny sliver of the impact on Burundi – that it’s had on us.