NOTE: in case you don't follow our team blog (which you really, really should) here is a post I put up a while ago on what it feels like to live here.
There are probably many things that make living here a fairly unique experience for our team. Living in arguably the worlds poorest, hungriest, least medically served country will do that. The water, power, internet, and fuel shortages all can have a major impact on our lives. Learning to live as a visible minority where it seems not only culturally acceptable but expected, for people to shout at you as you walk past – is something most of us did not grow up knowing. Living in a ’town’ that has no stores, where the two dining options are the canteen at the hospital (which serves rice & beans) and the guy across the dirt road who hangs up a goat in the morning and slices off chunks for his ‘house specialty’ (AKA: only thing he makes) of goat kabobs, does take some getting used to.
But in some ways that is all the context for our lives here – what is more impactful is the day-to-day living, the reality of the mundane, every-day, normal-life stuff. What is in many ways so unique about being a part of this work, of this team, is how the things like going to work, kids going to school, having neighbours, driving to the store are all so massively impacted by one overarching reality – we live as a very tight-knit community.
The kids (and a few adults) on Halloween
Before our family moved up here to join the Kibuye team, I had a different understanding of community. Our family has known neighbourhoods with a very strong sense of belonging, and community, with block parties, and community gardens, and neighbours who all know each other. We’ve know ex-pat communities where you spend incredible amounts of time together. We have strong extended family bonds. We have great groups of friends. We’ve known work colleagues that became so much more than just that. And then – there is the community that is rural, mission compound living.
Eric once told me that one time when he was back in the US, someone was describing how Amish life is different than the society around them. Most people in the West tend to have a circle of friends, a circle of people you work with, a circle of people from church, the circle of the people who live next to you, the circle of people whose kids go to school with your kids etc etc etc – and some of those circles overlap to some degree with others. For the Amish, the Venn Diagram of those circles is basically one perfect circle. It dawned on him that that’s essentially life here for our team in Kibuye.
For security there is now a fence/wall around our living space here – which is totally normal for Burundi, every house in any city or town has a wall around it, and even out here many mud-brick houses have some kind of fence or wall around them. This, unfortunately, does give a bit of an in/out, us/them divide, that is hard to ignore and overcome. However, within this living space are our missionary families, most of our Burundian doctors, and a couple of other Burundian hospital employees. This gives us a strong sense of living truly together, in the same place, sharing common space, with yards that all run together and no clear delimitations inside. I feel like there are almost as many times that I have shared files with my teammates by physically carrying a USB drive to their house as I have to attach it to an email – which is a testament to not only to the close proximity of our houses but also the slow and unreliable internet connection. We can hear the kids in school from our house when something really funny happens (or when a bird or some other creature gets in) because the school is literally 20m from our front door in the middle of our shared living space.
Sometimes the ‘rural’ part of ‘rural, mission compound’ feel like it sticks out a bit more than others – like when you see a pregnant mom giving her sons a ride on a motorbike, or when the kids have rabbit races for a birthday party game, or when kids come in from playing in mud and have to have the egg-sacs of jiggers removed from inside their feet. (Pro-Tip: if you have a weak stomach, probably don’t Google “jiggers”). There is non-stop tree climbing, fort-making, running around, bike riding, and a lot of kids who think the rule ‘wear shoes to walk to school’ is an unacceptable imposition on their personal freedom. However, the thing that really sets this life apart from what we’ve known before however is the tight-knit community.
Yes, we have a grassy area around our house that one could consider “our yard” but more often than not there are a bunch of kids playing there and none of them are our kids. There are 14 kids here who call us ‘Aunt’ & ‘Uncle’ and about 18 adults our kids refer to as the same – not to belittle the relationship we have with our biological nephews and nieces – but because the relationship between the kids and the adults here is so close that using any title that doesn’t connote a true family tie feels strange and artificially distant.
Yes, the people who live in the house next to us are our ‘neighbours’ – but they are also our co-workers, team leaders, friends, our kids teachers, our bible study group, the parents of our kids friends, our students, our worship community, and people we share vehicles with, our exercise group, that friend who will fix your car, and so much more. It means we all gather together on Christmas Eve for a service of carols & readings, we share communion together, we are together for birthdays – it’s not uncommon that groups of us go on vacations together, and it’s every single able-bodied person on-deck for unloading the 40′ containers of medical supplies and personal goods when they arrive.
It means that there are impromptu games of capture the flag, or ultimate frisbee including everyone on the compound who’s interested.
That means our kids think that some Sunday afternoon having essentially all the adults playing with them is a normal activity.
Kids as young as 4 or 5 playing with the big kids, their own parents, the Burundian docs, their Aunts & Uncles – all running around together in a giant game where teammates are frequently shouting to each other in one of three languages. It’s the kind of inter-generational, inter-cultural dynamic that honestly is pretty rare to see.
Obviously, there are sacrifices that everyone has to make in order for this kind of community life to work. You wouldn’t be able to survive very well here with the standard western mindset that I think to some degree we all were raised with of “but I have the right to…” We all have to give up certain freedoms – for the sake of families with kids at different ages, or no kids, for our Burundian neighbours, for those whose family patterns and schedules may look a bit different than ours, and more.
We come to agreements on things that seem to be best for the common good: don’t knock on other people’s doors at 6.30am, no toy guns, all kids go home at 6.00pm when it gets dark (and the mosquitos come out!), a group of guys run early mornings – so girls can run afternoons, let people know when you’re going to the city so they can put in orders for ‘the grocery store’, if you borrow tools – put them back, try to remember to sign out cars on the schedule. It means we all have to come to common agreements on things that we have different opinions on like how much diesel we’re willing to burn to keep the generator running when there is no electricity and a diesel shortage, family pets, and who gets to use the vehicles to go where during the kids’ school holidays.
Honestly, I can’t think of another situation where our family would ever have this kind of close-knit community living. If you were to attempt something like this in North America you’d clearly be some kind of nouveau-hippy commune. It’s hard to imagine a group of eight or so families deciding to buy vehicles together instead of each having their own, to share an internet connection, to build houses together on the same plot of land, to build a small school that’s essentially a home-schooling co-op lead by the teachers in the group, so that one (or both) adults in the families can work together at a small hospital. But that’s essentially what we have. It’s what we do. I must admit it all kind of snuck up on me – we moved up here from Bujumbura, and I didn’t really notice it until we were here a while. (OK – well that perhaps sounds a little cult-like…)
But this is our life now. To be perfectly honest I’m not sure it’s something that I would have chosen, but not only is it the only way we survive here, it’s the only chance we have to thrive here, and it’s also a pretty special way to share life. Clearly this type of community drastically affects each of us, but I think for the kids on the team, it’s giving them a sense of what it can mean when you intentionally give up individual rights for the sake of others – and I hope that’s an embodiment of the gospel that has a lasting effect on how they chose to invest their time, abilities, and resources for years to come.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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).
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.