A family of 6 from the Canadian Prairies, now in Africa – via the French Alpes.
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.