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 definitely need to work on.