Last One Standing (?)

{NOTE: I really did not feel that what the world needs now is yet another post about COVID-19. However, we are in a bit of a unique situation here, and felt it’s worth sharing}

So it appears that as of today, Burundi is one of the only countries in the world to have no confirmed cases of COVID-19.

In some ways, it feels like we’re the village in the French comic book Asterix, the only village in the known world not to have been conquered by the invading Roman powers.

We’re that little village way up there on the left under the magnifying glass – the only ones left.

There are several obvious reasons why Burundi would be slower to get hit than many others. There is limited international travel compared to a lot of other places, most of the population never travels very far from home (rarely more than a 1/2 day walk), and especially since the violence around the last election we have been essentially socially distancing from the rest of the world to some degree for five years now. This partially explains why many places in Africa have been weeks behind other parts of the world when looking at the spread of this virus. According to officials here, there have been several tests conducted so far, all of them negative.

Our hospital admin has been busy trying to prepare for the imminent arrival of the virus. Hand washing, eliminating group gatherings, and additional protective protocols have been put in place however they can be. Outside of our hospital, people are still gathering in huge groups, crowded churches are still crowded, schools are still in session. This includes public school here in Kibuye where there are routinely over 100 kids in a room, and often 3-5 kids at a desk, and one single water tap outside the outhouses for the 1,000+ kids. Public transport is still 20+ people crammed inside a Toyota mini-van, though handwashing stations are now set up at the main bus station in the capital.

So in a way, it’s tempting to feel like we’re on the beach, and we see the tsunami coming. And there are others on the beach looking the other way.

It’s tempting to look around and feel like we know what’s coming. But that’s not entirely true. The truth is this may very well look different here than in other places.

In one way, the entire concept of flattening the curve seems odd here. The premise in other places is to reduce the concurrent number of sick people to keep that figure below the capacity of the health system to care for them. To know what flattening the curve means, many other countries have been running tens of thousands of tests, and the resulting positive results show what the repercussions could be for the medical system. Here even if we had those kinds of results, I’m not sure they’d provide a lot of actionable info.

The estimates seem to be that the US health care system had at least 65,000 ventilators for 330 million people or around 5,000 people per machine going into this pandemic. Clearly, this isn’t the only indicator of the capacity of the system, but it’s a significant one. So if the transmission is slowed enough that no more than than one in ~5,000 people need a ventilator at a time (obviously ignoring localized demand and a lot of other factors) then the system should be able to cope reasonably well, at least from a basic equipment standpoint.

Here we’re looking at over a million to one. We’ve heard there are 10 ventilators in the country, all in the capital, for well over 10 million people. At least 9 million people live outside of the capital. There is no flattening of a curve that can make the number of concurrently sick people stay below that number. The population here is young, but it also has a high level of malnutrition, lots of TB, annual epidemics of malaria, and other factors that are not going to make it easy for most people to fight off the worst of this disease.

If watching this virus sweep through some of the wealthiest countries in the world shows anything, it’s that the illusion of control that most western societies hold so dear is finally showing itself to truly be an illusion. Here, I think there is a wider acceptance that we, as individuals and society, do not have the ability to control what happens to us. I don’t sense that an event that rocks society to its core is as unfathomable here as it was in the West a few months ago.

I read an African economist the other day saying that stay-at-home orders are essentially irrelevant in many societies in Africa where the majority of the population are sustenance farmers. If you work for one day to be able to feed your family that day, staying at home is not an option. Tending your rice and bean crops is not something that can be done remotely. Working from home when you have neither internet connection, nor a computer, nor electricity is something completely different than in the west. When your work is entirely you showing up and conducting some kind of physical work on-site, it’s a bit harder to do that over a Skype call.

Also if we were to lose the ability to go to the store it would be essentially meaningless here in Kibuye. There are a few ladies with vegetable stands along the road outside the hospital, but that’s about it. There is a larger market down on the main road – but again everything outside. There will be no run on the stores because no one has the disposable wealth to make a run on them, even if there were stores. And also, there is nothing pre-packaged or manufactured that people could offer up to be sold en masse. The day’s vegetables are sold that day, bought that day, and eaten that day for most people. Not much really is going to change that. This is significantly different in Bujumbura – as there are some stores, restaurants, imported goods, packaged things, disposable income, and people who could do work remotely. But up here, that really isn’t the case.

These are people who know how to live in difficult situations. They know resilience. They know creative problem-solving. And, unfortunately, they know sorrow and loss of life on a large scale.

I don’t claim to have any idea what it will look like here when numbers of cases start to look more similar to other countries. But my guess is that if we get to that place, some of the impacts we are now seeing elsewhere will have greater consequences, some less – but like everywhere it will not be pretty.

One only gets through this by working together – so hopefully here, that can make a difference.


It feels strange to write about an event like what took place in our house on February 22. In one way, the essence of writing is distilling down something – an idea, an event, a person, a theory- into words that are a clear summary of that thing. How does one clearly reduce an event like that into something coherent?

So, more than usual, this post is a very personal reflection – on where I’m at – as we’re all moving through this at our own pace and in our own way. Read this merely as a snapshot of where I am now – not where I should be, or where I will be, or where I want to be – but what I’m thinking and feeling today.

Yesterday was exactly one month since we were the victims of a violent armed robbery in our home, and to answer the question many have asked us – “how does it feel now?” – the only answer is … still kind of surreal.

One thing that has surprised me about being back in our house is that it has not created as many of the triggering events I was worried about, although they do happen. For me, at least, the most frequent thought, and strongest emotion is a reoccurring sense of …. ‘really?’

As in: “Did I really get stabbed here in my kitchen, exactly where I’m now standing to make myself a pour-over coffee?”

“Is that pink bookshelf in the girls’ bedroom, really the last thing I saw before I passed out as I was being beaten?”

I am not trying in any way to be flippant about what happened, or to shock, but that is how it feels right now. I am fully aware that these phrases are bizarre even to read, and that in itself is part of the surreal nature of all this.

There were still specific markers of various kinds that reminded us of what happened when we got back. The bloodstains that got missed in the cleanup before we left. The map in the girls’ room that was torn down as they were looking for a safe that doesn’t exist.

Then there are the things that are still just as they always have been, but now have drastically different memories associated with them.
That place on the living room floor. That spot in the hallway. That cupboard in the office. They don’t look any different than they ever did, and they are the same, but they’re not.

It’s hard to make sense of an event like this. One month out, it seems one of the hardest parts of the whole thing is to keep walking away from the mental game that one loses every time: trying to make sense of it in my own mind.

As my mind struggles to make sense, there is a stream of questions that ultimately have no answers (or more accurately, no answers that I will ever have).

How does someone plan and scheme an armed attack with the express intent to steal money that has been donated to build up and support the community? How do you plan out a professional hit like that, and get the target so wrong, looking for money that’s not even there? How do we deal with the sting of knowing someone we know and trusted was involved in targeting our family? How does someone turn so quickly to beat another human being with a loaded machine gun to get some money -just some money? How is smashing someone’s foot with a hammer even something that anyone can do to another human being?

We were told in our counselling that searching for explanations is one of the ways we can fall into a trap of self-blame, looking for ways that we could have prevented it from happening.

“If only I would have ….. “

If we can complete that sentence with something, even though we logically know it is nonsensical, it somehow makes things feel more acceptable. Partially this helps because we have tricked ourselves into thinking that we have control. The temptation is to find some path of hypotheticals to walk down that feels less chaotic. “If I can figure out what I did wrong, I can now change that, and this will never happen to us again.”

Which of course is wrong – in every aspect. I could not have stopped it, and I cannot prevent it.

I do not have that kind of control, period.

There are things we can’t understand, there are things that are hard to comprehend, and there are things we don’t want to make sense of.

I can’t understand the origins of the universe.

It’s really hard for me to makes sense of the right direction to take for our family right now in a time of unprecedented uncertainty in a country with a history of instability and violence.

What I don’t want to accept is the faith I hold teaches, very clearly, that while some actions have greater consequences (for good or evil) – there is no person who lives up to a standard of non-evil. If I claim to follow the teachings of Jesus, I have to accept that the things I do (and don’t do) and my thoughts, my anger, my jealously, make me just as unworthy of God’s love as the men who beat me in my daughters’ bedroom, and the guy who stabbed me in my kitchen. I am no closer to living up to God’s standards on my own than they are.

That’s something that in my core I don’t want to accept because it’s hard.

But it’s true.

The other reason why walking down a path that we hope leads to comprehension is hard is that the why’s of the event become very difficult very quickly.

The line of questions that get to the very bedrock of our lives very quickly are the ones that start with: Why would God …

Why would God allow this to happen?

Why didn’t God stop it?

Why… God?

Those are not trivial questions and they do not have easy answers.

I’ve heard it said that what we are truly made of – not just what we want others to think of us – comes spilling out like if you bump a cup that is full to the brim. Once the cup of your life is hit, you can’t help but have the real you splash out for everyone to see.

For me, one of the most beautifully redeeming things that came out of this entire event was finding out that while we were separated, Susan and the kids were not panicking, they were not freaking out, not frantically trying to take care of themselves. Although they were scared, they held it together. And despite everything that was going on, everyone’s first concern was for the others. And everyone’s first reflex was to pray.

I have vivid memories of lying on the floor of our hallway, the nurse who was at our house for supper was cutting off my pant-leg to get to the wound on my leg, and right there next to me was Susan and the two kids who were home – quietly sitting, praying. The attackers had just fled our house, but we had no idea if they were coming back, or were really gone, or were heading to another house in our community. My family, sitting there, was quietly yet confidently praying for my wounds, for the protection of our friends and neighbours, and for the very men who had just done this to us.

There is nothing I’ve ever been through that makes me more proud to be a husband to Susan and a father to my kids than when I saw what spilled out of them when they were hit so hard they simply couldn’t hide what’s inside.

So even the answers to the why’s may not be easy – they are in some ways simple.

“I don’t know – and I never will – and that’s how life works when you’re a human.”

The Old Testament book of Job is a story about a man who suffers terrible personal loss – his family, his livelihood, his own health. Eventually, he succumbs to the temptation of questioning God, his goodness, and his control.

God essentially replies by saying: Were you there when I created light? Did you help make the earth? Do you understand all the creatures of the world? Do you have control over weather patterns? Did you arrange the stars in the universe?

At one point God says: “Do you presume to tell me what I’m doing wrong?
    Are you calling me a sinner so you can be a saint? “

Eventually Job answers God:

“I’m convinced: You can do anything and everything.
    Nothing and no one can upset your plans.
You asked, ‘Who is this muddying the water,
    ignorantly confusing the issue, second-guessing my purposes?’
I admit it. I was the one. I babbled on about things far beyond me,
    made small talk about wonders way over my head.”

I think that’s where I’ve landed. I don’t have answers to the why’s and I think I am now OK with that. If I don’t accept the fact that there are things in life I don’t understand then I’m assuming my own omniscient power. The only other way forward is to accept that I don’t understand everything, that I never will, and I am fine with that because I trust that God – who has proven to be loving and kind – says that he does.

Imyaka Itanu | Cinq Ans | Five Years

{NOTE: this is also another post that was supposed to go up before the events of 3 weeks ago kind of side-stepped or lives from normal. I will post an update on what happened, and how we’re doing now, but I think it’s good – even if just for us – to focus on the memories we have made living here for the past five years. }

We have now been in Burundi for five years. We landed late on Friday, March 6, 2015, in what I remember as a hot, sticky evening. We boarded our first plane from a cold and snowy Alberta winter, and walked down the stairs onto the rough and patched tarmac of the Bujumbura airport in the dark about a day later, greeted by a strange combination of tropical humidity, the smell of jet fuel, and nervous anticipation about what would come next.

We have now lived in Burundi longer than either time we lived in France. The kids have all gone to school here more than either France or Canada

When we first arrived, we spent about one year in Bujumbura, and the past four up here in Kibuye.

Living here has definitely changed all of us in significant ways, there’s no way a place like this doesn’t. The life we have is fundamentally different than even what we thought we were getting into when we planned to move to Bujumbura. When we landed there we were debating between the two school options where a lot of the ex-pat kids were. Here there is the missionary kid school outside our kitchen door, and nothing else (and even those schools in Buja have essentially no ex-pats left). There we were choosing a church community, here there is one option. There we were starting to meet people, find the restaurants, and those two places that make decent coffee. Here there is the cantine at the hospital, which makes rice and beans…and meat…if you give them advance warning. When we arrived in Bujumbura we were shocked by how underdeveloped and in some ways almost rural it felt, (animals grazing along the sides of the road, no tall buildings etc) and now we find ourselves amazed at how wealthy and developed, and even western it feels compared to here.

That in itself is strange since we never intended to be here in Kibuye. We didn’t come to work at this hospital, we were not going to be part of this team. Our kids were never going to go to RVA. This was never our plan.

Of course we also never planned on living through a military coup attempt within the first two months of arriving, nor the evacuations, the violence and all that came with that.

We also never imagined becoming part of a community like the one we are now in, where we live more like an extended family than a team. We never anticipated relationships that blur colleague/neighbour/friend in ways almost unknown in the West.

We never imagined the peaceful beauty of this place, where our kids can run and play outside, where there are always kids outside, trees to climb, places to explore.

We never imagined the utter heartbreak we would experience, the horrible things we would hear and see, or the frustrations we would experience.

We also never imagined the joy, beauty, and compassion we have been shown. The kindness we have been offered, the welcome, the sacrificial care.

We never could have imagined the beauty of the lush green hills that surround us, the way the red soil of this place gets not only into your skin but also into your heart.

We never imagined this kind of rural life where we find ourselves visiting mud-brick homes with thatched grass roofs that we can only get to with the Land Cruiser in 4-wheel-drive, and even then, only if it isn’t raining.

We never before had seen this kind of absolute and abject poverty, children starving to death, widows who can’t fend for themselves, and people so desperate for change.

We also could never have imagined that in this short of a time we could see a place grow and develop, watching life-giving change occur so drastically. Watching a hospital over double in size as it moves away from unreliable water and electricity to a modern solar electrical system, reliable clean water, and internet connectivity that works. A hospital that has probably tripled the number of doctors, including some of the only Burundian specialists in several fields.

Of course, seven years ago this month, moving to a place like this was not even on our radar. March 2013 we were living in France where I had about one and a half years left to complete my Ph.D. We were starting to look ahead to moving back to North America, and starting to consider where we might want to live and work.

Six years ago this month we were just returning to France from a trip to Philidelphia where we were accepted to join Serge and its team in Bujumbura, and it started to feel real that this was what we were really going to do.

Yet a mere five years ago, we arrived here.

But of course, it was not a mere five years, as in many ways it feels like so much more.

The grey hair on my head is one indicator that the five years here have not been easy. And of course, they have not always been. But they have been good.

There has been beauty and joy that have created great memories. There have been hardships and difficulties, but they have drawn us closer to God and strengthened us as a family.

I think that looking back over the time that we have had here so far, I can honestly say I would never, ever trade it for anything.