so…we’re back – and apparently we’ve been preparing for this

Today our family is 11 days into our mandatory 14-day self-isolation, the requirement for returning to Canada from overseas. It’s been filled with yard work, school at home, house projects, and appropriately socially distanced visiting. Our house here which we’ve owned for 12 years and rented out for the last 10, has been vacant for the past 8 months so we were able to move right in, and there is no shortage of repair jobs and fixing to do.

Micah – after reshingling the shed: “I now appreciate why I’m going to school” Yes, earning a living doing this is not an easy thing

Coming back to COVID-Canada has been strange. Overall, I’ve been impressed and quite proud to see the way the various authorities here have handled this incredibly risky, unforeseen, and novel event. I think because we have been exposed to places where there are extreme responses in various directions. In Burundi right now there are mass gatherings of hundreds or even thousands of people as they start the full month of campaigning for the presidential election. No schools are closed, people are packed into churches, and public transit.  In countries around Burundi, there are crackdowns so harsh that police beat people with sticks if they dare leave their houses after curfew, and mobs stone foreigners seen to be the source of the virus.

Here in Canada the daily press briefings are led by medical officers, non-politically appointed health care professionals who have balanced a sense of both calm and seriousness throughout the last few months. Stay at home orders are massively being followed, as communities give up individual freedom for the sake of protecting those most vulnerable, and giving the medical workers a chance at winning this battle.

Alma’s new room – her first time ever in our house here in Edmonton, and the first time she’s ever had her own room. Plus as a bonus – her older siblings Fisher Price toys were still in storage!

And it appears to be working. While clearly the response has included mistakes, right now Canada has one of the lowest rates per capita (of nations with wide-spread and &/or reliable testing) for both total cases and death.

cousins who come over to visit –and BRING FRESH HOME MADE DONUTS TO SHARE

Since getting back, we’ve enjoyed visiting from our deck, as people come and sit on our front lawn. Of course, it’s very hard – and awkward – to see close family and friends we haven’t seen for at least three years, and only be able to wave from 2 meters away, but it sure feels closer than being on the other side of the world.

It’s clearly a hard time for many people – but we actually feel like it is easier on us than on many here. So many people here had plans for the summer, they had things prepared, things they were looking forward to – and now all those have been taken away. We came back knowing it would be like this, and we didn’t have anything planned, so we feel like we didn’t have anything taken away. We haven’t really lost anything from what we thought our summer in Canada would be like. People’s jobs and lives have been significantly upended, completely unexpectedly and unwelcomed. Our lives of clearly vastly, vastly different than Burundi – but we knew that, and in fact that a huge part of why we’re here.

The other thing that’s become apparent is that it seems we’ve been training for this.

Over the last few weeks as millions around the world hunker-down in isolation to slow and prevent the spread of this virus, we’ve seen that people are starting to say things that seem not unusual to us. That is, aspects of people’s lives in COVID-lock-down North America in some ways resembles what our lives look like all the time

People who are shocked, amazed, horrified, angry, surprised, or happy about new facets of life – that sound a bit like life in our normal conditions.

We honestly essentially never go anywhere in the evening – well, nowhere outside our little residential compound. There are no meals out, no movies, no concerts or meetings. There are no sports practices or music lessons. No popping out to the store, no driving over to friends’ places. We quite simply are never off our hill after dark, basically inside our residential compound by 6 every day.

We can go weeks without getting in a car

We stock up on food, because we have to, and make things from scratch because it’s the only option.

We are used to stores – or sometimes the entire country – running out of things

We can only use calls and video calls to keep in touch with family and friends

We only see the same people – day in day out.

We can feel pretty cut off from the rest of the world.

We feel like there is always a sense of uncertainty, a lack of clarity for what’s coming next.

This is not meant to diminish what everyone is going through – as this has brought real, significant, hardship to so many – but merely to share that it seems like COVID-Canada is in some ways more similar to regular-Kibuye than regular Canada was.

So that’s the view from the perspective of leaving the country for a few years – and popping back in the middle of all this. Strange. But still good.

Maundy Thursday – a reflection on betrayal.

Today is the day before Good Friday, just over half-way from Palm Sunday to Easter Sunday. A strange day referred to in the traditional Christan calendar as “Maundy Thursday.” Or, as most kids who grew up in church think it’s called: “Monday-Thursday”

It coincides with the traditional celebration of the Seder Supper – the marking of the beginning of the Jewish Passover. The Passover, of course, is the Jewish feast that remembers their people being saved from the plagues which ravaged Egypt when the Jewish people were slaves.

The Christian celebration of the Seder Meal is an observation of a very specific occurrence of the meal that took place with Jesus and his disciples in Jerusalem some 2000 years ago.

Like all observant Jews, Jesus and his apprentices found a place where they could celebrate this meal together. The image that comes to most minds when we hear “The Last Supper” is the iconic Davinci painting, which depicts this setting, immediately after Jesus has told his close friends, that one of them will betray him.

The tradition of washing feet at a Maundy Thursday service also originates from this Last Supper. It’s taken to be a real and tangible way of expressing that kind of serving love. Jesus washed his disciple’s feet that evening at the Seder Supper, and that’s the kind of attitude and behaviour he wants from those who claim to follow him.

Washing Feet – He Qi

Which I suppose circles back to the origin of the name “Maundy”. It’s a shortened form of the Latin ‘mandatum ‘ or ‘command’ – in reference to a command that Jesus gave to his followers that week. Many hold a view of God as a rule-enforcing party-pooper, and his commands as lists of “thou shalt not’s” for things that we enjoy. (this is not unexpected considering the anger and arrogant self-righteousness that over the centuries has been touted as “Christianity.” This command, however, is quite telling of what the followers of Jesus should actually look like.

The Latin translation of the command is: “Mandatum novum do vobis ut diligatis invicem sicut dilexi vos

“A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another: just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another” (John 13:34)

Working sketch by DaVinci – imagining Judas on the other side of the table

It’s that kind of love that is so juxtaposed against the betrayal that is seen on that evening of The Last Supper. Jesus, right there in the middle of the Seder meal, tells his 12 closes apprentices that one of them is going to betray him that very night.

“It is the one to whom I will give this piece of bread when I have dipped it in the dish.” Then, dipping the piece of bread, he gave it to Judas, the son of Simon Iscariot”

Peter, knife in hand, leaning past Judas to speak to John. Judas already has his small purse of money in hand.

Judas, a name we now associate with treason/deceit/treachery was, of course, the one who betrayed him. Judas, who spent several years with Jesus, travelling with him, eating with him, listening to him, working with him, and helping to manage their collective money. Judas heard the words of kindness and forgiveness, saw Jesus give to those who were unkind to him, heal those who didn’t even ask for it, and defend the vulnerable. Jesus who stood up for women, children, widows, orphans, outsiders, foreigners – was now double crossed by someone from inside his inner circle.

Preliminary sketch of Judas for Last Supper

Which is where I feel the sting of betrayal becomes a bit more real this year.

When we found out a couple of days after the attack at our house that a person we thought we could trust, was involved….it stung. Someone who had been with our family since we arrived in Burundi over five years ago, who helped our family, who worked in our house every day, who I practiced my bad Kirundi with, and he tried out rudimentary French & sometimes English. Someone who we tried to help provide for his wife and 4 kids. Someone I had given the benefit of a doubt on several occasions, we had shown grace to, and someone we felt we were generous, kind, and loving to. He was working with the criminals as their inside man and betrayed our family for money. He tipped them off, told them to come while he was in our house, and said he’d make sure the door was unlocked.

That is a lot to take in. Especially when you add it on top of dealing with the physical repercussions, the feeling of lost safety and security, the emotional trauma, the confusion and everything else that goes along with an attack like that. To know that it was, at least in some way, aided by someone inside our house. Someone who knows our family, that sends greetings when I go to visit the kids in Kenya. Someone who knew Susan and the kids would be home at that time. That person intentionally chose to turn on us and at the very least allow that kind of evil to enter our house and cause that kind of damage to us.

To be perfectly honest, i feel like it is the one piece of the whole ordeal that I still haven’t been able to process.

Which of course circles back to the Last Supper.

an early study drawing by DaVinci for what would become The Last Supper

Jesus was very clear that we are to love our enemies – that his command to love others applies not just to those I find easy to get along with, but everyone. That I should love my family members, but also those who betrayed my family and endangered the very lives of my family. Of course, this does not mean there are no consequences for action. This man would never work in our house again. It would take years to regain any semblance of trust – if ever. Forgiveness and love don’t’ mean we blindly ignore reality, and endanger people for the sake of ‘being nice.’

Sorry, but this post does not wrap up in a neat way, with my experiences serving as a clear illustration for a life lesson. I’m sure it does…I”m just not there yet. But here are three thoughts:

  1. I can’t judge people’s motives by their actions. Did he do what he did because of pure, evil malice, or did the criminals search him out and threaten his family if he didn’t help them? Did he come up with the plan, or was he forced to go along and promised no one would get hurt? Those feel like two very different things, and I will never know. It’s way easier to jump to judgement of a person than to accept how nuanced we all are.
  2. I am guilty of betraying Jesus in so many ways over the years of my life that it’s probably helpful for me to have some small sense of what it feels like to be on the other side. Susan suggested I put up a blog post on this as she pointed out this is really the first time we’ve felt this kind of direct, intentional betrayal.
  3. The Seder Supper leads directly into ‘Good Friday’ – the day we remember Jesus’ death. Jesus’ compassion and concern for people like Judas are essentially what got him killed. His claim to be the Son of God was directly tied to the way he treated those around him. He washed Judas’ feet, served him supper, and offered him friendship that very night. That mandatum novum he gave was to love others in the very same way. That’s not fluffy, feel-good ‘love’ – that’s the kind of action that can and will cause you pain. If we put ourselves out there – if we offer kindness, and grace, and forgiveness to others – there are times it will hurt. I don’t think that means we’re doing it wrong – I think sometimes loving others will hurt us – and that’s just the way it is. That’s not masochistic, or self-punishment, it’s simply the reality of the world we live in. This world has pain and sorrow, it has brokenness, sadness and sickness. If we engage fully, we will shoulder some of that, some of that will get wiped on us, and some will be thrown at us. The only way to try to avoid getting hurt by others is to never engage with others. That’s not a price worth paying.

top image: The Last Supper – Andy Warhol 1986

Burundi transport

There are a lot of peculiarities to how people move around this country.

No…scratch that.

There are a lot of peculiarities to how people move around this country.

There are a lot of things that we find peculiar about how people move around this country. Of course, to those who have lived here their whole lives, and whose ancestors have lived here for centuries, it is normal. You walk. Maybe with flip-flops on, but often barefoot. Occasionally ride a bike. There are cars on the road, but the vast majority of those operate like bus lines. They have set routes, and pick up people for fares along the way. Privately owned cars are rare, at least up here in the rural interior. In the capital many upper-middle-class families own cars..but around us, it is very rare indeed.

It feels like what in the west is considered an appropriate matching of a transportation method to a given load – here you have to jump a few levels to get the same capacity. What in Canada goes on a pickup, here is a bicycle. What in Europe is a car, here is a person balancing something on their head. What is an Australian outback road-train with 3 trailers, here is a stubby truck packed to the sky.

procession to a local funeral

Up here in the rural interior, people just walk. For hours. Small children are out every afternoon gathering firewood and water, carrying bundles of sticks and leaky plastic jugs on their heads. The lush green hills here are overlayed with a web of foot-paths cut into the red soil by hundreds of bare feet plodding over them every single day. People themselves, carry things that before I moved here I would never have through people are physically capable of carrying.

Bikes here are what pickup trucks are to north America. No, scratch that.

Bikes here are what pickup trucks are to north America.

Bikes here are more like what pickup trucks are designed for in North America.

if you need to get to the hospital, but can’t walk, the rack of a bicycle is the usual choice

In North America, I would guess that a very significant percentage of these huge, durable, expensive trucks rarely (some never) carry heavy loads in them that really push the capacity of the frame. Here, if you see only one person on a bicycle it’s pretty safe to assume that they are going to pick up something/someone, or they are returning from having delivered their cargo. Bikes are brought into service to transport items that you think simply would pop the tires and tear the bike frame in half.

in case you’re wondering how they can stop a bike loaded with 100’s of kilo’s of cargo when they start to approach 60-80km/h (which they do) there is a often a secondary brake system like this bike. A simple foot lever connected to a car-tire rubber block that rubs against the inside of the rim.
a typical funeral procession up here – a coffin on the back of a bicycle – everyone else walking

Once you move up to a small car, you start to see some real loads. The Toyota PROBOX probably is the country’s beast-of-burden of choice. A small Corolla wagon it routinely is seen holding 7-10 passengers and hundreds of kilos of cargo shoved in the back. They are also routinely seen with dangerously overloaded frames scraping the ramshackle speed bumps that are common on the national highways here.

A not uncommon sight closer to the city – a Toyota Probox serving as a hearse – with a coffin and still more than the designed number of passengers
sometimes even we call our vehicles into service for other-than-designed uses – like using the bench seat in the Land Cruiser as an ambulance bed.

The speed bumps in themselves can be a bit of a chore to deal with, even if you don’t have twice the manufactures max load weight onboard. There are several speed bumps that we frequent, which have had the cement broken off, and now have pieces of rebar sticking up like a tire-spike to prevent you from leaving the Disneyland parking lot through the entrance without paying. If you don’t know they’re there, you would probably skewer your tire like a goat kabob. Now that I think of it, the consistency of a warm tire and the flesh of a local goat on a thin bamboo skewer are probably not that different from each other.

flat tire on a deserted 5-hour drive in the middle of nowhere Tanzania- en route to a game park

Trucks are loaded up with goods that sure seem like they will make the trick flip over – which they occasionally do. Now that I think about it, one of the reasons they can get away with staking vertically the way they do, is that you never drive under anything. There is not a single bridge, overpass, railway trestle, on-ramp in the entire country. There is simply no man-made passage that another road drives under. OK, that’s not entirely true – as of a few months ago, there is a pedestrian bridge over what is essentially ‘main-street’ in downtown Bujumbura. When it was finished pictures of it were shared by proud city-dwellers on social media, as it was a first for that kind of engineering.

The other thing about trucks is that it seems crazy here to let their pulling capacity go to waste. If they are going to be driving up the hill anyway…having a few hundred extra kilos really doesn’t make a difference. And a free ride up the hill sure beats paying for a seat in a taxi, and a free drag up the hill sure beats peddling yourself.

Some of our kids (including two engineers) trying to fit in and ride like everyone else

I suppose once we move up to air travel the differences become less about what can be carried (although I have seen some pretty bold interpretations of “carry on bag” here) -and more about the absence of it. There is only one paved runway in the country – the single runway at the airport in Bujumbura. Flying is a complete luxury that only a tiny sliver of the population would ever dream of experiencing.

RIP Air Burundi: 1975-1996, 1999-2009 The lone jet of the fleet, retired well over a decade ago, sitting just off the runway at the airport circa 2018

When we moved here 5 years ago there were several weekly flights to Brussels, flights to Dubai, Turkish announced it was about to start flying to Istanbul, and there were multiple flights a day to Kigali, Nairobi and Addis Ababa. As of now, there is one flight to Brussels a week, and a single daily flight to Kigali, one to Addis, and at one point only one to Nairobi – but back to two or three a day now. (this was, of course, before COVID-19 completely shut down our airport and all the others in the region)

I must admit, living here has shown me two things about how things get transported around a society.

First, the timid nature we tend to have about transporting things. We honestly way under-estimate what a vehicle can carry – whether that be a car, a bicycle, or the human body.

sometimes when you combine all of this, on windy mountain roads, you get a fuel truck spun out, stuck blocking the road, and you try to sneak vehicle through. Like the blue truck above that 40 guys had to rock back and forth to get it unhooked from the bumper of the fuel truck as there wasn’t quite room. but …it made it.

Secondly, safety and security always come at a cost. It’s more expensive (in fuel, time etc.) to take two trips instead of one dangerously over-loaded one. It’s cheaper (in the immediate term) to buy a small car and pack it with 2-3 people per seat-belt (if they were even still there, or ever used) than a larger car. It costs more, even in terms of time, to walk up the mountain than to jump on the back of a truck and ride up the highway clinging to the back of a load from the brewery in Buja to the interior. However, when you simply do not have the resources to afford the safer way, it’s not an option.

Safety truly is a luxury of the rich.