Pardon Our French

(and Kirundi)

Yee-Haw (?)

In keeping with the theme of themed birthdays here in Kibuye, when our youngest turned 7 (!) we were surrounded by cow-boys/girls.

Having spent half of my school-years in Alberta, and rural Alberta at that – is perhaps why the whole ‘cowboy’ motif is lost a bit on me.  I feel like there are real ranchers, farmers etc. They work hard jobs, spend a lot of time with animals – and wear boots and hats.  Then there is the strange urban-faux-cowboy. People who live in cities, yet still drive enormous trucks, have boots and hats – but they are clean facade versions.  Either way – do what you want – but neither one of those is me. Just not my jam.

However, for Alma, who has spent not much more time in Canada than she has evacuated to Rwanda, the image of a cowboy is a bit different. Also, when we were in Edmonton a year and a half ago, her grandparents got her into watching the show Heartland. To be honest, I’d never heard of it before, but apparently, it has more seasons than Alma has years of life, so the girls have been catching up.  It’s about a family on a ranch, set in the beautiful foothills of Alberta, where the prairies rise up towards the majestic Rocky Mountains. Really a beautiful part of the world. But I digress…

So what does one do for a 7-year-old cow-boy/cow-girl themed birthday in the middle of rural East Africa?  I guess the thing that people in the middle of rural East Africa are really good at…you improvise.

The kids found a lot of hats – that technically were probably more ‘Tilly Safari Hat’ than ‘Straw Cowboy Hat’ – but, it worked.

We set up a horse-obstacle course in the yard. Note: that horse-head-mask we got at a Goodwill store in Edmonton has been used shockingly more than one would think it would be in a country that has no horses. Or, maybe not – I guess I have no idea how much one would think it would be used in a country with no horsees.  again, I digress.

We have a whole shwack of safety flags that somehow made it over here, we have boards and bricks, and a few hula-hoops.  Boom -obstacle course. 

Cardboard from a recently unpacked stove, some buckets that came on the last container – et voila – horse jumping. {or whatever it’s actually called. Please don’t correct me}
This was our version of “lassoing” a horse. Hula-hoops thrown at Horse-head on a broom handle stuck in the yard by the chicken coup. Worked pretty good.
Of course for a ‘horse-themed’ party – the question of what will be the “pin the thing on the thing” is a bit more obvious.
However – after it was determined that kids could see through the horse’s mouth – we had to reverse it – which made it just that much creepier.
The cake was ‘straw-coloured’ with some Lego and a 7 candle that has made the rounds to two kids already – and got passed on again. Those things really are pretty good when you have kids in fairly close succession. In reality, they’re only lit for a few seconds each time. I have a feeling we’ll see it on someone’s 17-year-old cake soon. 

As you can see from her – and others – smiling face a good time was had by all. The kids here really do love their birthday parties. They are usually pretty creative, and just a lot of fun. Our sweet girl has now had her 7th, 6th, 5th  and 4th birthdays in Burundi.  Her third in Canada{which apparently was during a blogging hiatus}, and numbers Deux and Un in France. 

It’s great to see her thriving here – learning and growing and being part of so much. Wonder what the next year will bring???

#NotHowIGrewUp

Of course it’s true that the more time we spend living and working in a place like Kibuye, the more things that once seemed strange become commonplace. Despite that, there are still many things that cause me to stop and appreciate the difference between how I grew up, and the childhood our kids are having. Every once in a while, something really strikes me, and I post a picture, tagging it #nothowigrewup.

On numerous occasions, I’ve heard teammates referring to patients in our hospital, or their parents –  identifying someone as ‘clearly having some money’ or ‘not that poor.; The indicators:  ‘wearing shoes’, ‘had some hair’, ‘she had a bracelet’. The ones who drive up here from the capital are the ‘obviously rich’ as some even come in privately owned vehicles to get treatment here. While all of that may seem harsh, or extreme, it’s just the reality of living here.

When you are surrounded by a population where most people can’t afford shoes, and many can’t even afford used flip-flop’s, the bar is set at a very different level than in other parts of the world. 

Our kids see this and internalize all of this in ways that are natural to them. It’s the water the fish is not aware of, the same way my growing up on the Canadian prairies was something I took for granted. I assumed cold, snowy winters are what half the year looks like. That having access to some of the best health-care, education, and hockey in the world is just what life is like.

I also held views about other places that were based on that narrow understanding of the world. While I lived in a fairly rural place, America, by contrast, was all big cities, as that’s what the media I consumed taught me.

Matea has now joined Jonah at Rift Valley Academy in Kenya. Again, that is strange to me every time I write it. If she finishes high school there, she’ll essentially have spent: 4 years of school in France, 4 years in Burundi, and 4 in Kenya. Actually, kindergarten was in Canada, and 5th grade was home-schooled –  half in Canada, and the other half a combination of Bujumbura and evacuated to Rwanda.

I remember when our family moved to Alberta, the day before school started in 1985. I began 6th grade in the ‘county school’ which was a combination of farm kids, and kids who lived on acreages outside of the city limits like we did. While I’m sure this wasn’t true, I remember feeling like all the other kids had been together since birth. I had spent 3 years in Saskatchewan, 2 in BC, and then Alberta. I was some strange foreigner, a long-lost voyager. Yes, I realize that many, many people had childhoods where they moved around a lot. There are people on our team here that spent their childhood in 10+ states, or 3+ countries. But that wasn’t me. Nor Susan. She spent essentially 12 years in one Alberta town, 6 in another.  Our little Alma had lived on three continents when she was still three.

What’s the point? To be honest I’m not sure. Perhaps this is something that every single parent experiences. My mother grew up in a tiny town in the middle-of-nowhere southern Saskatchewan. She remembers the town collectively having one telephone, the power turned off every evening, and the roads were dirt, not even gravel. (which is perhaps why she likes Kibuye so much!) So my childhood of computer games, and TV, and travelling on a jet plane was probably equally as shocking to her. 

So maybe this is not much different than the usual generational gaps that exist. I know friends in North America and Europe have similar disorienting feelings towards their kids’ world, as it’s so strikingly different than how they grew up. 

But in order to give you some insight into our kids lives here, as the vast majority of you probably experienced a childhood not so dissimilar from mine, here are – in no particular order – some aspects of our kids’ lives that still strike me as odd. 

Rural

By that, I don’t mean the kind of ‘rural’ that I grew up with, where we lived on an acreage, 2km from the city.  I mean Kibuye is an incredibly rural region of an incredibly rural country. The vast majority of Burundians work as sustenance farmers, and outside the capital city, almost exclusively so. This place has zero light pollution so the night sky is breathtaking. Nights are essentially silent. The dirt road that leads off the highway here to our village/hospital dead-end’s here. The road doesn’t’ go anywhere else. There is really nothing else. (OK – so I guess I have proved that wrong, by driving the Land Cruiser out through the village when we went camping, but most people consider it a walking path) There is one and only city in this country that is even anywhere close to a million people, and it’s half the country away from us. The bean harvest is not just something people talk about to make conversation, it’s truly a matter of life. We are surrounded by scattered clusters of mostly mud-brick houses in every direction. ‘Downtown” Kibuye is that same dirt path, with a few shops, a small stand selling goat kabobs and scratch cards for mobile phones, but that’s pretty much the extent of it.

Tough Realities of Life

Our kids come face to face with a lot of things, that honestly, I never really faced until we moved here. Abject poverty. Starving children. Armed violence. This is just part of the fabric of life here. The life expectancy is low. We live in likely one of the poorest regions of one of the poorest countries of the world, so we see a lot of that. Plain wooden coffins being carried out of the hospital. Kids being abandoned. Grenades. 

Our kids see children who are very likely being kept alive by the food they receive at our feeding program. They’ve seen orphanages where kids are left because their parents have died. When we pray as a family, they often have things that are honestly pretty weighty issues. Part of my privileged upbringing in the West,  like so many others, is that you are insulated from these realities.  This is definitely one thing that while it often is hard to see them wrestle with these realities, I’m glad that they have a much more holistic and correct understanding of the reality of this world than I certainly did. 

Close-knit Community

While some may say we slide closer to cult-like than tight-knit – it is a close community. I wrote about this a while ago, as it is definitely a defining part of our life here. Suffice it to say, this kind of family-like community has now become to the kids a normal upbringing. Which really, is pretty cool.

Travelling

Our kids’ relationship to travelling is kind of strange. One one hand, they can easily go weeks and weeks without ever even getting in a car. They walk around Kibuye, and if you don’t count bike rides or motorbike rides through the hills, they don’t really leave our little village here for a long time. A lot of our supplies and grocery shopping happens when we’re (usually I’m) driving back from a trip for something else. So even though the town (OK, technically the second largest city in the country I think, but it has more of a real ‘small town vibe’ to me) is only 30 minutes away, they are honestly rarely even there. 

But then when they do travel, it’s for things like driving to Rwanda to see a dentist, overlanding to Tanzania to go camping, flying to Kenya for a mission conference and drop off your siblings at school, and of course, flying to Canada for 3 months to see family and friends.  Kind of feast or famine on the whole travelling thing. I guess that’s not so uncommon, but I think our kids just have a much more extreme version of it. 

Not Fitting In

As a kid, I think being in control of this was one of my goals. Yes, often I liked to be the center of attention, but that was under my control. If I wanted to blend in, I could. Here, that is simply not an option. The kids on our team are literally the only white kids in our entire district, which is over a quarter of a million people. And honestly, they are part of a very small number of white kids living in Burundi outside of Bujumbura. So yes, they stick out. While sometimes they find it annoying to be the center of attention, and other times they revel in it, it is undeniable. There is no escaping it. 

Weird Medical Conversations

I didn’t grow up in a family with anyone who was medical. We never really had any friends who were doctors, not even as adults. So having dinner conversations that can shift in an instant to pediatric burn victims, abdominal tumours that grew teeth and hair, the intensity of this malaria season are still strange to me. The hospital, doctors, sicknesses, specific patients and weird and strange surgical cases are all part of our normal household conversations for our kids. 

I suppose these realities that our kids’ experience will be as foreign to their children someday as these ones are to us. Whatever continent or culture they’re raised in will likely seem strange to our kids by that point. I pray that this particular version of the human experience is one that will help our kids have a better sense of this world, what God is doing in it, and how they are a part of that. 

Kenya dig it?

We spent several weeks in Kenya last month, for various reasons. Some of them good, some hard, some both.

Leaving Burundi seems to always be at leas a partial adventure in and of itself. You never really know what you’re going to get. Cancelled flights, road closures, or like this time, the ‘system’ is down at the airport so they have to do everything by hand, including hand-written boarding passes. (Not the first time we’ve had this)

Serge East Africa Conference

The first thing we had in Kenya was a conference with our mission, Serge, for all the workers that are in this region of the world.

Spending time with dear Kibuye friends – before saying good-bye. 

These conferences/retreats serve multiple purposes, at least for me they do. Firstly, they give us the chance to decompress, to relax, and get out of our normal living and working environment.  It’s very easy to go along with life here, not really noticing the effect of our surroundings, and experiences.  Then, when you get the chance to step out you realize that things are just always a bit stressful. The issues we deal with, the lack of cultural reference, the sense of confusion, the difficulties, and everything else that goes along with living in a place like Kibuye can cause low-level constant stress. Getting physically away from the hospital, the place, the everything  – can do wonders for the soul.

Communion service on the beach all together. 

Also, we get the chance to connect/reconnect with other workers around this region. We have over 100 missionaries in East Africa, and they are doing a huge variety of thing in so many different settings. From water engineering to primary education, to medical training, to community development programs, to soccer outreach, to racial reconciliation-focused churches and so much more. There are people who look at Kibuye and dream of having an airport only 2.5 hours away, as they drive 8 to Kampala, and others who can get to an international hub in 30 minutes.  There are people in massive cities with unbelievable grid-lock traffic, and people who essentially have to fly out of the little hospital station where they live. Quite a varied bunch, all kinds of ages and stages of life, and lots of different church backgrounds. But we all come together with the common understanding that we get to see Grace at the frayed, worn places of this world. Working in various ways to bring Grace and Truth to difficult situations, while we experience it ourselves. 

Our Area Directors arranged to have a fantastic speaker come in and lead a number of sessions for us. It truly was something that fed my soul. Even just being able to gather together and sing in English is a treat. (we do this as a team, and as we get bigger it starts to feel more like a ‘church’ – but it’s still not the same somehow) The speaker for the week was Greg Thompson, who spoke on an understanding of the Wilderness.  What he unpacked was so rich that it deserves its own post, but suffice it to say it was really what I needed to hear. 

Family Time

After the conference, we took a week for a family vacation along the Kenyan coast. While the weather did not cooperate as much as we had planned on – a lot more rain and wind that we had anticipated – it was still great. We were staying in a place where we had access to the Indian ocean near some amazing coral reefs. We did a lot of walking around in tide pools at low tide, and the kids did a lot of body surfing in the waves at high tide.

The boys – getting thrashed about in the waves. Not long after this Jonah came in with a pretty good cut on his chin as a wave up-ended him and slammed him face-first into the coral below.  I’m told it was worth it. 
Micah discovering that as the tide is going out – there is a nice personal-size, bath-warm river to slowly take him out to sea. 

Having a family vacation in a place so beautiful, so ‘tropical’ feels quite strange. A bit like we are sneaking into a club we’re not members of.  We didn’t have to travel super far to get there. It honestly was hard to shake some sense of – not quite ‘guilt’ – but some kind of feeling we like we don’t belong or deserve this beautiful place with ocean, and palm trees and fresh fish every night bought directly from the fishermen each morning. I guess that’s what Grace is. Getting what we don’t deserve.  I’ll take it.

Alma – apparently swimming like a “Burundian mama’ carrying her ‘baby’ on her back. I guess you mimic what you see.   ..er, sort of
Showering off…with a coconut. for some reason.

Back to School Time

After the coast, we headed back to Nairobi to run some errands, and head up to Kijabe.

Of course – one does not pass through a city with actual restaurants, with real milkshakes without stopping in. 

It’s ‘up’ not just because it’s north of the city either. Kijabe is over 2200m above sea level. That’s after you descend several hundred meters down the side of the valley once you turn off the highway. Roughly equivalent to the peaks of some of the ski stations where we lived in France! Nothing makes me feel out of shape like being out of breath from walking around the kids’ school.

On the way to Kijabe we had some car trouble – and were stranded at the side of the road for a few hours. Luckily we had all we needed to stay occupied. A plastic plate that could serve as a frisbee, some dirt, a Calvin & Hobbes book, and a lot of kids more than willing to play with the strangers sitting there.

There we dropped off two of our kids for boarding school. Such a strange, strange thing to say.  Such a stranger thing to do. Jonah and Matea both love it there, so that makes it easier.  Not easy, but easier. The school is great, there is so much support for them, both at the school itself and our extended Serge teammates who live and work in and near to Kijabe.

Moving in
Just moving in….yet, somehow already messy.

There is just so much to say about taking kids to stay away for 3 months at a time at school – that honestly, I won’t even try.  It’s too complicated and honestly just too much. They love it there, and we pray that this experience is not just something they enjoy now, but will help form their character in many ways. 

So that’s our time in Kenya. Beautiful, relaxing, difficult, meeting, leaving, encouraging, and so much more.  Now we’re back home and back into the swing of things here. Looking forward already until the kids come home for their 5-week break at the end of November.

close and far

One of the strange things about living in a place like Kibuye is that so much of our daily lives take place really close. I mean – like measured in several hundreds of meters from our house. The kids’ school is about 30 m away – we can see and hear the kids in their class from our kitchen window. The hospital is about 200m up a dirt road. The space between the residential area, the hospital, and the village around it are where the vast majority of our lives take place.

Other than running on the dirt trails over the hills around us, we really do live, work, play, right here on this hill. Driving to Gitega, a 30 min journey, honestly seems like a bit of a trek, and you better have a good reason for going there.

But then there is the other part of our lives. The parts that mean for most of our family or friends to see us, or us to see them requires several days of travel, thousands of dollars, covering a not insignificant portion of the earth. 

There is no orthodontist in Burundi, not even a dentist in the country. Want or need those services, and you have to cross at least one border. Two of our kids are now attending high school two countries away from home. Travelling seems difficult as visas, border crossings, logistics make things more complicated than one would think they would need to be. When we arrived 3 years ago there were quite a few flights in and out of the capital (we didn’t’ think so at the time but in hindsight…)

The one airline that flies directly from here to Kenya just dropped 3 of their 4 daily flights. That means that the one airport in the country now has about 5 flights a day, with options of 3 or 4 cities in the region, except for Sundays when there is a once-per-week flight to Brussels.  That sometimes makes it feel like things are far.  That we are not really connected. 

Living in France, there was a strong sense of connection to other places. At the small train station at the bottom of the mountain, we could catch a train to Geneva. The airport in Lyon had flights all over the place, the French high-speed train network could get us to Paris in a few hours, and the autoroute system could have us at the Mediterranean in just over 2. You had a feeling like things were close, or at least, accessible.

But part of the charm of living in a place like Kibuye is this kind of isolation, the remoteness. The challenge of driving Land Cruisers over dirt paths to get places. The challenge of washed out roads, police barricades, and border crossings that are always a surprise. The hills covered with small subsistence farms tended to by people who very possibly have never been more than 50km from where they were born. 

We are the connected ones here. We can afford internet access, international phone calls, and plane fares that are unfathomable for almost everyone in this commune. Those luxuries make the far seem a bit closer. And it does teach something about community, about ‘home’ and about real connection. 

Baby Moses & Mama Clairia

NOTE: in case you don't follow our team blog (which you really, really should) here is a post Susan just wrote over there.

About 5 months ago, a baby boy was born in a field just up the hill from our hospital. For reasons we will never know, the mother left the baby there and disappeared. Thankfully, a hospital worker heard crying, and found the baby very shortly after, and quickly brought him to the hospital.  Our pediatrician checked him over and miraculously he appeared to be healthy. Due to the risk of being born and left in a banana field, he was put on a course of IV antibiotics to make sure he didn’t contract an infection.

Like all the patients at Kibuye Hope Hospital, this baby was required to have a caretaker. Someone to be with the patient at all times, to help with their care.  Since this little baby had no one to take care of him, some of the other mothers in the NICU pitched in to help. Despite needing to care for their own premature babies, they helped with his feedings and care for him for the first couple of days he was there. We knew we needed a new plan to care for this precious baby. By this time, I had started calling this sweet orphan, Baby Moses.

 

Alma & Baby Moses

The book of Exodus contains a beautiful adoption story of a Hebrew woman who had a son at a time when< the Pharaoh ordered all Hebrew male infants to be put to death.  Instead, the Hebrew mother found a basket, waterproofed it,  placed her son inside, and gently sent him down the river.  Not long after, one of the Pharaoh’s daughters caught sight of the basked and retrieved the young baby.  She eventually adopted him into the royal family and named him Moses (Exodus 2:1-10).  This is the same Moses who grew to be an important leader, a prophet, and a faithful servant of God. It’s a story about a child being rescued from certain death, a story of God’s providence, but also a story of the compassion and care of this Princess.

Clairia, months into her care.

At the same time that Moses was in the NICU, there was an 8-year-old with a terrible bone infection recovering in our surgical ward.  Clairia had been in the hospital for many months at this point and had endured several painful procedures and surgeries.  I had gotten to know Clairia and her mother quite well after spending time visiting and playing with Clairia each day.  It’s common here to refer to women as “Mama “ + the name of their oldest child. I admired Mama Clairia. She was quiet, gentle, patient and faithful.  She was right next to her suffering daughter every minute of the day, holding Clairia down during painful dressing changes with tears in her eyes, and comforting her in quiet whispering and prayers.

Learning how to walk again.

When I explained to Mama Clairia that we had a 2-day old baby with no one to care for him….there was not a moment of hesitation.  She said that if she could remain in the surgical ward by her daughter’s side, then she would be happy to care for Baby Moses.  Now she not only cared for her sick daughter but for a newborn.  She never complained.  She never asked for anything.  She had spent months in the hospital, away from her home, her husband and her other 4 daughters, and now cared for a newborn. Yet she was content. I have learned so much and still have so much to learn from this faithful and beautiful, strong and quiet woman
She treated Moses like only a loving mother could. Changing him, feeding him, singing softly to him, whispering in his ear. Burundian culture has a special ceremony for the first time a baby is tied to its mothers back (where it will spend the majority of the next year!) I had the privilege of being there when Mama Clairia tied Moses on her back – caring for him as her own.

After spending 6 full months in the hospital, it was finally time for Clairia to leave our hospital and return home.  Before they left, Mama Clairia came to me and explained that she, too, was an orphan.  She told me that she believed Moses was still far too young to leave in someone else’s care, and that she really wanted to continue caring for him in her home. She told me that if she had to give him up, that her heart would break.  Moses was 3 months old when he finally left the hospital grounds for his first time ever and got to go home….his new home.

Giving Moses his last bottle before he left the hospital
Finally going home

 

Every Friday I have the privilege of seeing
Baby Moses, as his foster mama brings him back to the hospital to collect more formula that we have been providing for him.  He is growing and thriving…and is loved.

A few weeks ago, our family ventured out one Saturday morning to find the home of Mama Clairia and Baby Moses.  Even though we took someone with us to translate who was born and raised in this area, it was still not really possible to understand directions. So we arranged to meet her at the closest road. She jumped in the back of the truck (with Moses on her back) and lead us the rest of the way.  We followed a series of small dirt paths, each getting consecutively smaller until finally, the Land Cruiser couldn’t fit anymore. We parked the truck there on the footpath, bananas on one side, coffee bushes on the other, and followed Mama Clairia to her house.

Their home was a small, mud-brick home, with a neatly swept dirt yard surrounded with a fence of woven sticks. We ducked through the short door, to be greeted in the one room. It was maybe the size of our girls’ bedroom. But instead of housing two girls beds, their clothes, books and space to play – this room was everything. This is where the eight of them sleep, where they eat, and where the girls do their schoolwork. There is a small room off the back of the house for cooking and a little hallway that connects the two spaces, which they use to store a few hoes and small cook pots.

They gathered up enough chairs from neighbours so that we could sit in their neat, one-room house. They told us how happy they were to have Moses in their family. How the girls adored having a brother. How Papa Clairia didn’t hesitate when his wife told him about the child. As we sat and visited they told us about their hope that Clairia will be able to return to school this fall, and how they hoped they could find someone to sell them milk for Moses. Like most families around here, they struggle to feed their children. They don’t have luxuries like running water or electricity, and they work hard to just survive. Yet this couple was eager to extend what they had, to help care for this child who had entered the world in such dire circumstances.

Their family insisted in walking us back to the truck, and as we did Alma and Clairia ran up ahead. To see the two girls, my daughter and a  girl who had been immobile, in horrible pain, and sad for so many months, skipping down the path was a gift I can’t describe.

There are a lot of hard things here, and getting to glimpse just a little bit into the lives of Claria, her sisters, her mother and father, and her new baby brother helps me to see that in a new light. Both the extent of difficulties, the depth of sorrow, the complexity of poverty – but more importantly the joy of hope, and the light of love. I don’t know much about Egyptian princesses, but I find it hard to believe that Pharaoh’s daughter had anything on this woman. Mama Clairia did not take in a child to care for in the lavish excess of a palace, but she truly sacrificed what little she had to take him in. She has no servants and attendants, and unlike Pharaoh’s daughter, she doesn’t send to find a woman to help care for the child. She walks all the way to our hospital every week. She cares for him. She literally carries him.
I don’t know how this story will end. In a place like Burundi, it really could go so many different ways. But what I do know is this woman, who grew up an orphan, who now lavishes care and love on six children has taught me so much.