Pardon Our French

(and Kirundi)

Community. Kibuye-style

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.

Christmas in Kibuye (the third)

So a while ago we celebrated our third Christmas here in Kibuye. Seems strange in many ways – that we have already been here long enough to celebrate Christmas for the third time. Feels strange that we have made this place our home that we only visited for the first time when we arrived here on the day of the coup back in May ’15. That this place we moved to “temporarily” just before Christmas that same year and yet by last Christmas had already lived in our house for a year.

Here’s what Christmas has felt like – at least for me: strange.

One of the things that I’ve realized being here is that so many of the external indicators, so many of the environmental signs of Christmas are completely absent here. This is not just something that you notice at Christmas however – oftentimes I will find myself actually completely confused as to what season of the year it is – as I’m used to temperature, weather, length of days (like the <8hour days of Alberta in winter and ~20hrs of daylight in late June), leaves on trees, activities (school year, holidays, skiing, etc.) all giving clear and constant indicators as to what time of year it is. Here however, since the temperature really doesn’t change at all throughout the year, being 2º off the equator means the length of days doesn’t really change, so it is honestly not unusual for me to actually forget that I’m currently in a season that for the previous 40 years of my life I referred to as “spring” or whatever the case may be.


How the kids stay entertained when church services go too long.

Leading up to Christmas here is a bit different as there are no stores to have Boxing Day, Les Soldes, or Black Friday like in other places we’ve lived (well, I guess that should be expected as there are no stores). There is no radio here, or places that start to play Christmas music. There are no ornaments, decorations, or signs up on houses, buildings, churches, schools. No concerts or staff parties, no sledding with cousins, or hockey and skating on the frozen pond.
Honestly, at one point when we decorated the house and started playing Christmas music, I had a strange feeling like we were merely pretending it was Christmas – like we were having some kind of “Christmas in July” party. One of the things I’ve realized is how much of what we think of as “Christmas” is so completely connected to the cultures and climates of parts of western Europe and some places in North America exclusively. Snowmen, snowflakes, angels-in-the-snow are so prevalent in songs, pictures and stories of Christmas that we really start to think that it’s normal. Yet of course, the VAST, VAST MAJORITY of the world who would celebrate Christmas in December would have none of those things.

Going for a Christmas Day bike ride through the hills with the kids


The other thing that really became clear was that some traditions are just held so much stronger than others. Traditions are funny things. They’re just some kind of activity that you do more than once, really. If you go out for Chinese food on New Year’s Day with your family, and then you do it again, and then even once or twice more – it starts to feel like a tradition. If you stop doing things – they just cease to be a tradition. They morph, and they change.

But man, do I have strong memories of so many Christmas traditions.

Sledding in the cold. Skating on the frozen lake. Gathering with as many cousins as we can. My mom’s family has a strong Norwegian background – and our Christmas traditions seems to bring those out more strongly than any other time of year. The drinks, snacks, foods, smells, tastes. The sight of a tree with candles lighting its decorations of woven straw, carved wood, and paper. Simple red, white and the earthy-beige of straw and wood on the green tree. The singing of carols in Norwegian as we join hands in a circle around that tree. The visiting of the Jüle Nissa, the seemingly unlimited lefse. Christmas Eve candle-light carol service at church. To me, in so many ways, that is Christmas.

Our local church did have a special service on Christmas Day, there were even some decorations and special songs. However, the concept of the season of Advent leading up to Christmas itself – or any other “we’re approaching Christmas” event’s were utterly and completely absent.

walking across the field to go home after church on Christmas morning.


But the reality is that for our kids, camping in Tanzania during Christmas break will likely be a stronger memory than any of those things. Honestly, I do feel a sense of loss for that. Like they have been deprived of something. Because they have. That sense of extended family. That sense of rootedness that I used to feel when I was young, going to my grandma’s house that my grandfather built for her back in 1929. I have memories of four generations gathering together in that place that in so many ways was obviously and directly tied to who our family was, to who I was. That house, that small farming community in southern Saskatchewan was and always will be a part of who I am despite the fact that I have never lived there.

This year was the 21st Christmas we have celebrated since we got married. I think it was the 10th that we’ve been living overseas and not been able to travel home. But still – every time it seems strange to not be ‘home’ – whatever that means after all this time.

So yes – Christmas seemed a bit strange this year. I think the first year I didn’t notice it as we were temporarily staying up here in Kibuye (we thought) – squatting in someone else house, and wondering if the violence that drove us out of the city was going to calm down again (which – in hindsight, it actually did) or risk flaring up (I get the feeling that risk won’t go away for a very long time).

However – there were lots of events that did make it feel like it was Christmas.

Decorating the borrowed tree with mostly home-made decorations and some solar powered led lights

The kids put on a pageant in church – which was a huge hit. Apparently at least partially due to the fact that the idea of a Christmas pageant was completely unknown to the several hundred people crammed into our church that morning.
Actually, they did it twice up at the hospital, once at the local public school, and in church on Christmas Day.

Our teammate Logan wrote a blog post about it over on the team blog complete with video if you want a look. There was singing and dancing and costumes – Matea and Anna were the French narrators and we had our Kirundi language tutor translate. We sang in Kirundi, French and even threw in some English.

Christmas eve we all spent some time together reading familiar passages about that first Christmas, and singing some of the songs that are so closely tied to this time of year.

The next day in church it was almost overwhelming how badly people wanted to get a good look at what was going on.

We had Christmas together as a family – opening presents. Some homemade, some locally made, and a few items that we had brought over via visitors who have travelled here and give up luggage space for such things.

Some things apparently are common – Lego building on Christmas morning.

Someone was PRETTY excited to get bird identifying books for Christmas. As most 6-year-old girls are…

Lego, books and the seasonally decorated Leopard in the background.


Matea holding a special girl to her – as we are handing out bags to the several hundred kids at the Sunday school on Christmas.

In the afternoon we went up to the hospital with a bunch of our team and some visitors – for carolling, visiting, handing out some presents to kids in the peds ward (dolls, toy cars, hats).

The kids singing Christmas carols in Kirundi for some of the patients in the pediatric ward.

I think this is the third time we’ve done this – so perhaps it is on its way to being one of those things that turns into a tradition.

So did it feel like a normal Christmas for me? Nope. But in some ways, it was so much richer. No overwhelming constant messages from a consumerist culture constantly telling us to buy more and expect more. No rushing around for things. No shopping, no malls, no parking-induced anxiety attacks, no running around, no scheduling of multiple events. Just us, our kids, our community here -and real Christmas. I honestly have no idea what our kids will think of as a ‘normal’ Christmas when they’re my age – but hopefully, these years will help to form a sense of what Christmas is not.

Apparently – driving a few hours to camp by the lake has now replaced skating, skiing, Marche de Noel etc.

The youngest gets older

It’s hard to say things about the age of your youngest child and not sound like a quasi-senile old person. “I can’t believe you’re so big” “seems like you were just born” “But you’re my baby” etc.

But – there she is….six years old.

First grade.

Lost her first tooth last week.

For her birthday she decided to have a “Bunny” theme.

in fact the day even started out with a birthday breakfast

Later in the day the festivities commenced with (nearly) everyone dressed up as a bunny. Some costumes appeared to have a bit more effort put into them.. Darth Vader with a bunny mask …. I guess we’ll allow it.

Races where you hop like a bunny.

And then … there were races where every kid chose a bunny – and let them run.

Now maybe it’s just that we were starting the races from right next to the chicken coop in our front yard….or maybe it somehow felt like we were on a slippery slope towards gambling on dog races.  But sometimes things feel like our very-rural-African-tight-community can feel like we’ve actually started to become some kind of hill-people. 

No, on second thought, I’m pretty sure kids racing animals for a 6-year-old’s birthday in the front yard (never mention the fact that we have enough rabbits to have such a contest) means we’ve past the fine line between ‘rural-African-mission-community’ and ‘hillbilly-compound’ so long ago that we can’t even see it in the rear-view mirror any more.

Well – anyway…happy birthday Alma. Hopefully when you reflect on days like this birthday party (perhaps with a counsellor) it will be with fondness.


Just to give a bit of a picture that isn’t all animal-racing and races-in-flour-bags, here are some more pictures of Alma from the various things she’s been up to over the past few months:

In Canada this summer: “look what I found. what is this thing?”

First ever dental check up in Canada


on a long-weekend holiday with Jonah on our way to Canada

One of her favourite things to do

A dream come true…

Micah is 11

Look at that – He’s ELEVEN!

So Micah’s birthday being in August seems to frequently be not ‘at home’. This year was the end of our time in Canada (in fact, Jonah & I flew to Kenya on his birthday)

There’s something that doesn’t exist in Burundi – IceCream Cake!

This pattern has played out a bit in the past:

  • Last year he turned 10  in Kenya
  • He turned 9 in Rwanda
  • He turned 8 in Michigan
  • We were in France when he turned 7, 6, 5 and moved there just days before his 4th birthday
  • And his 3rd, 2nd, 1st – and actual day of birth – were in Canada.

It’s of course pointless to try to describe a kid like Micah, such a paradoxical combination of characteristics: brave yet compassionate; thoughtful yet daring; at times the crazy & outgoing center of attention, other times quietly sitting reading and playing lego by himself for hours.

The life we have led the past decade or so has not always been easy for him – in some ways because of his ages at various moves and because of his personality – perhaps harder than for most in our family. Being thrown into French public school for his first ever day of school when we had arrived in the country just several weeks earlier, what we experienced in Bujumbura, more moves – but he sure has persevered and not only survived it all – but truly, truly thrived.

He is so at home here in rural Burundi, and it’s great to see all the things he gets to do that an 11 year-old kid loves to do. Yes – there are many and significant things that are lost from our being here, but there are some things that are really good.

So here’s some pictures of Micah over the past year –  doing what he does, and loves best:


At the southern most source of the Nile – about 45min from Kibuye

Lego – the stuff dreams are made of

On the top of a 10.000-bushel bin of lentils at our cousin’s farm in southern Saskatchewan


Hiking at Lake Louise with the Cho’s – just a few minutes before the solar eclipse

Going out to visit former hospital patients in their home.



Divine Love

NOTE: This post - written by Susan - was originally posted on our team blog:

What I’m about to tell you is a love story.  This is one of the greatest love stories I’ve ever experienced.  It involves unconditional love, costly sacrifice, incredible patience and perseverance.  But this is not your usual love story.  This is the love story between a young a very  sick little girl and her older brother, and I have been deeply blessed to have seen this love story up close.

5 year old Divine came to our hospital at the end of December and was admitted for severe malnutrition.  Really, really severe malnutrition.  For weeks, she lay in bed, barely conscious and barely alive.   Her mother was unable to stay at the hospital, and since our hospital requires each patient to always have a caregiver, her brother was given the job of caring for little Divine.  From that point on, her 12 year old brother, Moise, was always at the side of her bed. 

He did jobs that I have never seen any 12 year old boy do before; change his sister, clean up diarrhea, wash and clean his sister, feed her, give medication, and sleep next to her (in the same bed, often with other patients) in a very crowded room filled with lots of fussy, malnourished babies and toddlers and their care-givers.

Weeks after she had been admitted,  I walked into the room one day and found her sitting up in bed.  I was shocked.  She still had a feeding tube in and was still on oxygen…but for the first time, I felt like she was going to make it.  For the first time she was interested in playing, and even though she was extremely weak, she was determined to pick up blocks and try to throw a toy at me.

Divine had a type of malnutrition that is a bit deceiving to those of us that don’t have a medical background.  She actually looked a bit chubby.  Her body was puffy and swollen, due to a lack of protein.  As she was fed a high protein formula through her feeding tube over the next few days, her swollen body dramatically changed. She suddenly had a tiny little body that looked like pictures that I have only seen in my high school textbooks of holocaust victims.  Just looking at her tiny little skeletal frame, my throat would tighten and would get choked up.

  Divine is special.  She has some developmental delays, that mean that although she is 5 years old, she has never walked and has never clearly spoken.  I feel certain that if Divine had the help that we offer in Western countries;  therapy, special education, healthy food etc. that she could thrive.  However, there’s not much aid for special kids like Divine here in Burundi, so I can only imagine that most days Divine sits on a mat in their mud hut, neglected, while her single mother is out working in fields, fighting to get enough food to feed her hungry kids. 

  Almost every day for 4 months, I visited Divine and played with her.  Moise was never far from her bed.  Boys his age should be in school and outside playing soccer with their friends, but Moise patiently sat by her bed, tenderly caring for his weak sister. 

He was never embarrassed of his sister, but would clap and cheer and rejoice in her progress.  During those 4 months, we saw some amazing changes in Divine.  She grew stronger, was eating more, was more talkative, was working with our hospital’s physiotherapist, and was actually able to start walking with the aid of a walker. 

Of course, she had some setbacks, like coming down with malaria and another infection.  In spite of the tough times, it was exciting and rewarding to see her gain weight, strength, and see her play and smile every day. Moise became a strong voice and an advocate for his sister, pushing for his little sister to get more physiotherapy time, and be able to borrow a walker.   

  On April 12th, after so many months in our malnutrition service, Divine was discharged and Moise carried her home…we would later learn just how far he had to carry her!  Both Dr. Alyssa (our pediatrician) and I never had the chance to say goodbye to them before they left, so the  following weekend, the two of us along with my 10 year old son Micah, set off to try to find Moise, Divine and their home.  It took about an hour of driving, a few wrong turns, and then about another hour of hiking on little dirt trails following an old man with a machete before we found them. 

They were a little shocked – and honestly a bit scared – that a group of 3 bazungus (white people) just showed up at their home,  but after offering gifts of beans, rice, Busoma cereal and a soccer ball, they were much more receptive to us!

  This family lives in unbelievably extreme poverty. Their house is made of home-made mud bricks, a grass roof, dirt floor, and that’s about it. To a person walking by, you would say that they have nothing.  Absolutely nothing.  I would have totally thought this had I not gotten to know Moise and Divine.  What I learned is that while they are the poorest people I have ever met, they are rich in other things. 

If I’m honest, it’s hard to imagine anything for Divine other than a dismal life filled with a lot of suffering, pain and hunger.  However, I have to remind myself that our Father loves Divine so much more than Moise or anyone else does or ever could.  That pain, sickness, and poverty don’t get the last word. That the sacrificial love that Moise showed for his sister, is merely a poor reflection of the divine love God has for little Divine, and for every single person on this earth.

      This is how we know what love is: Jesus Christ laid down his life for us.  And we ought to lay down our lives for our brothers {and little sisters} 

1 John 3:16