Learning To Eat My Words

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“Happy Birthday” cupcakes

Sometimes eating our words can be a pleasant experience.  But that’s not the kind of “eating” I’m thinking of here.  Perhaps a more fitting title would be:  “Things I thought I could never do but I was proved wrong and pleasantly surprised”.  So often in my life I’ve said “I could never do that” or “I know that’s a good thing to do but I don’t have what it takes to do it”.

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Our 1st apartment in the inner city.

The first time was just after we got married when we moved to the inner, inner city of St. Louis amid sidewalks of broken glass, vacant buildings and racial hostilities to be part of a new mission church.  I wanted to but didn’t think I would be able to.  I felt I lacked the courage, boldness, faith and willingness to risk.  But on one weekend in August, just six weeks after our wedding, we moved into that neighborhood, along with about 30 others to form a new church and learn to live in community within that neighborhood.  Thus began the amazing adventure of being stretched beyond what I thought possible and learning about trusting, risking, loving in relationships in so many wonderful and surprising ways.

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Advanced English students 

This became such a recurring pattern in our life such that I stopped say “I could never . . . “ because every time I said that it was like a challenge for God to prove me wrong and show me that I could do what I deemed impossible with Him.  So I stopped saying that and tried instead to be more adventurous, courageous, willing to trust and take steps of faith into unknown areas (I don’t have space to list them all).  I guess that’s why I’m now living in Burundi.  And you’d think I’d really learned this lesson, but even so I get caught thinking or believing—“I could never. . . “ or “I wouldn’t be able to . . . “.

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Working in small groups for discussion

This is what I said about teaching evening classes for HAU.  But once again I’ve had to eat my words!  I just finished teaching an “Advance English” class to over 50 adult, graduate students.  Something I never in my wildest dreams would have thought I would or could do.  Not only that, but to my surprise and delight, it was really fun!  I really enjoyed the time with the “students” and felt they received something from it too.   It turned out to be one of my more pleasant Burundian experiences meeting, conversing and engaging with this diverse group of adult students, even though it meant driving across town in crazy traffic and returning home after dark.

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Small groups for discussion

I am grateful to the students, who made our time so enjoyable and interesting by their engaging participation even as most of them were coming from their own workday. I’m thankful too for another opportunity in which “eating my words” has not just been stretching in ways that are good for me but in ways that were sweet to experience.

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Wrapping Up Another Semester

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Catching up, making up, wrapping up—these are some of the words I think of as I think over the past semester for me here at HAU.  This is my fifth year of teaching English here and my fifth time to teach the English I course to the new, incoming university students.  It should be getting easier, right?  While some parts are easier (thankfully), there are always the unknown variables that make each semester challenging and unique in their own way.  This semester there were two situations in particular that were new challenges.

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The first was a very interrupted semester due to my leaving for a month in the middle of it. This meant having to do lots of make-up classes before and after the month I was absent.  Generally a class is formed with students from one department. They take all their courses together which is supposed to make scheduling easier.  I taught three groups this semester: one for Department of Medicine, one for Department of Engineering and a third one a combination of two departments– Ophthalmology and Public Health.  Trying to schedule make-up classes is difficult enough but when one group is made up of two different departments with different schedules it’s nearly impossible.  Somehow we got most of the make-up classes in which meant some weeks I had six classes to teach instead of three.  It made for a very fluid and irregular semester and not the most optimal for learning a foreign language.

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The second situation was the size of one of the groups.  Most HAU class sizes are 40-50 students.  If there are only 20 students they will combine two departments to get around 40 students for the general courses.  This is an economic reality in regards to paying professors, which I understand but since I don’t get a salary or any monetary reward for my teaching I try to draw the line and request groups not more than 40.  To my delight I was asked to teach the new medical students, a group of only about 25.  But then I was also asked to take two other groups—the combined departments of 40+ students and a third of the engineering students.  Little did I know that the engineering department had admitted over 250 students so my “group C” was about 85 students!

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This is where the motto of the university, “facing African realities” takes on a whole new meaning.  It becomes a day-to-day choice to do the best you can with what you’re given and what you’ve got at your disposal.   Something most Burundians accept with grace and little complaint.  But for me it’s been some thing of a trial and error process to figure out how to teach and connect with more students than there was space or chairs for.  I’m not sure I ever found it but we made some kind of rapport with each other.  I did hear students speaking more English in class, engaging in the exercises given and telling their classmates to be quiet while I was talking (often one student was translating for others so there was often lots of talk going on).  I felt like a celebrity at the end as they all wanted to take a picture with me (wondering where all those pictures will end up).

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While I’m glad for the opportunity to teach, I have to admit I’m glad to see the end of this semester with it’s irregular challenges, which I hope not to repeat. I again applaud the students for making the best of their situations.  I realize that what was a frustrating semester for me has been a way of life for them, which they accept with humility and handle with grace.  Again, I find I am still a student of life and my students have much to teach me.

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A Hike Up Mt. Heha

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Most Saturdays are quiet “at home” days for us, to catch up on undone work of the week or plan for the next week’s classes. Recently, a friend of ours organized a Saturday hike to the highest mountain in Burundi, Mt. Heha (elevation 8,759 ft). I was ready to join like a bee to honey, especially because this friend, Dan, was born in Burundi and speaks Kirundi (very handy when your going into the interior). My “other half” preferred the usual Saturday “stay at home”. (couch-potatoe!) As it turned out just three of us were able to get away for that day, but it was such a great adventure that we decided to try to make it a monthly outing

6NkVvMM+TH+Q%VqhP5e%cQ_thumb_6342Burundi is a country full of “mountains”, although they seem more like hills because Lake Tanganyika is already at 3,000 feet. We were assured it would not be a strenuous hike because it had just a 300 ft. elevation from where we would park the car. Most of the climbing was in the car on the 1½ hour drive there. Heading east from the capital Bujumbura we twisted and turned up the paved road for about 45 minutes, through a few small villages, then headed out one of the dirt road for another 45 minutes. I was really thankful Dan knew where he was headed and had a GPS to verify he was going in the right direction

FZFnfuvAT2eiVOzUsUkcaA_thumb_635cParking the car at a bend in the road with a wide, flat place, we found it was a station on some sort where the local men were loading different products in to the back of cars or trucks to take to Bujumbura to sell. Dan was able to verify with them that we were in the right place. We started up, past several plots with the traditional round huts mixed with the more modern square brick homes being careful to step on the goat trails rather than through their gardens.

 

 

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We quickly found ourselves in some of the strangest flora and fauna I’ve seen in Burundi. Nearly the whole hike was covered with small pine trees—a more recent import that was initiated as an alternative to the eucalyptus trees brought in earlier. There were large carpets of bright green mosses growing under the pine trees along with ferns and wild orchids. Since we didn’t know what to expect we really didn’t have any preconceived ideas, this made the discoveries along the way all the more interesting and softened the blow that on reaching the “top” we couldn’t see a view due to the growth of pines in all directions. In fact, all we found at the top were two large holes dug into the ground perhaps for mining something. As we headed back to the car it occurred to me that the process of getting to the top was so much more interesting than the actual “top of the mountain”—how profoundly like life that is.

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At the top of Mt. Heha 

Since it was only noon, and not raining, Dan suggested we take the “back road” to his coffee washing station and return to Bujumbura by a different route. After asking a few people on the road if it was passable (sure, on two feet!) he was game to try especially since he had 4-wheel drive. We were in! The road was mostly passable but there were more than a few sketchy places. One patch in particular called for Dan to get out of the car to figure out just how to maneuver it, not only did it have huge ruts from a large truck but it was on a 90 degree curve with a log bridge at the bottom just after the curve. Pictures don’t do it justice. But Dan placed the tires on top of the dirt between the ruts and slide down it, catching the turn and fishtailing it across the log bride as if he drove it every day. The drive was an adventure, to be sure! Dan was an excellent driver and tour guide. It’s hard to describe or even show in pictures just how steep the hills are here and yet they are farmed from bottom to top. Having this opportunity to travel literally across country caused me again to appreciate just how beautiful Burundi is.

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After about an hour of excitement on the dirt road we reached the coffee washing station. It’s coffee harvesting time so the washing station is just beginning to get underway. Dan walked us all around it, explaining the process of washing the beans, the different washing tanks, the separation of the different sizes of beans and the different processes of drying them (it’s way more complicated than I imagined!). He and his local Burundian partner have created jobs for the people in this area and want to help the farmers expand coffee production. Eventually they hope to build an eco-lodge on the location and expand into essential oil production as well. They have picked a beautiful location with 360 views of the beautiful Burundi hills.

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Last stop on our way back to Bujumbura was the Livingstone Stone, a large rock with Livingstone’s name chiseled into it. Some come here to take a picture, others to ask for what they can get from the picture takers. It was a quick stop, not nearly as interesting as everything else we’d see that day.

I returned home renewed in appreciation for the beauty of Burundi and inspired by our friend’s entrepreneurship and commitment to Burundi. It was one of the better Saturdays I’ve had and I’ve glad I didn’t stay home.

 

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Oh Happy Day!

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Some of the 79 Medical School graduates for whom Randy been the Dean.

This past Friday over 500 students from Hope Africa University received their diplomas! Seventy-nine of the graduates were from the School of Medicine! It was a proud day for them, their families and for all who have given to their education though teaching, mentoring, modeling and financial means.

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Students lining up by departments, Families being seated.  Drummers ready.

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Center stage!

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Lots of finery and fancy dress.

It was a great day of celebration and ceremony. The parking lot became the scene for the commencement filled with tents and chairs and the podium in the middle. Everyone was attired in festive clothes as families gathered to witness this day of honor and culmination. Photos were taken before, during and after capturing the moment that will not be forgotten

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Drummers opening the day.

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After the graduates had all walked in and taken their seats the ceremony was officially open with prayer, the national anthem, and the traditional Burundi drummers. There were speeches by all the important dignitaries—rector, head of the board, bishop, government education official, student body president—and several songs by a choir. One of the highlights (aside from the drummers who are always a highlight) was a performance of singing and dancing by a group of students representing the 19 different countries present at HAU. Their energy and gratitude was evident and complimented by the rest of the student body that join in singing with them.

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Some of the 19 countries represented at HAU

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Cameroon and Rwanda flags

It’s been a long road for these graduates, filled with failures and successes, trying times of learning, new experiences and many challenges. All of which made this day even more rewarding and joy-filled. For Randy, and the other Kibuye ex-pat. doctors, it was especially gratifying as they have taught these students over the last four year—the majority of their clinical/medical courses. This is the largest group of doctors they have graduated because it’s the combination of two programs that have been combined by the government (those who started on a 7-year program and those who then had a 6-year program as the government changed the medical program to be in line with the East African Union post-graduate degrees). They have nurtured their learning, encouraged their growth and facilitated their progress in a myriad of ways that can easily be overlooked. But on this day all those efforts paid off and joined in the applause with smiles and the best kind of pride.

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Presenting the medical students for declaration of their commencement.

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Passing out the diplomas after the ceremony.

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Look!  We did it!

The day after the graduation there was a party for the medical students (which they organized, set-up and officiated). It was such a pleasure to see them able to assemble together as a class or group one last time, to congratulate one another, to thank those who had lead the way for them to become doctors and to savor this moment of completion.

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Some of the Kibuye doctors who came down to Buja for the commencement.

For those of us who have come to Burundi, responding to God’s call to help raise up “a generation of societal leaders”, it was a sweet, sweet day indeed. One we will savor as a testimony to God’s faithfulness whenever there are discouragements with the surety of HOPE.

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Congratulations doctors!  Oh Happy Day!

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Welcome Back!

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Late fall in Pacific north-west. Definitely not Burundi!

Like a revolving door, I hear these words on many fronts in my life as we find ourselves traveling back and forth between Burundi and the U.S.  Each location has meaningful relationships, ongoing commitments and purposeful work.  It’s a privilege and a necessity for us at this time, and quite surprisingly, a way of life I’m “getting use to”.  The challenge, of course, is to be present in the moment whenever and wherever that may be.

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Serge’s booth at GHMC–Wouldn’t you want to work with these friendly faces?

In the past few months we’ve crossed the Atlantic Ocean twice (four times for Randy).  Between us, we’ve visited ten to fifteen different places in the U.S. (not all of them together).  We’ve had doctor and dentist appointments, updates with supporters, meetings with potential future team members.  We attended the Global Health Missions Conference, taken care of family business, reunited with our adult children for the Christmas holidays and even enjoyed a white Christmas in Seattle.

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Cross country skiing!

On the return to Burundi we diverged in England  for another conference with team leaders of our organization.  Yes, it was a busy time with a lot packed into it and amazingly, all flights, but one, were on time, no luggage was lost, we were healthy the whole time (even with the “wrong” flu shot this year).

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Conference center in south-east England

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East Africa team leaders

What made it all a joy was the heartfelt “welcome back” we received in every home, city, church and place we stayed.  Though we’ve been living abroad for six years now (four in Burundi) we continue to experience the deep care, support and friendship of those we so often must say good-bye to.  And although our daily lives no longer evolve around the same activities, events and familiar places we continue to share, grow and learn, albeit in separate places.  So when we do meet up again our moments are filled with deep sharing, joy-filled laughter and recounting our stories from our different places and life experiences.  For those present moments the time we’ve been away gets compressed into shortness, swallowed up by the greater depth of connecting in the trust of relationship.

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One present moment of joy with family!

I find this happens in both worlds I live in.  There is a trust that’s built in relationships over time, over experiences, over comings and goings.  Modern technology facilitates us in so many ways to stay connected with people on either side of the globe.  But it’s being willing to open my heart to trust that actually connects us to one another.  To trust the other person truly is “for me”, for my well-being, and I am “for them”, that’s what draws us together in the moments of presence.  When I return to Burundi I sense this trust building in the relationships we have with those we work with, those who work for us and those we are growing in relationship with through church and ministry.  It’s the unspoken: “Your came back!  You care!  You’re here now! How wonderful is that?”.

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To all of you who welcomed us back on either side where we live our lives–thank you for the welcome, for honoring us with your presence and care, trusting us in relationship and letting us be a part of your lives whenever we are there.

 

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Green Gems–the Edible Kind

 

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Look, in the tree, they are here—those green gems called avocadoes! We have an avocado tree growing in our yard but in nearly four years we’ve never seen an avocado. Apparently it can take from five to thirteen years to produce fruit depending on conditions. So here they are this year!

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Along with pineapples and bananas, avocadoes grow in abundance in Burundi. For me that’s one of the things I really like about Burundi because I really like avocadoes.  Funny thing is it was not always that way. Although I grew up in a state that produced avocadoes it was not until I was in my early 20’s that I actually came to enjoy them as a food.

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When I was a child my mom would often put them in a salad and I would push them to the side of the plate. I disliked the mushy texture and they didn’t seem to have much of a taste. Then at age 21 I was a guest at a home that served half an avocado on a plate with the hole where the seed had been filled with dressing. I almost turned the color of the avocado when the hostess put it down in front of me.  I was a guest, an adult. I couldn’t say, “I don’t like avocadoes.” That would be incredibly childish and unappreciative. When the hostess went back to the kitchen to get something my husband whispered to me, “Do you want me to eat it for you?” The moment of truth—was I an adult or not? “No” I said, “I’ll try.” To my great surprise and delight, after I took one bite, I found I actually liked it! When did that happen? Had my taste buds matured to the point of appreciating the gentle flavor? From that day on I have enjoyed eating avocadoes and count them among my favorite food.

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When we began to look at houses to rent here I made a list of essentials and a “wish list”. On my wish list was a yard with some fruit trees and a balcony. Thankfully we found a house live that has enough space for the many visitors we host, which was an essential. But the added bonus was the presence of things on my ”wish list”: a balcony with a view of Lake Tanganyika, fruit trees and an avocado tree!  We also have two mangoes trees and a small banana tree just planted this year.

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All this is to explain why when I sit on the balcony, looking at the avocado tree full of growing fruit, it speaks to me of waiting, patience, promise, hope, delighting in good things long expected but not yet seen. It makes me think about how there’s a lot that went on here before I came and how much is going on that I can’t see. It makes me think about my own growth away from immaturity to courage, from misplaced certainty to humility. It calls to mind Psalm 103:6 which says, that God “satisfies your desires with good things so that your youth is renewed like the eagle’s”. I think about my journey from hating avocados, to enjoying them, to wishing for them, to getting them in abundance; it makes me laugh with the delight of a child that my heavenly Father knows me so well and grants my longings even when I am not fully aware of them.

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Red, Yellow, Green–What do they mean?

 

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Unbelievable as it may seem, the capital city I live in, a city of about half a million people, has not had a single, working traffic signal. There was one signal at a major thoroughfare but it isn’t functional. As a matter of fact, the CountryReports website (www.countyreports.org) which provides travel information for people traveling internationally says:

“While in Burundi, you may encounter road conditions that differ significantly from those in the United States.”

“There are no functioning traffic signals in Bujumbura, and virtually nothing of the kind elsewhere in the country.”

One might wonder how people drive with no signals and if there are lots of accidents. How do drivers cross busy intersections? Who has the right-of-way? Good questions!

 

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First, there are some round-a-bouts at three or four of the busiest intersections. Second, the police monitor the major intersections during peak traffic hours. Third, there are not that many cars on the road because most people don’t know how to drive or own a car. Lastly, there’s the “swarm method” for crossing intersections which is quite effective. This is where after waiting for some time to cross a busy intersection with heavy traffic, you begin to slowly easing out into the cross traffic (I usually start honking to warn approaching traffic). This generally works because a line of vehicles (cars, motos and bikes) advances together, much like a swarm of fish or bees, thus causing the oncoming traffic to let others pass. More aggressive drivers use this tactic advancing on their own but those of us with small vehicles like to go “swarm” style. There’s safety in numbers.

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As to the question of right-of-way, that depends on several factors. It may be the size of your vehicle; bigger trucks and cars win over smaller cars and motos. Or it may be the particular street; the cross street that leads to the President’s residence gets priority over the larger boulevard at that intersection.   There is no sign about this. You just learn it from others or nearly get in an accident until you know it and yield.

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All this is to say that much to my chagrin, I can no longer say there are no signals in Bujumbura! I returned from nearly a month out of the country to find not one, but multiple signals functioning and more being installed. Improvement? I’m not so sure.

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The advantage of no signals is that people general drive like water flows in a stream, they move in and out of traffic, around obstacles, without much problem. Generally, no one drives very fast and there are not that many cars. The problem with the signals is that people aren’t used to them or don’t know to stop for them and the signals are very short and not well timed. Thus I fear they will create more accidents and traffic jams. My experience so far is it takes a lot longer to drive around downtown. Such is the way of modernization. My only hope is that this modernization will include road maintenance so perhaps next we’ll see the large potholes being repaired.

 

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